It used to be that a $14 or $15 burger was the purview of the name chef, whose particular dry-aging technique or meticulous method for arranging strands of ground beef into parallel rows might make a suitable topic for an entire article all on its own. These days, even a run-of-the-mill neighborhood pub can slap the name of a ranch on its menu and charge $14 for a burger. Welcome to the new Oakland, I guess.
With that in mind — and even with the dark cloud of looming apocalypse hanging over our collective heads in the weeks following the election — I took some comfort in discovering the excellent $6 cheeseburger at Good Time Fixins, a two-month-old permanent pop-up restaurant located inside a Piedmont Avenue cocktail bar called The Lodge. Price notwithstanding, the burger was one of the best I've eaten this year. And it headlines what might be, dollar for dollar, the most value-packed food menu at any of Oakland's new class of culinarily ambitious drinking establishments.
Some background: The Lodge opened with some fanfare a year ago in the corner spot previously occupied by the controversial dive bar Egbert Souse's, which was long mired by its reputation as a flashpoint for violent incidents. That said, the bar was also a solidly working-class establishment and one of a handful of North Oakland drinking holes left that primarily catered to a Black customer base. Against that backdrop, The Lodge made for a pretty dramatic change. Fairly or not, some dive-bar enthusiasts may have written the place off as too bougie for their tastes, with its housemade charcuterie plates, $10 craft cocktails, and ironic hunting-lodge decor. (This despite the fact that much of the food menu stayed squarely in the realm of chicken wings and grilled-cheese sandwiches.)
In September, owner Alexeis Filipello, the proprietor of two similarly meat- and taxidermy-heavy Oakland establishments — Bar Dogwood and the now-closed Stag's Lunchette — decided to turn the kitchen reins over to Good Time Fixins, a pop-up venture by chef Renatto Specia (whose first line-cook gig had been at Stag's) and his business partner Tobias Magree. And while Good Time Fixins occupies the same "elevated bar food" category as the kitchen that preceded it, the offerings feel a lot more down-to-earth.
Start with the aforementioned $6 burger, the "Royale with Cheese," which, right out of the gate, stakes a claim in any discussion of the best fast-food style burgers in the East Bay. No bells and whistles here. This is a compact quarter-pound burger, greasy and sloppy in just the right ways and topped with your classic fast-food burger fixins: shredded iceberg lettuce, a late-season tomato slice, chopped onions, a Thousand Island-esque "special sauce," and thin-sliced dill pickles. Close your eyes and take a bite, and the taste is unmistakable: It's a classic McDonald's burger — a kind of cross between a Quarter Pounder with Cheese and a Big Mac, except with much better-tasting meat (from Storm Hill Beef Cooperative). Two dollars more buys an extra beef patty, for that full Big Mac experience.
Specia explained that the McDonald's connection was a deliberate effort to tap into the nostalgic feelings of those of us who grew up eating those burgers but swore off of them, whether for health reasons or sociopolitical ones. After all, he said, "Who doesn't remember that taste?"
Specia described the underlying philosophy of Good Times Fixins as, "How would your mom and your aunties make bar food if it was going to be representative of a Thanksgiving-type meal?" The idea is for customers to experience the sense of abundance — that extra something — that Specia feels is embodied by the term "fixins," and to be able to taste the many days of prep that go into making a deceptively simple-looking dish. Take, for example, the eight hours that Specia spends smoking the pork shoulder that he cuts into toothsome chunks for his Smoked Apple Jacked Sandwich, which comes topped with pickled fennel slaw, apple slices, and a housemade barbecue sauce that strikes just the right balance between sweetness and creamy, savory richness.
But Specia also isn't too highbrow to put Apple Jacks (yes, the sugary kids' cereal) into that same sandwich, to add an extra bit of sweetness and crunch — to say nothing of their alarming neon hue. Somehow, the combination works.
Indeed, one of the most appealing things about the pop-up is the fact that the food doesn't take itself too seriously. This is, after all, a restaurant that serves tater tots — the straight-from-the-supermarket-freezer-aisle variety, which is a menu choice I wish more bars would consider. (There are as many lousy versions of French fries as there are sublime ones, but tater tots almost never disappoint.) Where Good Time Fixins sets itself apart is in its queso dipping sauce, which is just regular nacho cheese spiked with a mix of roasted peppers. Alternatively, you can opt for the "Tachos," a play on nachos, wherein the tater tots come topped with their own overabundance of "fixins," if you will — queso, guacamole, Mexican crema, and, for an additional $2, your choice of meats. These are satisfying in the way that the various takes on loaded fries almost always are, but if you like your tots to stay crispy, you're better off sticking with the simpler version.
Specia and Magree run their pop-up as a stand-alone business, which adds an extra layer of complication and potential confusion to the ordering process. You order and pay for your food at the little window counter, and then order your drinks separately at the bar. And there were items on the menu that could use a bit of tweaking: The vegetarian California Sandwich seemed to consist mostly of arugula and contained too little of the deep-fried cauliflower and blue cheese sauce that it promised. And while I liked the gravy and the fried egg on the Hawaiian-inspired Loco Moco — one of several rice bowls on the menu — the beef patty needed more salt.
It's hard to complain, though, when so many of the menu items are as affordable as they are — again, just $6 for that burger or for a basic rice bowl with meat.
Like so many bars around town, the menu has a number of Mexican-inflected items, and it turns out that Specia came by those honestly as a first-generation Mexican-American who grew up eating tortas in West Berkeley. Specia and Magree actually graduated from Berkeley High together some twenty years ago.
As a nod to his West Berkeley upbringing, Specia uses torta-style bolillo rolls for several of his sandwiches, including the aforementioned pork-shoulder number. He buys the bread from Mi Tierra Foods, in his old neighborhood. Meanwhile his tacos are a cut above the ones you'll find at most gringo bars, thanks to the chipotle-and-beer marinade that gives all of the meats a deep smoky flavor that made me think that they, too, had spent time in a commercial smoker. (The tacos would be even better if the chile de árbol salsa they came topped with was spicier and was applied in more generous quantities.)
Maybe the most surprising dish was a beef soup, offered as a daily special, that didn't seem much like bar food at all. It was basically an improvised version of a traditional caldo de res — a clear, intensely beefy broth served with the same lime wedge and little dish of dried Mexican oregano that you'd get with a bowl of menudo or pozole. Topped with fresh cilantro and loaded with chunks of carrot and fennel, this was comfort food of the kind you'd associate with a rainy-day meal at grandma's house. I ate it with a side of tater tots and felt right at home.
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