Like many folks who live between Downtown proper and Derenne, I was sorry to see Sandfly Bar-B-Q pull up stakes at the SCAD-owned Streamliner during the worst of 2020. Moreover, it was sad the primo property lay fallow for so long after a five-year run of serving up superbly smoked everything.
Last Saturday morning, as I biked up to the intersection of Barnard and West Henry Streets, I could see and smell cochinita pibil plumes rising from behind what is now Strange Bird, the latest eatery in the FARM Hospitality’s group’s coastal empire.
Opened on July 20, what chef-owner Brandon Carter and co-chefs de cuisine Daniel Aranza and Felipe Vera have conceived and realized is already as excellent as it is unique, a diner whose cuisine is just as carefully and cleverly curated as FARM’s other restaurants but one that can be a once-a-week destination.
“From the get-go, the goal of Strange Bird was to make FARM-level, Common Thread-level food out of a food truck,” said Aranza, and the same clearly goes for its eat-in iteration. “The quality, it’s up there.”
While that is definitely true, the concept and the fare are intentionally “approachable,” essentially restauration code for “not as expensive.”
FOUR-STAR FOOD AT TWO-DOLLAR-SIGN PRICES
“That’s an O.G. dish,” Carter said of the refried butter beans, Strange Bird’s rendition of a Mexican standard side, one that has “evolved” over the last several years. “Before FARM was even open, we were refrying butter beans.”
What might be mush elsewhere has complexity here thanks to the escabeche (a vinegar-macerated slaw relative), plenty of chulpe (toasted corn kernels), and salsa macha.
“It is cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, onions, jalapeños, and some Mexican oregano to give it some pop,” Aranza said of the ingredients that give texture in every bite.
The salsa macha, a mahogany red blend of toasty guajillo and morita chiles, also enhances the silky guac served with fried-to-order El Milagro (Atlanta) totopos. The corn tortillas used for tacos and burritos are even more local, made by the Mitla Tortilla Company, who also are dedicated to the ancient nixtamalization process.
Instead of perfunctory fries, an order of crispy potatoes offers two-bite wedges drizzled with tomato-based Strange sauce for which Aranza took inspiration from a Sichuan spice blend called mala.
“It’s kind of like souped-up fry sauce,” Carter said.
Instead of the traditional bolillo or telera, Strange Bird’s tortas are served on grilled sliced bread that is made from an enriched and fermented Parker House dough.
“I love patty melts,” Carter said as Aranza and Vera nodded. “You can go to thirty restaurants in Savannah and get a sandwich on a bun, right? But what makes it ‘strange’?”
Though I want to sample the entire menu eventually, I will have a hard time not ordering the crispy chicken sandwich, accented with subtle pickles and creamy aioli.
For my wife, the cauliflower and mushroom pastor taco was an instant hit, meaty and overstuffed and not at all like other offhanded vegetarian versions.
“I feel like the al pastor, the pineapple and chile aspect on a vegetable, just [goes] well with that,” said Aranza, adding that the veggies are smoked out back.
“Sometimes it’s hard to tell where one of us ends and the other picks up,” Carter said of the trio’s collaboration and the dishes’ conceptions.
STRANGE BIRDS OF A FEATHER
There is a conspicuous symbiosis among Aranza, Carter, and Vera, just as there is with FARM’s four restaurants and its group’s overarching m.o. and ethos.
“FARM started because of a relationship between me and Ryan Williamson (Williamson Lowcountry Farms),” Carter explained. “He was growing produce in Pritchardville, and we were buying everything [for Palmetto Bluff].”
Opened in 2021, Common Thread’s name directly references how the group “sources [its] food and cooks from scratch” while grounding itself in local and seasonal produce “with nods to Lowcountry cuisine.”
Since they were brought into the FARM family in 2018, both Aranza and Vera had worked on the Strange Bird truck whenever needed, and several of its items are on this menu, if slightly varied.
Vera said that he finds his inspiration from the ever-changing lists of fresh produce available from local purveyors, and this will fuel the diner’s menus far more than any set-in-stone culinary genre.
“Yes, this is a much different price point, and the food is more casual,” Carter asserted, “but the way that we cook and our approach and how we source, they have the same sensibilities as our fine-dining restaurants.”
In a nutshell, how a New York strip is treated at Common Thread is precisely how the barbacoa will be handled at Strange Bird.
“They aren’t a ton of people that approach a casual concept like this,” he suggested, “because it’s harder, but we all agree, as a collective, that easy food doesn’t taste as good.”
You may be sitting on a stool in a diner, but the food on silver serving trays in front of you is fine-dining by degree.
ADDING TO THE FLOCK
“We had our eye on a different space that would have been super-cool,” Carter said of FARM Hospitality’s latest expansion before he paused and smiled, “but not as cool as this.”
Driving past the 1938 Worcester Streamliner one day, he asked himself why he and his team had not thought of it before. After all, the original Strange Bird food truck was an Airstream.
“The vintage diner car aspect, the parallel to the food truck, it made sense from an aesthetic standpoint,” he commented. “We reached out to SCAD, and they were like, ‘Yeah, we would love for you to come and operate it.’”
“We were ready, and SCAD was super-ready for us to come in here,” Aranza added.
Right as 2022 turned into 2023, the proverbial though stationary diner wheels were in motion, if you will, and the turnaround took just a few months. The only significant renovation occurred in the kitchen, which had been taken down to studs, according to Carter. Thankfully, the Southern Pride smoker put in by Keith Latture for Sandfly Bar-B-Q’s purposes, remained.
“All our meats are coming off of that smoker,” Aranza said. “We use it as much as we can. We don’t have an oven, so that is our oven.”
The dining space itself, the walls, ceiling panels, and windows, simply needed “sprucing up” and “a little bit of love,” said Carter, with the most evident improvements being newly upholstered bar stools and all new signage and branding, the work of Ryan Place, whose wife, Ashley, is one of FARM’s original chefs.
All told, a project just a shade less involved and expensive as gutting and restoring a 5000-square foot 1890s mansion on East 37th Street and transforming it into Common Thread.
For folks already familiar with the Streamliner, its leaded glass windows and pearlescent transoms are just as gorgeous as ever.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
The name Strange Bird still adorns the group’s food truck which, for the time being, will be used largely as the group’s catering vehicle for special events.
“For me, the name speaks to a lot of different things,” Carter offered, quickly and puckishly admitting, “We’re a group of strange birds.”
The moniker on the marquee and the menus is an intentional allusion to the familiar phrase ‘strange bird,’ and this is the edible incarnation of a rara avis: an odd duck, a different kettle of fish, an eccentric.
To wit, Carter acknowledges that the trio has “pulled inspiration” from Mexican and Coastal Empire cuisine but not specifically to marry the two or to corner themselves into one nameable category.
“We set ourselves up to be fluid,” said Carter. “The vast majority of dishes will touch the Mexican border in some way, but that doesn’t mean that [they have] to.”
Both Aranza and Vera’s respective heritages are Mexican, and the former says that the current menu items are more pan-Mexican than they reflect any given region’s cuisine.
“There are flavors that I grew up with that have gone into different dishes as sauces,” he explained.
“We’re steering it toward those flavors of Mexico,” Carter continued, “but there are other things on the menu that you wouldn’t find at a taqueria,” notably the birria burger, the fried chicken sandwich, and an imminent bologna sandwich.
In short order, this is not another Americanized ‘Mexican’ restaurant or the familiar Tex-Mex taco shop.
“We might look at the origins of a dish but figure out how to make it fit into our box with the ingredients that we have locally,” Carter said. “We might take inspiration from a dish and make it work here, whether for the space itself or the climate or what’s growing or our clientele.”
“Or what we’re in the mood for,” Aranza added.
With shared grins all around, the main brains behind the menu each said that this was his first physical-space experience of working in a diner.
Strange Bird’s pending liquor license promises craft beers and interesting wines are on the horizon, served in blue enamel mugs just to stay strange, of course.
“This is just the beginning,” Carter commented. “We’re going to establish a baseline and find our feet in the space.”
“At the end of the day, this is Daniel and Felipe’s, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.”
And I cannot wait to belly up in a booth or to the bar and eat what they make next.
Strange Bird (1220 Barnard Street) is open for lunch and dinner Thursday through Monday (11 a.m. to 9 p.m.).