T he 1970s Mexican dive vibes at Velvet Cantina were special. It felt like walking into a Tarantino film with tequila, and, let’s face it, sometimes mediocre Mexican food. Those s’mores nachos killed it, however, engulfing the dim two rooms with the aroma of cinnamon and chocolate as marshmallows were set alight.
The 14-year-old restaurant was sadly a pandemic casualty. Like many of its regulars, I had sweet memories in my earlier SF years sipping margaritas and savoring the happy comfort of the Cantina’s dusty browns, reds and gold.
As of April 19, 2022, the space is (dramatically) reborn as Shuggie’s Trash Pie & Natural Wine, no longer dim and dusty but colorful, loud and playful in bold yellow and green. Given the deteriorating nature of the front room, it had to be gutted and rebuilt, now all yellow and white, lined with yellow disco balls, lip-shaped sofa and cheetah mural, centered around an open kitchen with bar seats over a glittery gold countertop.
The back dining room and bar still retains a hint of Velvet Cantina days with the geometric-carved wood booths and ceiling remaining. But now those woods, ceiling, walls are all bright green with glittering green vinyl seating in the booths and green hand chairs at tables. Under shimmering chandeliers, the green room bar holds a kitschy-fab, tassel-fringed Elvis lamp next to a wine slushy machine. Both bars are available for first come, first serve seating; the tables by reservation (all booking up well ahead).
A younger, hip crowd flows in and out, set to a soundtrack that is all Lou Reed/Velvet Underground and punk rock one moment, Dr. Dre and 2Pac the next, then perilously veers into Johnny Cash and Sturgill Simpson. Hipster? Maybe. For deep music lovers like myself — who need their rap as much as their classic country — the seemingly conflicting range is just right.
The masterminds behind this refreshingly audacious newcomer are chef David Murphy and Kayla Abe, with David formerly at Whitechapel and both founders of Ugly Pickle Co., utilizing “ugly” or “cosmetically challenged” produce from local farms, pickling “upcycled” pickles and other foods. At their smart new restaurant, the sustainability ethos is the same: expect irregular-looking produce and surplus to not go to waste, showing up in all dishes alongside offcuts of meat, with “use all elements” ease and a drink focus on natural wines.
The menu is centered around Shuggie’s pies. Abe and Murphy debated ubiquitous styles of pizza like Neapolitan, but wisely went with a unique pizza format in a city that already excels at Neapolitan and many other pizza styles besides. They’ve crafted a crave-worthy, uber-thin version of rectangular grandma pizza, with its roots in Long Island, it’s a slimmer version of Sicilian pizza. But this isn’t so much traditional NY grandma pizza as it is their inspired take with crispy edges that crust up and around the pie.
Thinner than the usual grandma pies, Shuggie’s dough uses spent oat flour and whey from fluffy ricotta they make in-house, sourced from local dairies. Toppings are blessedly fun, whether a salty-starchy-comforting take on Portuguese bacalhau (“Dead Combo”), a pizza of salt cod, potatoes, farm egg and white sauce, or Dirty Daddy Dario (pistachio, mortadella, parmesan, walnuts), playing off a Naples’ pizza I’ve written about a lot lately at newcomers like Norcina and Napizza.
After a couple visits to Shuggie’s, the two pizzas I crave again — and favorites of my dining companions — started with the Pickle Lady, a blessedly pickled take on salmon and cream cheese featuring Dilly double cream, salmon belly conserva and their own Ugly Pickle relish.
But irresistible “Bobo’s The Pep, The Roni” already feels like the definitive house pie. While the pepperoni, honey, chili combo has been done many times — that savory-spicy-sweet combo is one of my faves — here, it feels fresh, not just because of the cracker thin crust, but because of the spot-on, vibrant tomato sauce. Strips vs. rounds of pepperoni almost distract from the seamless thinness of the pie. But when house ricotta fluff (an additional $4) is scooped tableside in three heaping spoonfuls straight through the middle of the pie, oozing over the red sauce, the pie enters next level.
Pies aside, there are other dishes worth hitting up. Garlic knots are dense and drowning in that fluffy ricotta, while a “wilty green chimi” — a verdant take on chimichurri — imparts a garden-fresh brightness to the dense bread and creamy ricotta. Yes, they nail pickles as a starter, while The Goddess is skewers of lettuces (surplus greens, of course) in “stemmy spicy avo-goddess dressing” with blistered shishito peppers, a dusting of puffed crispies and aged Gouda cheese. These skewers arrive cheekily in a ceramic of breasts holding the salad, which you slide off the skewer onto your plate.
Fried pickle kakiage is the standout starter not just because of crave-worthy shiso Ranch dressing served in a red lipstick, mouth-shaped bowl. It takes inspiration from classic Japanese kakiage, typically tempura-fried bits of shrimp, veggies and other seafood. Here it’s all veggies, from green onion roots and squash scraps to Ugly Pickle pickles. Think tempura veggies with a fritto misto vibe, encased in what is already definitively feeling like Shuggie’s whimsical aesthetic.
Grilled “spicy ‘n sticky fish collar” is surrounded by sticky sauce that, aside from some clumps of rock hard caramelization, is savory-sweet on silky fish dotted with tempura “crispies,” green onion and greens. “Buffalo everything” is buffalo sauced-up chicken wings, livers, gizzards, hearts and all the parts, ideal with natural and organic wines.
Their little to-go wine shop in-house allowed us to take home a favorite pour, while $2 wine shots over both my visits were simply one of the four wines by-the-glass. But our good-humored server confirmed these shots sometimes include pours of other bottles that might be open from the larger list, generally running $50–75 per bottle.
Rotating by-the-glass pours have included a tart, crisp 2021 Faccia di Vino Rosé Lambrusco Sorbara from Italy’s (and my beloved) Emilia-Romagna region, to the sour beer-esque finish on 2020 Jean-Francois Ginglinger Auxerrois, made by the son of a famed Alsatian winemaker. The rotating wine slushie made with blemished and surplus fruit (strawberry on my recent visit) is one happy frozé, especially because you can really taste the robust boxed wine its made with. Bottle options include intriguing, balanced natural wines like a 2020 Humus Flui Pet Nat Alicante from Portugal.
It might be loud (music and colors) for some, or achingly hipster to others. But the soundtrack, wine “shop” and impossible-to-ignore playfulness all confirm the crowds. I’m glad to say in my initial visits, it’s the food that grounds the place… often comforting, and at moments, craveably delicious. Shuggie’s food is refreshingly sassy and spirited, but not sloppy, grounded in quality as it is in sustainability.
// 3349 23rd Street, www.shuggiespizza.com
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Founding The Perfect Spot in 2007, Virginia is World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ Chairperson, judging & writing/editor at 60+ publications on dining & drink globally