A taste of the French Quarter in S.F.

When my friends in the food biz tell me about a place they really like, they always say, “Don’t write about it.” Of course I get over there as fast as I can.

All the whispering among the industry crowd these days is about Brenda’s, a new little creole diner on a block of The City that some call the Civic Center and others call the Tenderloin.

Brenda is Brenda Buenviaje, a native of New Orleans who studied painting and drawing at Louisiana State University and ended up in the kitchen. She worked her way up to head chef positions in New Orleans and San Francisco — most notably Oritalia, here.

A few months ago, she opened her own breakfast and lunch place, a tiny spot with a closet-size partially open kitchen, seven tables, ceiling fans, a counter that runs along a mirrored wall and an adoring crowd that waits on the sidewalk during prime lunch hour. Nothing on the menu costs over $10.

Her cooking tastes California fresh and made to order, but with a voluptuous New Orleans spin.

I started dropping in for lunch. My first Brenda’s dish, a fried oyster po’boy ($8.75) of deep-fried oysters in a soft, toasted French roll dressed with mild chipotle remoulade, chopped lettuce and tomato, had exactly the right proportion of oysters to bread to dressing — which means crunch, richness and juiciness in every bite.

Her spicy chicken, sausage and okra gumbo ($3/$5.50) comes with a dollop of rice, which smoothes out the deep heat from andouille sausage and the herbal punch of filé powder — a meal in a bowl.

Brenda makes the best croque monsieur ($8) in town, maybe from all the practice as Cafe Claude’s chef. Hers has a toasty, oozy, gruyere and bechamel top, thinly sliced ham filling and buttery grilled bread. You eat it with a knife and fork with crisp, juicy coleslaw perky with red onion, or french fries, and house-made bread-and-butter pickle chips.

Brenda serves breakfast all day, so you can have her luscious grillades and grits ($9.75) with two fried eggs, for lunch. Grillades are thin slices of tender beef in a peppery gravy with tons of flavor from the holy trinity of creole cooking: green peppers, celery and onions. Everyone mops up with a tall, flaky biscuit. French toast — pain perdu — was invented in New Orleans, and Brenda’s dreamy butter pecan French toast ($8) captures the spirit of that uninhibited food city. She uses airy brioche to create soft, custardy triangles with golden brown surfaces. Then she pours warm, buttery pecan sauce over them.

Her beignets ($4), puffy golden squares of yeasty fried dough sweetened with powdered sugar, call out for traditional New Orlean-style coffee made with chicory and evaporated milk. Now, Brenda serves a great cup of cafe au lait, but it’s brewed from hand-picked Guatemalan beans from a small farm, with fresh milk. The coffee importers, who happen to be investors in her restaurant, said, no chicory. I miss the bitter edge of Cafe du Monde coffee, but I don’t miss the beignets. Brenda does them better.

You can’t go wrong with any item on the menu atthis evocative French Quarter-style cafe because Brenda herself stays behind the stoves, cooking just for you.

Brenda’s French Soul Food

Location: 652 Polk St. (at Eddy Street), San Francisco

Contact: (415) 345-8100; www.frenchsoulfood.com

Hours: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Price range: Nothing over $10

Recommended dishes: Beignets, gumbo, French toast with butter pecan sauce, po’boys, croque monsieur, grillades and grits

Credit cards: All major

Note: No alcohol; no reservations

Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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