Greetings. I write to you in some pain. I sit at my kitchen table, a takeout container before me containing the remains of last night’s dinner, my face screwed up like Munch’s screamer. My eyes cannot be bothered to make tears. My nervous system is overridden by heat. My fingertips are red with spices and I am breathing heavily through my mouth. As the burn subsides, I take another bite. I cannot stop. State Park’s Nashville hot chicken hurts so good.
State Park opened at the end of 2013, calling itself the “(obnoxious little) sister bar” of Hungry Mother, the French-Southern restaurant operated by the same team. More a dive bar-themed bar than an actual dive bar, State Park was a place to come for fun, offering pinball, kitschy dioramas, a well-stocked jukebox, and a menu that showcased regional dishes like Memphis BBQ spaghetti and Kentucky Hot Brown sandwiches with the zeal of an American studies major. But it was always overshadowed by its acclaimed sibling around the block. In May, Barry Maiden won the James Beard “Best Chef: Northeast” award at Hungry Mother. In July, after seven years, the restaurant closed.
So how is State Park faring, bereft of its big sister, and in the midst of construction resulting from a nearby August fire? (It temporarily closed some of State Park’s One Kendall Square neighbors, including the Blue Room and Flat Top Johnny’s.)
Better than ever.
Chef Tyler Sundet, a longtime Hungry Mother employee and part owner of State Park (along with John Kessen, Alon Munzer, and Rachel Miller Munzer), has rejiggered the menu — relegating some favorites to lunch, introducing new dishes at dinner, and rotating items in and out with frequency. It now feels like less of a scene, more of a restaurant.
You’ll have to come during the day if you want the excellent Texas invention known as tobacco onions, a tangled pile of onion rings so thin and crisp they do indeed resemble tobacco, or that BBQ spaghetti. This is exactly as it sounds, spaghetti tossed with smoked pork, marinara, and tangy barbecue sauce. Equally notable is the garlic bread on the side — how we’d all like to eat it but might not let ourselves make it, essentially fried in a deep bath of butter, every pore saturated yet still crisp.
But dinner now has a lighter touch, a little more elegance, to add to the meaty, heavy mix.
Does it matter that beans are heirloom when the kitchen fries them into crisp and crunchy nubbins, then showers them with nacho cheese dust? Maybe not so much, but they are as addictive as Doritos. There are pickled eggs, with that strange, dense, almost flan-like texture, stained bright beet pink against a yellow eye: pickled eggs as designed by Sanrio. Little buttermilk biscuits are denser than some but still satisfying, served with butter sweetened with Steen’s cane syrup from Louisiana.
Fried pork ribs are glazed in Korean barbecue sauce and served with kimchi — spicy, sticky, good. And charcuterie platters — rabbit bratwurst, a cured ham board — are always excellent.
For balance, though, there is smoked fish dip, light and fresh, spiked with radish slices and halved red-green cherry tomatoes, showered in chives, with thin, delicate crackers served alongside. (It’s now served warm, with house-made rye.) And vegetables are showcased in composed salads: candy-striped beets with pears, pecans, and Pecorino; green beans with pork belly, chanterelle mushrooms, black garlic, and smoked peanuts.
Ribbons of green arugula pasta are tossed with braised chicken, lobster mushrooms, peas, and mushroom-butter sauce; an overload of cheese blankets the dish. Bavette steak is served topped with anchovy butter, alongside fried broccoli and grilled bread. It’s slightly fatty and greasy. But State Park’s Arctic char is one of the nicest fish dishes I’ve had of late — perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked, with tiny, tender Brussels sprouts and chewy broken rice, drizzled with a generous but not excessive amount of brown butter. It’s reminiscent of, and as good as anything at, Hungry Mother.
It is also off the menu for the moment, replaced by whole roasted trout. There are constants here, such as “Snappy’s famous pork chop sandwich” with chili and coleslaw. Based on one from the Snappy Lunch in North Carolina, it sounds like an abomination and looks like a Sloppy Joe with a ginormous deep-fried piece of pork inserted in the middle. It comes impaled with a knife, an Excalibur for the high-cholesterol set. Look, the thing tastes great.
And then there’s that fried chicken, with kale that’s laced with garlic confit and big pickle slices on the side. A Tabasco-honey version is good enough, encased in its thick, crunchy batter. But if you’re at all inclined, the hot chicken — a Nashville specialty — is the way to go. Flavored with ghost chiles, aji amarillo, smoked paprika, cayenne, and more, it is served atop white bread, stained red like a crime scene.
The service we receive with it is indicative of that at State Park: informal, attentive, and on point. Our server sets down the hot chicken, gives a slightly concerned smile, and asks: “Shall I bring you a big, cheap beer now?”
State Park’s beer list can satisfy everyone from the broke lightweight ($2 shorties of ’Gansett) to the thirsty craft-beer enthusiast (large-format barrel-aged ales from Hof Ten Dormaal). There is even beer in the Official State Park Cocktail: Miller High Life, Rittenhouse rye, Amaro Braulio, and a lemon twist, served in the bottle. I’d almost always rather drink a beer than a beer cocktail, but the citrus, the bitter liqueur, the warm rye, and the thirst-quenching champagne of beers add up to something grand. It’s a good choice for house cocktail, emblematic of State Park’s cheeky and appealing take on drinks.
There are well-made classics like the daiquiri and riffs like the cinnamon-scented, bourbon and beer-based Topanga. There are “day drinks (also available at night)” like hot buttered Swedish punsch and an oversize mimosa. There are pitchers and mini-pitchers of assorted cocktails (Pimm’s cup, Chartreuse and tonic), and shot-and-a-beer combinations. There are also interesting options for non-tipplers, like a cherry cola flavored with Luxardo syrup.
Wine and dessert both seem a bit beside the point but are here for those who want them. The wine list is scaled down and generic while covering the bases — there’s a sherry, a sparkling Spanish white, a Cotes du Rhone. You just won’t know which ones unless you ask. Desserts — chocolate custard, coconut layer cake — are pleasantly homey. Like just about everything at State Park, they are made in house, by pastry chef Rachel Sundet.
State Park may never rival Hungry Mother as a dining destination. (There are still no developments to report on what may be coming to that space.) But it is as much fun as ever. Wedged into a vinyl booth in the flattering bordello-red light of a vintage beer sign, eating charcuterie and fried chicken, one may have found the best little pseudo dive bar in town.Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.