If Nick Badovinus were to have a film franchise, this would be its seventh installment. Its busiest.
I recently caught a bite at National Anthem, this newest restaurant in the sector of downtown by the I-345 overpass that is newly dubbed the East Quarter. If you’ll recall, a bit over three years ago, well before the pandemic, Badovinus teased the notion of a buzzy spot to open in the former Magnolia Oil/KLIF building whose trapezoidal shape comes to a tapered end.
National Anthem sits in a part of town which his restaurants—Town Hearth, Montlake Cut, Yo! Lobster, Desert Racer, and both Neighborhood Services locations—have not, so far, encamped.
Its graceful, low-slung white stone arches with massive windows and brick detailing represent the first historic façade he’s taken on. The broad windows let in the sunset colors in the early evening (lunch should commence shortly) and offer a view of downtown when night inks up.
Inside, the flashiest thing in the all-white dining room is the vintage neon sign over a bustling bar and a compilation of stuff will be familiar to the Badovinus flock and following.
As will the menu. He’s calling it, of course, in various places, “American Cuisine on Commerce” and “All-American Classic.”
Sprawling, it has the seafood of Montlake Cut, the fajitas and verve of Desert Racer, the steaks of his theatrical Town Hearth, and the braggadocio of all of them, mixed together like a mix tape from the ’90s.
Badovinus has a talent for inscrutable item names—Cauli Bang Bang comes to mind—followed by helpful or less helpful declensions of ingredients. Yes, the TX Croque’s “uncured ham / white cheddar mornay / jalapeño jelly / sourdough / club cut” remains easy to parse. Others telegraph more abstrusely, like insider baseball slang or the curt, clipped jargon of a line order cook. See: “zippy dip.” What, exactly, is Shrimp Sizzle, save something very NOLA-esque with its barbecue spice, Creole butter, and voodoo sauce? The Chicken DJ? “It’s the chicken of the day / that sounds good,” assures the menu. Ah, DJ…du jour. We’re following. Then, those in the know will note that “PtR bleu” is Point Reyes blue cheese from Northern California. And maybe that is part of the interactive point.
The menu bristles with a rollicking bravado: the spirit is, in many ways, both singularly unnavigable and Badovinus at his most conversational.
Also, what are we to make of the fact that sides include a whole cheese enchilada (with a sunny side-up egg, if you want)? A side for what—the raw oysters?
The MO is unedited. A supercharged version of the notion of a chef making what he (in this case) wants—and also what “the people” want.
On the night when I visited with dining editor Rosin Saez, and we wended our way around the seafood, the best bite was fried oysters on a cornmeal hoecake (the starter has since evaporated), like a playful take on caviar and blinis. Five crackly-crusty fried pouches held the soft belly of oysters that perched on a lightly grainy hoecake mounded with a feisty, spunky confetti of fresno chiles and cabbage slaw, deluged in sauces.
There was tuna on toast: ahi crudo with black and white sesame seeds and avocado and breakfast radish slivers set on sourdough toast. Also, a stack of salt-and-vinegar Pringles. Should we pile the crudo on those instead? Or too? Too seems the mood.
We went on: pale-blond, puffy-crusted halibut fish and chips with tartar sauce. And the catch of the day, a Milanese with Parmesan crust, golden and buttery as a Ritz cracker, and an orange cream sauce. This last was plated like a white-tablecloth contender, while the other was casual as it sounds.
Nan’s sour cream apple pie (Nan’s his grandmother) is blitzed with walnut streusel, but skins on the green apples rendered bites toothy, and a sort of cinnamon whip glob didn’t help much.
On the other hand, a “21+ Float” with rum, egg white, and pineapple honey syrup? Next time.
Tables appear like a tic-tac-toe of unrelated fare—you pass an enormous soccer-ball boule of bread; loaded nachos; a pork chop, an exuberant, joyful miscellany. A disparate hodge-podge, as though you’re in a Badovinus food hall.
You hope the servers will be capable of telling diners that, really, the only thing to pair with the Delmonico steak or the bread is the rigatoni alla vodka. Not with the fajita set. But that is a tall order to ask of a staff and may not be the case all the time.
I suspected it might be a place, then, to zero in on the “it” thing. Nosh on what you’ve homed in on. And sure enough. I found my bliss one evening when I picked up the Reuben sandwich to-go, hauling it back to my car. The pastrami with its griddle-crisped edges and the white cheddar, Russian slaw, sauerkraut, and Creole mustard meld, sided by garlic salted fries, delivered some kind of heaven as a low-rider cruised by on Commerce Street.
I demolished it and I don’t regret it.
So now I know what anthem I sing.