It’s been a little over a year since Louisiana-born chef Justin Simoneaux opened Boxing Room, an ode to his Southern roots, in Hayes Valley. And through changes and the many normal ups and downs of the restaurant business, he remains steadfast in his vision.
“I want Boxing Room to be my vision of what Louisiana truly is. Back where I’m from, you get a sense of the people and the genuine kindness of the people. And whenever you eat out, it’s almost like you’re a guest in someone’s living room rather than being in a restaurant,” he said. “So I wanted a comfortable and friendly environment, from the staff to the design of the restaurant, all while the food reflects a California meets Louisiana quality.”
So at Boxing Room, guests won’t see the “tacky decorations” like posters and beads. Rather, it’s an open space with a larger bar area, all in an effort to make diners feel comfortable and as Simoneaux said, “at home.”
While the restaurant’s design and feel has remained constant, the menu has undergone a change recently. Instead of putting some of the customary Southern dishes, like gumbo and jambalaya, on the Daily Special Board, those have now become staples of the menu. “I wanted to stay true to myself, but I also knew I had to adapt to things. I listen to customers and here what they have to say. So when we first started, I had some of the real classic, Southern dishes on the daily rotating menu,” said Simoneaux. “But when I though more about it, I realized that people wouldn’t be able to get gumbo or jambalaya or red beans and rice because they came on the wrong day of the week. So now, we have those items as constants on the menu and have our seasonal items featured on our Specials Board.”
On my first visit to Boxing Room, I had just come back from a brief vacation in New Orleans, where I filled myself with as much Southern cuisine that I could handle. I wanted to see how Boxing Room compared and thought some of the dishes were really spot on, while others weren’t exactly what I expected. But Simoneaux has a great perspective on this. “I think my harshest critics are the people from the South. They come in and tell me, that alligator doesn’t taste like how I’m used to. Or that gumbo isn’t what I thought it was going to be. But I tell them it’s almost impossible to recreate exactly what they’re looking for because there are so many variations of each dish, spices added here and there. It’s hard to really, truly do that across the country in California.” What he said holds true because of all the classic cuisines in the U.S., Southern/Cajun/Creole is one with so many variations and so many different flavors that going from one place to another may create two completely different ideas of how a dish should taste.
Despite some of the challenges, what is important is the fact that Simoneaux knows his roots and where he came from and never lets that leave his side. “Once we decided on an identity for the restaurant, we weren’t going to change that identity. We’ll always be open-minded to ideas and are never satisfied with what we’re doing, but this is me, this is who I am,” he said. “You can only understand if you were raised in the South and have that culture in your blood. I cook with my heart and soul, stuff that is tattooed on my arms. It’s really about cooking from the soul.”
Which is evident in his dishes and his restaurant. Simoneaux said he’s happy Hayes Valley keeps growing by leaps and bounds because “we plan on being here for awhile.” Cooking from the soul, that’s truly all you can ask for from a chef.
The latest change to the Boxing Room menu is a weekday oyster special (Monday-Friday from 11:30-4:30 p.m.) where oysters are a dollar each. There is also a new “Plate Lunch” option featuring a daily changing main course, a salad, housemade drink and dessert from pastry chef Bill Corbett for $15.
Boxing Room is located at 399 Grove Street. The restaurant is open daily for lunch/brunch and dinner.