.Brenda’s Crosses the Bay

San Francisco's queen of French Soul Food comes to Oakland with a new fast-casual location, but the new restaurant doesn't quite live up to the Brenda's name.

Chef Brenda Buenviaje and her wife, Libby Truesdell, opened Brenda’s French Soul Food 12 years ago in the Tenderloin. Buenviaje, a former fine dining chef, wanted to bring the Southern and French Creole recipes of her native Louisiana to the Bay Area. Since then, Brenda’s French Soul Food has become a Bay Area dining legend. Brenda’s French Soul Food gained a sister restaurant on Divisadero Street called Brenda’s Meat & Three, while the flagship location has amassed over 10,000 Yelp reviews and was named one of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Top 100 Restaurants last year.

So when Buenviaje announced that she was opening a new location of her soul food restaurant in Oakland, it was a big deal, especially for East Bay fans of Brenda’s French Soul Food. Buenviaje and Truesdell had been hoping to open an East Bay outpost for seven years. Last October, their dream finally came true with the opening of their Temescal location, known simply as Brenda’s. “I know a lot of people cross the bridge to come over, especially to the Tenderloin [location],” Buenviaje explained. “I just wanted to see what the potential was.”

Ever since Brenda’s opened, lines have stretched down the block during peak mealtimes. But diners aren’t standing in line waiting to be seated — they’re waiting in line to order at the register. Brenda’s, unlike the San Francisco outposts, is a fast-casual operation. Since there are only two registers, the wait to order can be surprisingly long — on one weekend brunch, I waited over 30 minutes. Thankfully, after ordering, the staff efficiently directed me to an available table. You’ll have to grab your own silverware, napkins, and water. But on all my visits, the food arrived surprisingly quickly.

I started with the shrimp and grits, one of the dishes that Buenviaje has become best known for. I’d enjoyed the shrimp and grits at the original Brenda’s a few years ago and was looking forward to repeating the experience. The dish looked identical to the version at the San Francisco location: a pool of grits topped with a blanket of cheddar cheese with a handful of shrimp in a tomato-bacon gravy, sprinkled with green onions. The tomato-bacon gravy was delightfully sweet, smoky, and savory, while the shrimp were succulent and firm. The grits were creamy, but since all the cheese was piled on top, I found that the grits at the bottom were lacking in cheesy flavor. Still, it’s a solid dish, especially when paired with the must-order watermelon sweet tea, sweetened just right with plenty of watermelon juice and a pleasant kick of bitter black tea.

On another visit, I tried the BFC, or Brenda’s Fried Chicken. It’s another one of Buenviaje’s signature dishes, and I’d eaten it at Brenda’s Meat & Three a while back. The seasoning — based on Buenviaje’s memory of growing up eating Popeyes spicy fried chicken — was on point, from the tanginess of the buttermilk marinade to the slight heat of cayenne. Red pepper jelly on the side, more sweet than spicy, was a unique touch. Both the dark and white meat were juicy and flavorful. But the misstep was the skin, which was overly hard, crunchy, and brittle in parts.

Chicken can be ordered by the piece, or as a meal with sides. Of the sides, I particularly enjoyed the cornbread dressing, made with house-made cornbread, savory-spicy andouille sausage, onions, bell peppers, and celery. Butter and chicken stock made the dressing moist and rich, something I’d gladly welcome on my Thanksgiving table. The tender red beans and rice were a solid choice, as were the bacony, slightly bitter collard greens. I’d pass on the mac and cheese, which had a thick, greasy layer of cheddar on top but underneath was loose, creamy, and not cheesy enough for my taste. Mac and cheese preferences are intensely personal, but I prefer a thicker, casserole-style mac and cheese that can be sliced and still hold its shape.

I was disappointed by the chicken and andouille sausage gumbo, which arrived as soon as I sat down. It was served warm, not hot, and wasn’t as spicy as I would have liked. The portion was generous, though, especially since the gumbo came with rice and toasted, buttery bread.

One thing that sets Brenda’s apart from its other locations is its broader selection of po’ boys. Buenviaje makes them using French bread from a Vietnamese bakery, the closest analog to what she ate back in New Orleans and a cool, subtle nod toward the Bay Area’s diverse food culture. Three of the po’ boys on offer, as well as the accompanying coleslaw and potato salad, are vegan, with fillings like tofu and fried vegetables. Vegan po’ boys, Buenviaje acknowledged, are “not a New Orleans thing,” but rather a way to ensure that plant-based eaters and omnivores can dine together.

I was in the mood for seafood, so I tried Buenviaje’s own creation: the Mother-In-Law po’ boy, based on the palate of Buenviaje’s actual mother-in-law. “She’s a big pimento cheese and shrimp fan,” Buenviaje explained. The airy, crusty bread was stuffed with fried shrimp drizzled in a buttery, garlicky jalapeño sauce, while melted pimento cheese tied together the rich flavors of the sandwich. Ultimately, though, I found it a little too heavy.

Waiting in line at Brenda’s often comes with built-in entertainment: You can watch employees making beignets through the glass wall. I ordered the beignet flight, which came with one of each variety: plain, apple, chocolate, and crawfish. The plain beignet was my favorite. Though not as airy as the famous beignets at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans, it was served hot and wasn’t overly sweet or greasy. The apple beignet was oily, and the chocolate beignet was too sugary for my taste. I enjoyed the creamy, cheesy filling inside the crawfish beignet, but the crawfish was dry and tough.

Having been satisfied with the food at Buenviaje’s other restaurants, I think the food — and service — still need more work before they can live up to the standards of the other locations. While I know a fast-casual restaurant isn’t the place to linger over a meal, on one visit the staff asked me three times if I was done with my food while I was still eating. This was during dinner on a weekday, when there were several tables open and the restaurant was still nearly an hour away from closing. But I can do without Southern hospitality — as long as the food catches up with the other Brenda’s locations soon.


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