Remember that old saw, "You can't judge a book by its cover"? Sure, it's a cliche, but like all cliches it has a basis in truth. We all make assumptions based on appearances, every day of our lives. Even in these politically proper Nineties, when everyone works so hard not to say anything offensive that sometimes nothing can be said at all, we consciously or unconsciously snap-judge books, people, products in the supermarket, and yes, restaurants, using only the appeal of the exterior package as a tool for analysis. Assumptions are why we read what we do, why we make friends or date, why we buy things. They are what turn us off the road into the parking lot. Or what make us drive right on by.
SouthFork Grill & Bar, the promising new Tex-Mex mega-eatery nestled in a marina just off the Rickenbacker Causeway, may fall victim to your more negative assumptions. I admit, I almost dismissed it based solely on first impressions. So in order to help you avoid the book-cover pitfall, I've prepared a guide that will steer you in the right direction -- off the causeway, into the parking lot, up the stairs, through the doors, and onto a seat or barstool.
Assumption: SouthFork is a chain. The cutesy name, the cloned-sheep staff dressed in sleeveless denim button-downs, the red-white-and-blue Southwest Americana decor, the menu that says "Welcome pardner" on the front and "Howdy y'all!" on the back -- and explains those terms. This place practically shouts "theme restaurant" from every corner. A more telling clue: The items on the menu come with tag lines that link SouthFork to Texas. The tortilla soup won a "San Antonio's Best" award; chicken Laredo is "a San Antonio favorite"; fajitas are "the Great San Antonio original." More than a dozen dishes are listed as "signature." For a restaurant that's only five weeks old, these are some mighty tall claims, seemingly established elsewhere.
Fact: SouthFork isn't a chain -- yet. Proprietor Denis Lanou, who also owns the South Beach nightclub Amnesia, may have aspirations in that direction, according to catering manager Jennifer Harman. But that all depends on how SoFo is received in SoFlo, a common test market for the launch of such ventures. As for the San Antonio connection, Lanou made an unusual deal with the Alamo Cafe, a popular restaurant with two locations (and a corporate headquarters) in that South Texas city: He sent his entire kitchen staff to train there and got permission to use the joint's dishes as his own. (One wonders why, if this place isn't going to be a chain after all, he didn't just hire a chef who knew how to cook Tex-Mex food and had his own recipes.)
Assumption: SouthFork, which touts nightly live music, imports country acts. Certainly this locale is an obvious choice for such a venue. I always don my ten-gallon rain-catcher and snakeskin roach-killers immediately after paying the buck toll so as not to look out of place on the Key.
Fact: SouthFork hosts local jazz and blues performers, such as Fleet Starbuck, Larry Pamilio, and two gals who go by the moniker Kelly and Julie, upstairs in the "Whiskies 'n' Stogies" room. (Yes, there's a humidor, along with booths, full-service booze, and the complete menu.) A second spot in which to catch an act, a 375-seat outdoor deck, is under construction. When that opens at the end of July, guests will be treated to the strains of country rock, reggae, and Top 40 drifting toward them down the road. Luckily Key Biscayne abodes are a better distance away from SouthFork than the homes of South Beachites, who have complained about their "noisy neighbor" Amnesia so vehemently that the club was recently shut down by the city. (A judge later overturned that action, at least for the time being.)
Assumption: SouthFork is a finished product. The weathered two-story building appears complete even without the anticipated deck. Parking lots filled with cars surround the restaurant, so the place looks packed. Inside the staff is chummy, hugging each other, and so polite that a host actually escorted me to the restroom when I requested directions, leaving me at the door with a well-intentioned if odd farewell: "Have a good one."
Fact: SouthFork is a work-in-progress. Not only is the deck forthcoming, so are moorings for boats; pleasure cruisers will tie up for a "SouthFork Texarita" (frozen margarita) or frozen sangria. The young, bouncy staff is still just a little unsure about how certain dishes are made. They also rush, forget, and confuse courses, and are subject to mishaps. On one visit a gigantic crash signaled the slip and fall of our server in the kitchen. A second waitress took over for her, explaining that our server was "just a little bit frustrated right now." I caught a glimpse of the first girl's arm when she later returned to the fray, and it appeared more than "frustrated" -- it looked downright swollen. (I can relate: Once, after boasting to fellow employees that I'd never dropped a tray, I took a terrific spill and lost my grip on an entire meal right in front of the table I was preparing to serve.)