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The Front Porch

Rockiní Out

The casual front porch, the friendly wooden bar, the cozy dining room, the visible kitchen -- itís all so charming that one simply cannot help but be a smitten kitten for this parboiling Bernal Heights/Outer Mission hot spot, opened in late summer 2006 by the folks behind Emmy's Spaghetti Shack.

Thirsty diners walking in from the end of adorable Tiffany Street are greeted by a welcoming, yet hip, concrete patio (a throwback from the space's former incarnation as a dive bar) strewn with mismatched rocking chairs, overflowing ashtrays, strangers sharing tables, and more than one Missionista sipping down her 24oz. tall boy, pinky out, tongue firmly in cheek. The rest of us ponder a great, non-ironic beer and wine list that includes a cask barley wine, housemade sangria, and even a lavender dry soda just for kicks.

Even in SFís summer evening cold, this is the perfect place to chill. We hardly notice that they told us a 45-minute wait, but two appetizers and beverages later, itís almost twice that. The vibe, despite the temperature disparity, is Tampaís Ybor City or a Jamaican joint off a Key West side street. That winning formula that made Emmyís a success continues: well-priced good food, cutesy-boo interior, and a crowd worthy of people-watching positioned far enough off the main drag so as to appeal to those in-the-know.

God, I love a tin ceiling. Pair it with the right low lighting and deep teal walls, and The Front Porch is almost a date place, though itís way too boisterous for real romance. The banquettes are comfy old car seats -- seatbelts still attached. Service can best be described as that great going-out buddy you always have fun with, but who never calls you and, even worse, always forgets to call you back. Donít let it ruffle your feathers. Their ditziness could work in your favor -- we werenít charged for drinks we did get, and ordered others that we never received. Here, youíre on island time. Strap yourself in and just enjoy the ride.

Our time spent on the porch was passed with a good, steady rock and the sweet and spicy nuts ($2.25), which lived up to their name, and the excellent chicken livers with spicy mango on toast ($5) -- a creamy, warm, homey thing not to be missed. Once we were seated indoors, the real food came to life with an unusual, eclectic mix of influences from Chef Sarah Kirnonís native Barbados, in a funky drum circle with soul food standards and California freshness and sensibilities. Of course itís organic or sustainable meat. Of course thereís seasonal heirloom tomatoes. Of course they purvey their stellar fried chicken by the bucket, or the elegant, retro Fiestaware plateful.

The red bean and coconut soup ($6) was warm, spicy, and sweet, and had a full-mouth feel from chunks of bean and poached nutmeat. A dollop of avocado mash distracted from the seasoning, which was nearly superfluous in furthering the soup's depth. The halibut ceviche ($5) needed salt and lime, but for the price, and for its dainty, crispy shoulder-rubbing with ďBajan tingsĒ -- meaning some kind of tropical root vegetable chip done in a Barbados style -- we were willing to ask for a splash of citrus to make it great.

The fried chicken plate to follow ($11) was a thing of pure beauty, as evidenced by nearly every table happily gnawing away on a succulent, crispy breast or thigh. At the end of the night, I had the pleasure of chatting with the staff, who revealed the following Barbados kitchen secret: the bird gets juicy in a crust of lime juice and salt for a day, then gets flavorful from an additional 24 hours in a vinegar and herb solution. Then itís rolled in a combination of corn meal and flour and quickly fried to absolute perfection, resulting in a crusted, absolutely moist specimen worthy of the Encyclopedia of Fried Chicken. I would make it myself, but I wonít for the same reason I donít make burritos at home: itís too much work to get it right when it can be had so easily and so cheaply out.

Normally I wouldnít review a dish not on the regular menu, but if the Antiguan stew of the day is always this good, this, too, is the main that absolutely should not be missed. Pig cheek, ham hock, and oxtail came together in a farmhouse jubilee of fragrance that had me squealing with delight. Iíve never encountered such original smoke and tang as I did under Kirnonís skillful hand, served atop a unique corn meal that, despite its ďmushĒ status, had me equally as excited at its simplicity.

The only disappointments on the table were the side dishes that, clearly, were side thoughts. We endured a horse-ready, overcooked ear of street corn (sometimes served in a cute glass corn-shaped dish), and a bland, heavy crock of collards and black-eyed peas which were saved only by the bottle of housemade green hot sauce that marks a spot on each table.

Iím sure dessert would have been excellent -- our waiter, back from his personal explorations elsewhere -- swore that the yellow cake with double chocolate frosting was exquisite, but that they were out. Ditto on the apple nutmeg crisp with warm custard (which friends have devoured multiple times to their great delight). We were left with but one choice -- the wine-pickled peaches with raisins, ice cream, and mint -- which was refreshing and delightful. Dare I say it was like an island breeze?

While the money-conscious will appreciate that nothing on the menu hits above $13 (except the $29 bucket of fried chicken with two sides), be warned that the average human will not be sated by one dish from the list of main courses. Two to three dishes (a combo of small and large, plus a little dessert, sharesies-style) is more realistic. Still, with such a gently priced wine list, you're bound to come out a little ahead of your typical neighborhood bistro check total, with loads more charm.

Soul Food, Caribbean, California
Bernal Heights

Reservations not accepted for parties under five.