By Anne McMullin
Opening her own restaurant was not on Helen Simmons’ mind until her mother, Katia Troosh, decided to retire last summer and put her beloved Katia’s Russian Tea Room up for sale. For 24 years Katia, a Shanghai-born Russian, had served traditional Russian dishes like borscht, blini, and piroshkis from her white table-clothed restaurant at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Balboa Street in the Inner Richmond District.
Simmons was born and raised in the Sunset District. She attended Convent of the Sacred Heart, Saint Ignatius and Mercy San Francisco and spent many hours working at the restaurant during high school and after getting a degree in business economics from UC Santa Barbara, so she understood the hard work it took to run a successful restaurant. She had noticed the neighborhood changing over time though, and felt it was really calling out for a casual, neighborhood-friendly, all-day cafe. So, with the support and strong business skills of her entrepreneurial husband Melvin fully behind her, Simmons surprised her mother and decided to buy the restaurant.
The Simmonses opened their “soulful inspired” Tastebuds restaurant last July, and since day one it has been a family endeavor. Once they took over the space, they quickly went to work to create their shared vision that would be an extension of their own welcoming home. Melvin and his father-in-law hand built the restaurant’s wood booths, tables and raised bar counter. The whole family helped paint the light-filled space in soothing, natural colors.
The menu draws inspiration from Melvin’s family roots in New Orleans. One of the first challenges they faced though was how to capture all of the family dishes that had been passed down verbally and “made from the heart and soul.” After many hours in the kitchen, they felt they were able to capture the Creole and comfort food inspired recipes in written form.
Melvin does most of the food shopping and the oldest three of the Simmons’ six children work around their school and college schedules to wait tables, wash dishes and help around the restaurant. The eldest daughter, who is getting her nursing degree at nearby University of San Francisco (USF), also helps with the restaurant playlist, which features reggae, soul and “good vibes” music. The younger three kids can sometimes be seen playing in the back. Clearly, all are learning from the family business, with their two-year-old daughter, copying standard restaurant kitchen protocol, recently yelling out “behind” as she was moving about the family’s busy home kitchen.
Tastebuds is open daily, 7 a.m.-7 p.m., and serves breakfast until 2 p.m. Its breakfast menu includes such items as house-made corned beef hash, several breakfast burritos, southern shrimp and grits, pancakes and fried chicken and waffles.
From 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., the “lunch and on” menu serves several hearty salads, burgers made with grass fed beef and a number of tasty Southern-inspired sandwiches. Fries come classic or Southern, which Helen describes as seasoned with “a little sweet and a little heat.”
From Monday through Friday, from 4-7 p.m., Tastebuds hosts a happy hour when patrons can order craft beers on tap, wine or even a hibiscus mimosa, as well as $5 baskets of battered shrimp, chicken tenders, crispy cauliflower or garlic parmesan fries.
The restaurant is frequented by young families, neighbors, people coming from nearby Golden Gate Park, USF students and folks who want to grab a bite to eat and work on their laptops. It is a kid-friendly space with crayons provided for younger patrons.
The restaurant, which can seat 30 people and hold 40 people standing for a party, can also be rented for private events if people are looking for a neighborhood venue to host a work gathering, birthday party or anniversary celebration. On Valentine’s Day it hosted a lunch-time party for children and parents from the nearby Peter’s Place Nursery School.
Plans for the future include: Taco Tuesdays, when it will extend its normal hours; the addition of tables and chairs outside; and some new menu items, like a biscuits and gravy offering on the weekend brunch menu. It also just started delivery service through Postmates.
Helen’s parents are very supportive of the new restaurant and every Friday they come by to have lunch there after they pick up their youngest grandchild from swim class. Katia is happy to see her legacy continue through her daughter’s family endeavor.
Tastebuds is located at 600 Fifth Ave., at Balboa Street. Phone: (415) 668-9298. For menus and more information, visit http://www.sftastebuds.com.