The current menu at South of Beale is a carnival of influences. Cajun potatoes. Pork egg rolls. Taco salad with Navajo frybread.
The kitchen goes out of its way to combine ingredients in unusual ways, a cooking style that requires a firm grounding in the chemistry of taste – and discipline and vigilance – if it's going to work. It doesn't always here.
To start, SOB's pulled pork egg rolls are a superlative snack. They're fat, densely stuffed with browned pork and accompanied by a mustard that uses Nashville's Yazoo Brewing Co. rye porter, and in which there is a distinct influence of cumin. The Cajun potatoes, fried chips spiced with hot pepper, are another of the pub's reliably good appetizers.
I admit I ordered the fried avocados with prejudice. Frying shrimp, onions or chicken in batter makes sense; frying the buttery avocado seems unnecessary. The batter on SOB's avocado is slight, and flash-frying keeps the soft fruit intact, but the mild flavor of the avocado is lost in the process, and the black olive relish is the interesting part of the appetizer.
SOB's gumbo the night we ordered it was missing an essential roux — the butter and flour base that thickens the broth. Without that, the rice and sausage were adrift in a surprisingly bland soup. The duck patty melt had the same disassembled effect. The "burger" of coarsely ground duck we received needed an egg to bind it. The patty had a cap of stewed oranges and melted Gouda cheese, ingredients which didn't meld with the meat or each other. I found myself reminiscing about the brilliant Five Spice Seared Duck on a previous South of Beale menu.
Ed Cabigao and his wife, Brittany, opened SOB 3½ years ago in a century-old building in the South Main Historic Arts District. The pub and chef Bryan McDaniel change items on the menu every three months or so, Cabigao said, though popular items, such as salmon with the excellent braised Brussels sprouts in maple syrup and bacon, are perennial.
SOB excels when it tries less. The Fish & Chips, that old pub standard, brings plump mounds of perch in an uncomplicated batter, with hush puppies that require no apologies.
A burger has a slab of grilled salami and a homemade pickle that was tart and crunchy.
The pork chop, which was ardently promoted by our server, was lightly dusted with batter before it was pan fried. The chop itself was just right, though the "brown sugar cayenne compound butter" arrived on top in a square that did not melt, and for all the descriptive fanfare, it tasted just like butter. There was a healthy serving of simple, bright orange "smashed" carrots on the side.
We tried three cocktails — two hits and a miss — while we waited for a table on a busy Saturday night. The green tea mojito made with sweet tea vodka, lime juice and soda, and the vesper martini, with gin and citrus vodka, were smooth and refreshing, but a Tennessee Manhattan was overwhelmed by what tasted like cloves.
The "Jack and Coke" dessert — Jack Daniels ice cream and Coca-Cola bread pudding — sounded so promising, but the presence of the whiskey and Coke was too low-key.
South of Beale
Address: 361 S. Main
Hours: Opens at 11 a.m. daily. Closes midnight Monday through Thursday; 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 10 p.m. Sunday.
Reviewer’s choice: Pulled pork egg rolls ($8); grilled salmon with braised Brussels sprouts, ($15); pan-fried pork chop, ($18); green tea mojito, ($7).
Alcohol: Full bar
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars