Little Ange's is so far off the East Bay's restaurant radar it seems underground, literally, even though its steel-lined half-door is always open, gaping onto a bland El Cerrito street near a freeway junction. The place looks and smells like any 6 a.m. bar a butt-filled cigarette bucket out front and the sweet-stale tang that builds up from generations of human beings absorbing liquor in the semidark.
But Little Ange's has something special: a line cook who works killer transformations on meats sourced from the cooler bins at Costco or Smart & Final. Todd Allen cuts a meaty presence himself, a bulky figure in white workpants and lightly stained T-shirt. Sit close to the tiny, open kitchen line, and you can watch him cook an order of lamb chops on the battered gas grill. Yellow flames shoot high above the grates, like a backyard barbecue in mid-flare-up, and Allen flips the chops with the nonchalance of a mechanic loosening lug nuts.
He knows what he's doing. The three loin chops are a proper medium-rare (deep pink around a central whorl that oozes red juice), and so thick your cheap fork bends as it tries to steady a chop for the knife. The lamb's blackened outsides taste like carbon and black pepper, and the moist flesh offers only a faint hint of the musky, barnyard taste of older lamb. Not bad for Costco. Even better when a whiff of urine wafting from the men's room reminds you where you are.
Less than fifteen minutes from artisan, sustainable North Berkeley, scrappy Little Ange's has an old-school appreciation for the unpretentious, the accessible, and the cheap. Outside of ethnic mom-and-pops, that's not exactly a winning Bay Area restaurant formula, but Little Ange's exists in a world as insular as a pot club. Call it bar food, but Allen's grilled meats are far from the happy-hour nibbles on the syrah-and-mojito circuit. Forget Fonda, César, and Jordan's, with their spare, olive-scattered tapas plates. Allen serves up slabs of meat to guys saturated with light beer and liquor.
Other East Bay bars offer meat to the hammered and hungry check out Antlers Tavern in Pinole for amazingly cheap weekly beef feeds (tri-tip Wednesdays, steak Thursdays, prime rib Fridays). But Ange's may be unique in offering such succulent meats in a setting every bit as thick with atmosphere as the patina of nicotine that still stains its ceiling.
Folks in the tavern room have a blurry, Raider-Nation-in-Margaritaville vibe. Think tropical-print shirts and grizzled mustaches, slick fringes of yellow-white hair, and faded blue tattoos on loose-skinned biceps. There's Golden Tee '99 in the corner and a long bar covered with worn, maraschino-pink Formica.
The dining room is empty of people but cluttered with tables, more than a dozen blank TV monitors, and a funky, unused 1970s-era mobile salad bar with a dusty sneeze guard. Mainly, it's a shrine to horse racing at nearby Golden Gate Fields the walls are a de facto collage of framed photo finishes and trophy shots, primitive track paintings, and crinkly LeRoy Neiman poster reproductions. There's even a tiny, creepy-looking autographed jockey's saddle. All more than enough to get lost in.
Good thing Allen's grilled meats are there to break through the clutter. Scribbled on a dry-erase board, his changing nightly menu lists about ten choices, all main courses. Unchanging are a New York, a ribeye, and pork chops. The chops are thick hunks cut from a boneless loin, chewy and satisfying, their surfaces charred into a stiff crust. Tasty, but there's so much meat to saw through you inevitably get bored with it. The grilled ribeye, too, is said to be of Flintstoneian dimensions man-sized portions, even if some of the man-sized bar eaters request doggy bags.
The New York is more than three inches thick, and it's fantastic Allen has carefully trimmed it and blackened it in the flames. By the time it gets to the table it's glazed with its own delicately tangy juices, and the texture is velvety. Okay, so it's not as velvety as an expensive New York it lacks the dense marbling that marks a pricey steak and results in a moist, unctuous texture but it would be hard to do better with this cut. The same goes for a big piece of beef filet cut from the wide end the end with multiple muscle strands. It's meticulously cooked and the flesh has a mostly fine grain, but don't expect the buttery softness of fancy filet. Then again, it's less than twenty bucks.
It's no surprise Allen learned how to cook in steakhouses, two of them in Antioch. He also got a taste of fine dining at the Duck Club in the Lafayette Park Hotel, a kitchen stocked with foie gras and truffle oil. Now the mostly one-man kitchen is doing what he seems to do best: grilling meat the simplest way possible. He grills a slab of salmon all the way through, until the flesh is shattery, pale, and soft. A tomato-caper salsa seasoned to a vinegary extreme blots out any hint of the fishy flavor you half expect to taste. Not bad, but not good enough to substitute for Allen's grilled meats.
Anything that isn't grilled meat is iffy, in fact. The mashed potatoes have the squishy texture and salty, processed taste of instant, and the buttered rice has the consistency of moist packing peanuts ask for a baked potato. The sautéed mixed vegetables that garnish all the entrées are surprisingly good, but the complimentary first-course salad is a joyless, shredded pile flocked with rubbery cheese strands and canned olives and topped with a slug of factory-made dressing.
But let's face it: No one comes here for salad, and caviling about the dressing smacks of the absurd. In a place like Little Ange's, anything that reveals skill, experience, and the meticulous application of curly parsley garnishes is astonishing. Such as the gumbo.
"That's it, man," says a guy dipping his spoon deep into his bowl. He's sitting at the end of the bar, near Allen's cooking station with its big Raiders sticker and shelf packed with plastic spice jars. "This is the shit," the guy says. His friend snaps a picture of the gumbo with his cell phone. The guy at the bar keeps slurping. "Cooking's a lot of work, right?" he asks.
"Not too bad," Allen says, shaking something out of one of the big spice jars into something I can't see. "You just gotta have the right ingredients."
"Right" is a matter of perspective, of course, but at Little Ange's, where dice cups slam down on the bar to punctuate the dining experience, the grillmaster makes the most of the ingredients he has.
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