Earlier this year when the real estate website Redfin named Bernal Heights the hottest neighborhood in the country, my initial reaction was “not for food.” Other than Liberty Cafe in the late 1990s and current standouts 331 Cortland and Sandbox Bakery, Bernal’s main artery Cortland Avenue has hosted a mix of perfectly acceptable dining options but few that merited a trip south. Until now.
Red Hill Station is the newish spot from Anchor Oyster Bar veterans Taylor Pederson and Amy Redicker, both Bernal Heights residents, and they’ve delivered a victor to their home turf.
During three visits, the place was packed with locals thrilled be feasting on some of the best prepared seafood in San Francisco. Zinc tables, wine on tap and a mostly retro-alternative soundtrack (play me The Pixies anytime please) all added to the very community vibe. And during our first meal, I’m pretty sure that our easygoing server was sporting a pirate earring.
The bay shrimp ceviche made for a distinct starter as it was less citrusy than the norm due to a smattering of breadcrumbs that were so savory and crispy, I thought that I detected bacon. It wasn’t what anyone at my table expected but it completely worked.
Simpler were a dozen ultra-fresh oysters, liquor intact, festively displayed on a mound of crushed ice in a giant blue vintage paella pan. A perky mignonette served alongside was all that these beauties needed.
For reasons unbeknownst to me, linguine and clams is a hard find in this city, but here, perfectly al dente pasta tossed with a generous portion of plump, moist mollusks in the shell, harkened taste memories of mom-and-pop Italian joints on the south shore of Long Island. We competitively mopped up the broth with hunks of Acme levain.
Other dishes commonly seen on menus around town were anything but standard issue. Bathed in a puddle of lime crema, serrano chilies and cilantro, a dozen or so chubby mussels were among the juiciest I’ve ever devoured. Bits of coarse chorizo added a nice texture contrast but weren’t so spicy that they stole the show. Again, we put our bread to good use during mop-up time.
Two fried, flaky ling cod filets were thankfully not over-battered and lay on top of a pile of crispy shoestring fries that became a defacto side dish for the whole table. Simplicity also reigned in a fleshy hunk of baked sturgeon, simply dotted with cloves of fried garlic and oregano.
Impressed as I was by all of the seafood, I veered landward during a weekend lunch to try a pulled pork sandwich. Though the Acme torpedo bun was was warm and crisped, the pork itself fell flat, a one-note, over-savory number that faded after a few bites. A little sugar would have worked wonders.
The small dessert list consists of intriguing options, all well executed. A greaseless funnel cake topped with whipped cream and berries was a deserved crowd pleaser, but the candy cap creme brulee, earthy with subtle hints of butterscotch, may be the best sweet treat I’ve eaten all year. And I’m a chocolate guy at heart!
One restaurant does not a gourmet ghetto make. However, with the addition of this quintessential neighborhood gem, Bernal Heights may be on its way.
Red Hill Station
Location: 803 Cortland Ave. (at Ellsworth Street), S.F.
Contact: (415) 757-0480, www.redhillstation.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Price range: $9.95 to $36.95
Recommended dishes: Mussels with chorizo ($20.95), baked sturgeon ($23.95), linguine with clams ($19.95), fish and chips ($20.95), shrimp ceviche ($11.95)
Credit cards: All major