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FOOD | Brown Sugar Kitchen

Brown Sugar Kitchen's chicken and waffles. (Photo by Janice Rabe)
Brown Sugar Kitchen’s chicken and waffles. (Photo by Janice Rabe)

You can smell Brown Sugar Kitchen before you walk through the door. The delicious aroma of BBQ, cinnamon and coffee hit you like a brick wall and you realize that you need food, now. If you come on a Saturday, or worse, a Sunday for brunch, you will have to endure a 45 minute to an hour and a half wait. But it’s worth it.

The menu is pure soul food: BBQ shrimp and grits, fried oyster po-boys, fresh baked biscuits, fried chicken and waffles, BBQ ribs, even a New Orleans staple: beignets. Most items range between $7 and $18. 

The beignets, fried dough like the French Creole version of a doughnut, are a weekend brunch favorite. They are deep fried and dusted with a mixture of cardamom and powdered sugar, creating a sweet glaze on the surface of the pastry. The texture is like a feather pillow— light and airy, yet supportive and substantial.

The busy restaurant is often packed. The bustling open kitchen shows cooks and Tanya Holland, executive chef and owner, seamlessly working together, kitchen knives gleaming and pots steaming, spinning around one another as if they were choreographed in a ballet. 

Pulled pork sandwich and the mac and cheese. In the back: a cheddar bacon scallion biscuit and grits. (Photo by Janice Rabe)
Pulled pork sandwich and the mac and cheese. In the back: a cheddar bacon scallion biscuit and grits. (Photo by Janice Rabe)

Holland, a native New Yorker, studied at French cooking school La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine, and worked under celebrity chef Bobby Flay at his restaurant Mesa in NYC. Holland moved to Oakland in 2003 after co-hosting the Food Network show, “Melting Pot.” She and husband Phil Surkis opened Brown Sugar Kitchen in 2008. 

“We had 49 customers the first day,” Surkis said in an interview with O Magazine. “By that Saturday, we had the crowds and the line. And then it just grew and grew.”

Most guests to Brown Sugar Kitchen, like Kevin Scott, a graphic designer from New York City who heard about the restaurant from a friend’s insistence, opt for the famed fried chicken and waffles with brown sugar butter and apple cider syrup.

“I’m getting the fried chicken. I have to get the fried chicken. What else would I get?” Scott said

The syrup that comes with the fried chicken and waffle tasted like sweet apple butter in liquid form. The waffle itself was great if you prefer a crispier waffle as opposed to a thick, fluffy Belgian waffle. The chicken is a breast and wing, but was drier than hoped for. The skin is flavorful with notes of tarragon, but not very crunchy.

Madeline Adamo, a Mills College alumna and first time visitor to Brown Sugar Kitchen, chose to stray from the tried and true fried chicken in favor of the BBQ pulled pork sandwich with a side of cheddar mac and cheese and cast iron skillet corn bread. She also tried the cheddar grits with two poached eggs and a cheddar bacon scallion biscuit. 

The grits were expertly prepared and not overly creamy or gritty, as sometimes found with sub-par grits. When the poached eggs were popped and stirred into the cheesy grits they added a satisfying richness of flavor.

The cheddar bacon scallion biscuit at first bite was heavenly. It was melt-in-your-mouth good. Upon further inspection and after it sat for a while, the amount of melted butter used to make the biscuit became apparent.

“It was almost too decadent,” Adamo said. “Almost like when you put too much butter on your popcorn.”

The BBQ pulled pork sandwich’s sauce tasted like a mixture between Carolina style vinegar based and Kansa City sweet. It ranks in line to be the best the Bay has to offer and could stand with top contenders like the famed Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City and Central BBQ in Memphis. The meat was tender, juicy, and topped with a spicy cabbage slaw.

The high quality of food at Brown Sugar Kitchen stems from their use of locally grown, organic ingredients and their dedication to keeping the restaurant’s menu seasonal and community oriented.

Holland said in an interview with San Francisco Chronicle, “I want to do for Southern cuisine what Mario Batali did for Italian food – elevate it from mom-and-pop meals with more refined sauces and fresh seasonal ingredients.” 

Judging from the success of Brown Sugar Kitchen and the cult-like following, she has done just that.