at The Charleston, 174 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11211 (b/n North 7th and 8th; map); 718-599-9699; honeychiles.com
Service: Counter service from the eager-to-please server/chefs
Setting: Williamsburg dive bar
Must-Haves: "The O.G." po' boy, hush puppies, bread pudding
Cost: Big meal for $10 or less
Grade: Solid B, as bar food goes
As this review goes to press (are we allowed to use that term, here in Internet-land?), I'll be on a plane back from New Orleans, my second trip in six weeks, part of a gloriously futile effort to sample all of the city's best eats in the name of researching the upcoming Serious Eats book. And one of the things I'm struck by, when I visit the city, is how its offerings truly span the economic spectrum. Sure, there's tremendous fine dining to be had—but there are also life-changing $8 fried chicken plates and $6 po' boys that will ruin you for all other sandwiches.
It's in this tradition of cheap, satisfying fare that Honeychiles, a Cajun food counter inside divey Williamsburg punk bar The Charleston, opened a few months ago. Jameson Proctor, Jesse Crawford, and Josh Martin—all musicians, all Southern themselves—are behind the operation, which knocked out the Charleston's previous food offerings (a free personal pizza with every beer purchase). Let's get one thing straight: it's a bar you're visiting, not a restaurant, with counter service and a crowd that's there for the music and cheap drinks—not the sandwiches. It's best enjoyed after a few Abita (which the Charleston, happily, does have on tap). Without the genial haze of a drink or two, the place looks every bit its age: wan, flickering red-tinged light, seat cushions with fault lines down the middle. But seen through more forgiving eyes, it's a comfortable place, unpretentious and affordable—and now, with a far better bar menu than you'd expect. Whether you've downed a few drinks or not.
It'd be hard to think of a more satisfying $5 meal after a few shared pitchers than the "The O.G." po' boy (pictured at top)—essentially a French fry sandwich, soaked through in roast beef gravy. Less carb-on-carb than it sounds, the po' boy is simply made by that gravy, speckled with beef shards and fat-saturated enough to turn the fries into a messy, meaty mouthful of sandwich filling. Irresistible. (And there's a veggie option, too.)
After the O.G., we had high hopes for a daily seafood special, here, a fried catfish; it comes fully "dressed," in po' boy lingo—mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickles. Unfortunately, the ratios were all off; there was so little catfish, perched so precariously on top, that it disappeared in the first two bites, leaving a shell of dry bread and garnish. The French bread is sturdy-edged and thicker than a typical po' boy loaf, which has a shatter-thin crust; these hero rolls would be great for soaking up the oils or sauces of a meatball parm, say, but overwhelm the comparatively lighter, drier seafood po' boy fillings. (The same could be said about the previous sandwich; but with so much gravy spilling everywhere, it wasn't as much of an issue.)
That said, we had fewer problems with the catfish itself, as served on a Honeychiles' Caesar with Catfish Croutons ($8); while the Caesar was nothing remarkable, the sizable nuggets of catfish on top were greaselessly fried and incredibly moist, if a bit mushier than they could've been. But with shavings of Parmesan and fresh, crisp Romaine, it's a far more appealing Caesar than the throwaway you'll find on most bar menus.
Rounding out the "Vittles" are two jambalaya preparations, one chicken and andouille ($5, large $9), one smoked tofu ($4, large $7). Neither fully incorporated the rice with the rest of the dish, and both were a bit drier than we expected—both in the amount of sauce, once stirred in, and in the slightly dried-out Andouille sausage and dark meat chicken of the meat version. But both had a good cayenne kick and a real depth of flavor from long-stewed peppers, onion, and celery. The tofu of the vegetarian version served as an excellent sauce sponge—until the very middle, where it tasted like, well, tofu. But up the moisture and both could have been excellent. (Quick fix? A little Trappey's Hot Sauce, a bottle of which will be on your tray.)
The "Fixin's" are all generous sides for $3, and all are more than adequate mid-beer belly-fillers: the Bayou Fries are heavily seasoned solid skin-on specimens; black-eyed peas are similarly tasty, if not quite memorable; cornbread would be fine for sopping up jambalaya sauce, but despite the bourbon honey, is a bit dry on its own. It's the hush puppies that you shouldn't miss. Creamy and corn-y, fried to a golden brown crunch, they're made even better with a core of oozy cheddar. (A few of ours were cheese-less, but these things get eaten so quickly, it's hard to mind, or even notice.)
If your late-night bar cravings run toward the sweet, not the savory, you're in equally good hands. Freshly fried beignets ($3) were far eggier and therefore wetter than most, but still plenty poppable under a classically messy mound of powdered sugar. Even better dunked in a rich chicory-coffee syrup, a play on the chicory-laced cafe au lait typical of beignet-serving New Orleans coffee shops. On our visit, it also graced the bread pudding ($4); it's generally served with a pecan praline sauce, but the kitchen had run out on our visit, so they were happy to improvise. Whatever's poured on top, the bread pudding's worth an order—tender and custard-like all the way through, a few nicely crisp edges but no dry spots whatsoever.
Is Honeychiles worth a visit if you're not ready for a few pints and a tattooed young punk crowd? Perhaps not. But if you're in the neighborhood at night, we'd point you toward an O.G. po' boy, plus hush puppies or bread pudding (all for under $10, mind you) in a second. I honestly couldn't recommend a more satisfying $5 sandwich—particularly one served until 3:00 am, on one of the city's more late-night trafficked intersections. And after all, my favorite roast beef po' boy in New Orleans comes from a bar every bit as lovingly worn as The Charleston. Old bars and good sandwiches are a time-honored marriage.