As you head east away from the hub of Super Bowl-related activity on Market Street and close in on the gritty Tenderloin district, you’ll pass an alarming number of Vietnamese restaurants and an even more alarming number of homeless people.
It doesn’t feel a bit like North Carolina.
Then, up ahead at 750 Ellis St., you spot the sidewalk sandwich board that’s been chalked up with a big blue Carolina Panthers logo hovering over the words “Eat Here.” Then you get to the tiny, unassuming storefront and catch the familiar smell of slowly cooked pork.
Then you step inside of Rusty’s Southern, order a 4-inch tall barbecue sandwich with a side of the lightest and fluffiest hush puppies you’ll ever meet and a glass of iced sweet tea (that you’ll refill twice), and just like that, you’re home again.
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The “Rusty” behind “Southern’s” flavor is Rusty Olson, 37, who grew up all over the place as an Army brat but often split summers as a kid between Charleston, where his dad’s parents are from, and Cabarrus County, where his mother’s are. His parents retired to Davidson more than 15 years ago.
So, since Olson moved out West in 2002, he’s kept those geographic roots in his heart by doing two key things: bringing Carolina-style cooking to the Bay Area, and showing his love for the Panthers as fiercely as he can.
Cody, Olson’s wife, moved about the dining room Saturday morning with a soft smile glued to her face the whole time, even when she couldn’t have known anyone was paying attention. On the wall hung black and white photos of Poplar Tent Presbyterian Church’s annual BBQ circa the 1950s. The rest of the interior would look and feel right at home in NoDa, or in his parents’ current hometown of Davidson.
On top of all that, of course, there’s the menu. The only top-to-bottom, Carolina ’cue-inspired menu in the city.
“There are a handful of barbecue places that go that Texas route, where they serve ribs, brisket, chicken and all that,” Olson says, “and then frequently you’ll see them (offer) ‘Carolina pulled pork.’ I mean, I just – when I see the word ‘pulled’ next to ‘Carolina’ ... I know that these guys don’t know what they’re doing.”
As for the sweet tea: “We have to tone down the sugar juuuuuust a touch, for the folks out here in San Francisco.”
To be clear, Rusty’s Southern doesn’t double as a Panthers bar. There’s a bar, but there are no televisions. On Sundays – game days – the restaurant closes after brunch.
But Panthers loyalty runs strong in Olson’s family. His retired-colonel father Russ’s most prized Christmas gift was a Greg Olsen jersey that his wife, Linda, altered by embroidering an “o” over the “e.” Though Dad lives 2,700 miles away, he keeps a tab open at the restaurant and this week has offered to buy a free appetizer or dessert for anyone dining there in a Panthers jersey.
On Super Bowl Sunday? The restaurant will close at the same time it always closes on Sundays: 2:30 p.m., which this Sunday will be just in time for Rusty and Cody Olson to hustle back home to host a watch party.
“We just moved into a new place,” Rusty Olson says, “and we made it a priority to get the cable guy out here to get everything hooked up. So we’re gonna be having folks over to take it in on the 55-inch flat screen here at our place, and we’ll be spreading some love in our new neighborhood, lettin’ ’em know who the new neighbors are: the big Panthers fans.”