All photos by Lucie Monk Carter
Hot chicken paired with the Pompous Pelican Double IPA, one of the debut beers from Baton Rouge's new Southern Craft Brewing.
“Well, a lot of changes have gone down since Hip first hit the heartland.” That’s the late rock critic Lester Bangs explaining the appeal of the Stooges’ “sickness” to the flummoxed free-love crowd in a 1970 review of Fun House, and yet I couldn’t help but think of Bangs’ rebuttal—is there anyone better at turning an assumption on its head?—as I took a seat at The Overpass Merchant yesterday.
The interior features touches of charcoal gray and unpainted wood and the walls have been gutted (liberating who-knows-how-many years of stale smoke), yet Baton Rouge’s newest watering hole/restaurant, headed by Lon Marchand and Nick Hufft, is still recognizable as Zee Zee Gardens, the Perkins Road Overpass neighborhood bar which got its invaluable brand of cool from a resolve, over decades, to stay exactly the same (... beer list included). We’re not for everyone, but who needs you anyway?
But the ghost was given up when Zee Zee’s closed its doors late last November. (With Chelsea’s gone now too, my September 2013 feature “A Date with Progressive Perkins,” in which my now-husband and I enjoyed an ambling evening around the overpass, is more of a time capsule than I’d expect just two and a half years later.)
News traveled fast that a replacement was on its way, calling itself a “gastropub” and having the gall to override yet another local institution. Early commenters were out to criticize—and here I’ll admit to being one of those jackasses—before the doors even opened. Well, last night I was charmed into eating crow … and hot chicken too. I met my sister at The Merchant for a happy-hour drink elevated by the two-beer debut of Southern Craft Brewing (only Baton Rouge’s second craft brewery since Tin Roof broke onto the scene five years ago), which chose the three-week old bar as one of the local venues to premiere its products.
Southern Craft launches off with the dark but smooth Red Stick Rye and the hopped-up Pompous Pelican Double IPA. “We wanted to be bold,” said brewery head Joe Picou. (He, his wife Lauren, and fellow owner Wes Hodges split their time between the various Baton Rouge bars who tapped the first Southern Craft kegs yesterday). Picou added that the specific beers we were tasting had hardly changed from the original homebrew recipes developed by the pair years ago. That’s a helluva first draft.
The brewery adheres to Southern ingredients: raw cane sugar from M.A. Patout in Louisiana, cascade hops from southern Appalachia, and rye from the Carolinas. When asked what they have in mind next, Picou threw his head back and laughed. “Everyone keeps asking that! We just launched!” I suppose I could manage another Pompous Pelican or two during the wait.
And, in that meantime, I’ll be back to The Merchant too. After we finished our Southern Craft beers, we moved into exploring more of the beer list, clearly drawn up by an enthusiast. Along with a wide selection of bottled beers, the drafts are available in both pints and 12-oz glasses, if you’re looking to cover more territory in your visit.
For food pairings, Chef Jonathan Breaux’s menu, impressive even as the team claims it’s still in development, ranges from prosciutto-topped flatbread and the aforementioned hot chicken, a spicy Nashville import that’s winning over the country but especially looks at home on a Louisiana menu, to churros and pork steam buns.
Of note, co-owner Nick Hufft is the artisan behind former food truck Curbside Burgers, which married itself to the Barcadia brand a few years ago but is now embarking on an independent location on Government Street, currently in construction beside Calandro's. (“That’s my baby over there,” said Hufft.) A burger on The Merchant menu is reminiscent of Curbside’s revered KGB, but Hufft points out that the patties are thicker at The Merchant. “I’m keeping the two separate,” said Hufft, of his ventures.
But you’ve got a lot of options in town for beers and grub. You’ve got to be savvy. So what will you take issue with when you sit down at The Merchant? Are the prices not as low as you’d like? Did the server-in-training let your glass go dry? Has the Overpass changed? Are things just not what they used to be?
I’ll call on another quote, from comedian Steven Wright: “On the other hand, you have different fingers.” Maybe while one hand’s typing up a sharp online comment, the other’s grasping a chilled glass of an imported Danish IPA. Maybe the not-so-jaded side of you looks up from the pages of The Merchant’s menu to the wide windows that reveal a Baton Rouge culinary scene on the rise. And maybe she lets her enthusiasm bubble over.
The Overpass Merchant 2904 Perkins Road facebook.com/The-Overpass-Merchant-959349664146208 Southern Craft Brewing Company socraftbeer.com