There Goes The Neighborhood: Hop Saint [restaurant review]
by Richard Foss
Every once in awhile a business opens that shapes a neighborhood. It’s often a cultural institution, a theater or cabaret that creates a space for a previously invisible arts scene, but sometimes it’s a restaurant, bar, or coffeehouse. These have an impact not only because of the traffic they bring to neighboring businesses, but for the sense of vitality and creativity they bring to the area. In the best of circumstances, an area that was previously anonymous suddenly starts to feel like a neighborhood.
Not all eateries are created equal when it comes to creating this sense of community. Consider the stretch of 190th Street where a downscale coffee shop called Billy’s Deli anchored the west end of a shopping mall. It had been there for decades, but if you mentioned the name to most South Bay residents they’d be hard pressed to say where it was. It was well back from the street, and the food was so dull, the environment so characterless, that it was easy to forget even if you had been there.
The building is still right where it used to be, but everything else has changed when it became Hop Saint. Owner Steve Roberts was the genius behind Café Boogaloo in its glory days. He took on the challenge of turning the neglected coffee shop into a brewpub and restaurant that takes both the food and beer seriously and he has done a magnificent job.
The formerly bland and dim room is bright and colorful now, the long bar facing rows of tables with intricate inlay designs. It’s sleek, stylish and modern; a room designed for socializing. The menu is short but interesting and pays homage to Roberts’s Southern roots with items like chicken and Andouille gumbo and braised greens with hot sauce. These are only occasionally traditional in form and flavor, but the innovations are always for flavor, not novelty.
Consider the grilled cornbread, for instance. The texture is slightly coarse rather than smooth and cakelike and it’s topped with chives and persimmon butter. Honey butter is traditional, but the persimmon has a more interesting, fruity sweetness that complements the sweetness of corn. Fruit and vegetable interplay shows up in the autumn salad too, where sweet grilled squash and pomegranate both feature along with aged white cheddar and lightly pickled red beans.
Some menu items change slightly from day to day, depending on what ingredients the chef is experimenting with. On one visit, the deviled eggs that are usually topped with a bit of smoked pork had crisped duck skin instead. It was a brilliant substitution, smoky and fatty like bacon but paper thin and crunchy. Thanks to Hop Saint I have thought of all sorts of uses for something I had previously discarded.
Hop Saint opened with a focus on the items from their wood burning oven — flatbreads, roasted mushrooms or brussels sprouts with parsnips and tri-tip among them. The sprout and parsnip mix is particularly good, the sweet root vegetable with chunks of apple a nice contrast to the cabbage-y sprouts. There are small chunks of homemade flavor to enhance the smoky infusion from the oven, but vegetarians could probably enjoy the dish without them.
When it comes to entrees, don’t make any choices until you hear what is coming off the smoker that day. Or what came off yesterday, since in one case that was duck, which was put into a smoke-scented, intense gumbo the next morning. I was lucky enough to have a taste of this and the mix of duck and mushrooms in thick, gently spicy broth was fantastic. They always offer a chicken and sausage gumbo and I fully intend to try that soon.
But I was talking about the smoker before I was distracted by gumbo. On two visits they offered ribs made with a traditional dry rub and finished with a caramelized fennel sauce. I had never had anything quite like them. The flavor is exotic and has a suggestion of Asia, sweet and a little spicy. Pulled pork from that smoker had a delicious crisped crust and I have also seen brisket but not been allowed to order it. I was told it was going into the next day’s chili.
Another particularly good item at Hop Saint is the jambalaya, a stew of meat and seafood with the mix Cajuns call the holy trinity: onion, celery, and bell pepper. The version here uses smoked chicken and shrimp, and is unusual in substituting Anson Mills grits for the rice. The result is more moist and rich – the rice is usually filler without flavor but the heirloom grits add a subtle richness to the mix.
I somehow have gotten this far through this review without mentioning the beer, which is brewed in big steel tanks next to the kitchen. The aptly named Brian Brewer is lord of this area and crafts some excellent beers in a wide range of styles. Most breweries in LA are IPA-crazed, but though there were two hoppy brews on this list, there were also a German pils and lager, a delightful British pub mild and a rich, full Belgian-style stout. If none of those float your boat there are also a dozen drafts from other breweries, a list of interesting arcane bottles, and a delicious cherry cider. You can also get soft drinks without anybody looking at you funny.
Three desserts are offered: a dark chocolate chess pie, key lime pie, and the best pecan pie I can remember tasting. They all are less sweet and more flavorful than the typical restaurant dessert and make the finish of the meal here as much of a class act as the rest of the experience.
Meals at Hop Saint are modestly priced for the quality. All but one of the entrees are fifteen bucks or less, with the lone outlier a steak dinner. The public reception to Hop Saint has been enthusiastic and the parking lot that used to be sparsely populated now fills with cars. A space that was all but derelict has turned into a hotspot, and who can tell what that will do for the other businesses in the area? It’s all due to a visionary restaurateur who has assembled a great team and is dedicated to providing superb food, drink, and hospitality.
Hop Saint is at 5160 West 190th Street in Torrance. Opens 1 p.m., closing time varies. Parking lot, wheelchair access good, children OK, some vegetarian items. Wine, beer, and cider served. Partial menu at hopsaint.com, phone 310-214-4677. ER