Rusty’s Southern stacks up well to classic Carolina barbecue

During the summer of 2012, I had perhaps the most glorious run of swine dining in my pig-laden life. Over a 24-hour period in the Winston-Salem metropolitan area, I hit up Snooks, Tarheel Q and the legendary Lexington Barbecue. All lay claim to the best pulled pork in the region and all were so much better than anything I’d experienced on the West Coast that I couldn’t tell you which was tops.

Dare I say it? The pulled pork at Rusty’s Southern, on a still grimy street in the Tenderloin, can compete with what I experienced three years ago. Sultry, vinegar tinged shards of hog were so overwhelmingly joyful to scarf, my mind instantly wandered back to the piles of wood- and smoke-filled air of that North Carolina sojourn.

At dinner, chef Francis Rubio serves the pork with a side of hushpuppies, which were disappointingly bland and dry. At brunch, however, the meat is served over creamy cheese grits with an oozy poached egg, taking its gamey gloriousness to a whole new level.

It’s not just the pulled pork, though. A “country board” starter featured fresh cracklins that thankfully erred on the side of funky, paper-thin slices of properly salty country ham, mustardy deviled eggs, and a hearty pimento cheese spread perfect for slathering on toasted triangles of white bread.

In a town suddenly overloaded with good but not great fried chicken. the bird here almost stole the show from the pig. We had to wait awhile for it to arrive, but were rewarded with a piping hot, massive thigh and breast that were extra crispy, juicy and coated in a faintly spiced batter that didn’t overwhelm the flavor of the poultry.

At brunch, the fried chicken is put to good use as part of an over-the-top concoction involving a flaky, buttery biscuit and a dense sausage gravy.

Eat this thing and you’re basically giving up on the rest of your Sunday – but it’s worth it, I promise.

To balance the savoriness, utilize an order of crisp-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside griddle cakes that taste like the malty hops smell that wafts from the Anchor Brewery in Potrero Hill.

I never got to try Rubio’s mythical burger when he served it at his former stomping ground, Biergarten, so I was excited to try it here.

Though the brioche bun was rich and eggy and a remoulade spread added tang, the burger itself arrived dry and without a hint of pink, even though it was requested medium-rare.

Similarly, a generous portion of beautifully smoked meatloaf was tough to cut with a fork. It desperately needed more egg mixed in or perhaps a little extra gravy ladled on top.

Always smiling, chatty servers were the definition of southern hospitality, and small touches like a cowbell that rang from the kitchen, a bluesy soundtrack gently playing in the background, and a playable Plinko board hanging in the back made the vibe here comfortable without being too kitschy.

Buttermilk ice cream studded with pecans was an appropriate way to end a dinner one night. It was unapologetically sour and unwilling to kowtow to our sometimes overly frou-frou local ice cream desires. I loved it. Like just about everything at Rusty’s, it proudly honored the South.

Alex Hochman and Anita Katz
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Alex Hochman and Anita Katz

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