Memphis Minnie’s Barbecue Joint and Smokehouse – that haven of heavenly aromas (and, full disclosure, Haighteration advertiser) – celebrates its 12th anniversary tomorrow. We stopped by the Home of Swine Dining at 576 Haight Street for a history lesson.
Bob Kantor, a Brooklyn native, first moved to San Francisco in 1970. After trying a few other professions, he enrolled in the California Culinary Academy, where he graduated in 1984. Kantor worked around town as a chef, and later spent six years managing at “four or five” of the many branches of Max’s.
In 1992, Kantor set out on his own. He opened the first version of Memphis Minnie’s — which he named after his mother and her hometown — in a factory warehouse at 20th Street and York. When that building was converted into living space, he relocated, opening a second version inside Johnny Love’s at Polk and Broadway. Soon thereafter, Johnny Love’s lost its lease, and Memphis Minnie’s was again homeless. After a few years of catering and consulting, Kantor decided to open his own place, and the Lower Haight version of Memphis Minnie’s was born.
Listen up as Kantor rants about faux ‘cue, sings the praises of sake and explains how pastrami sandwiches made it onto his menu.
Haighteration: How will you mark a dozen years at this location?
Kantor: On Tuesday [tomorrow, September 11th], we are rolling back prices to 12 years ago. We’ll dig out an old menu to make sure we get it right.
H: What else has changed at Memphis Minnie’s in the past 12 years?
K: My menu was only a little smaller then than it is now, because there is no natural tradition, no historical relationship, between San Francisco and barbecue like there is in Texas or the Southeast. I’ve always needed to offer a variety of slow-smoked meats.
H: So you educate people while you feed them?
K: Never has barbecue been so popular in San Francisco – and never has there been so little of it. Look, it’s easier and cheaper to make the meat in an oven, cover it with sauce and call it barbecue, but if there is no wood and no smoke, then it’s not barbecue. Also, some people believe that sauce defines barbecue, and yet sauce is used to cover a multitude of sins.
H: How did you become entranced with barbecue?
K: When I was consulting, a restaurant owner asked me if he should add barbecue at his lunch place. I spent a week looking into it, and I learned that barbecue is a category in and of itself, not an addition.
H: What happened next?
K: I spent the next two years traveling, tasting barbecue and talking to people who do it right. I took classes and I became a certified barbecue judge.
H: And now you do it right, here at Memphis Minnie’s?
K: I do. I am proud to serve great quality products, including the barbecue, the sides and the desserts, almost all made from scratch.
H: What’s your biggest seller?
K: The Two-Way Combo plate, with two meats, two sides and a cornbread muffin.
H: On Wednesdays, you sell pastrami, cured and smoked on the premises. What’s that about?
K: My first job, when I was 13, was as a bus boy in a kosher deli in Brooklyn, and pastrami was one of my first true food loves. We have regulars who come in every Wednesday for the pastrami.
H: You also sell imported sake, which is not usually paired with barbecue. Why?
K: Back before I knew what barbecue was, I attended an event sponsored by the San Francisco Professional Food Society held at Kyo-ya, where I tasted sake. It blew me away. I want to popularize it, expand peoples’ idea of what sake goes with.
H: What do you see for Memphis Minnie’s in the next 12 years?
K: Well, I am concerned. The cost to produce all my food has tripled in the past 12 years, though my prices have not. The vendors and producers control everything, and I would hate to see it get to the point where we have independent restaurants for the wealthy and corporate chains for the rest of us.
H: Yet the Lower Haight is lined with independent restaurants. Are you heartened by that?
K: We live diversity, we breathe it and we eat it – and I am thrilled to be a part of it.
Thanks to Bob Kantor for chatting with us. Be sure to swing by Memphis Minnie’s tomorrow for those year 2000 prices, and wish Bob and the crew a happy anniversary.