My pregnant wife needed pickles. And when I say “needed,” I mean: This wasn’t a pickled-veggie craving that would simply pass. This was a full-blown, time-sensitive, Threat-Level Midnight demand, and nothing was going to get in her way.
Thankfully, then—for all of us at Strangelove’s that night—they were still being offered as part of the $4 Happy Hour snack selection for the next 15 minutes. I ordered them and waited, holding my breath and hoping they met with her approval.
Fortunately, they exceeded expectations, and we all were safe once again. The bowlful that arrived, a technicolored cornucopia of bright, occasionally garlic-funky, sometimes spice-streaked or perfumed pickles, were just right: sweet-tart golden beets, explosive little green tomato bombs, carrots swirling with heat, pearl onions that begged for inclusion in a Gibson, tender okra—it was a pregnancy fantasy come true, and seriously satisfying for the rest of us, too.
This is where Strangelove’s finds its greatest success: in its rendering of classics, often with a twist. To that end, fried catfish bites, all creamy and tender inside their crackly carapace, were lovely on their own and even better when dragged through a spicy-tart remoulade. Mushroom torta, constructed on a base of Mexican-style flatbread, proved to be a clever reworking of the more familiar ones that have grown so tired lately. And its topping, like the best of the dishes here, managed to be both restrained and rewarding: arugula, lemon, a truffle vinaigrette and a spread of butter-cooked corn pureed with honey. Even the fried green tomatoes, if their crown of crabmeat ravigote, tomatoes and cucumber was a touch too wet, ultimately won me over with the sheer pleasure of its flavors.
Not everything was as successful. Much as I loved the macque choux and tomato-and-black-eyed-pea salad, the massive rail of crisp-topped pork belly left me wanting more. Some sort of more aggressive spicing or sauce would have given it more personality. Shrimp étouffée was in need of acid, or spice, or both. Frustrating, considering the excellence of the well-developed roux and crawfish stock that sang through it all.
But shortcomings like that were rare, and in general, Chef Paul Martin’s kitchen is hitting its intended targets. The team behind Strangelove’s—Leigh Maida, Brendan Hartranft and Brendan Kelly—have earned the respect of locals for years with their other excellent projects, including Resurrection Ale House and Memphis Tap Room, and their talents are on ample display here. It’s one team that has fully earned all the love it has generated.
It’s easy to see why. The Strangelove’s burger was a messy, juice-dripping-down-the-arms wonder, rich with a deep, smoky bacon-barbecue sauce, tangy goat cheese and a crowning fried green tomato. Alongside steak fries as meaty as a ribeye, and dragged through a spicy espelette aioli, this is a worthy entry into the city’s ever-exciting burger wars.
Vegetarians and vegans also feel the love here. Kale salad sang with an unexpected sumac dressing and gleaned further depth from pecans and soy beans, beets and farro. Roasted eggplant “jawn” arrived looking less than promising—it reminded me of an eggplant rollatini riff—but the first bite banished any concerns. This was a complex dish, the eggplant earthy and sweet, the marinara addictive, the quinoa pilaf both hearty and delicately perfumed all at once. It was as good as vegan-friendly bar food gets, and perfectly yummy for us carnivores, too. (But then again, calling this “bar food” does it a gross disservice: It’s far more than that in terms of both ambition and execution. Martin called it “elevated pub food” during our follow-up phone conversation, so I’ll stick with that.)
Then of course there is the beer, a beautifully curated selection of 20 drafts (and a choice of bottles) that runs the gamut from domestic standouts like Anderson Valley’s Hop Ottin to the Hitachino Nest Commemorative on tap—and, of course, Orval. Happy hour, from 5-7 p.m. Monday through Friday, sees select domestic craft drafts drop down to $4—get there early and take full advantage of this.
I closed a recent meal here with a whoopie pie, all sweet and nutty with Nutella and paired with the remnants of my Corne du Diable, an IPA with enough hoppiness to cut the dessert’s richer notes, and ample malt flavors to match them. It was a perfect ending, my own equivalent, 90 minutes later, of my wife’s pickle moment at the beginning.
216 S. 11th St. 215.873.0404. strangelovesbeerbar.com
Cuisine type: Southern-inspired gastropub.
Hours: Daily, 11:30am-2am.
Price range: $4-$18.
Dinner with Luke Palladino