Brad Japhe has previously contributed a review of Flame Gourmet Burgers in Berkeley, and a recipe for a Father's Office-style burger. Today he brings another Berkeley review of Meridian International Sports Cafe.

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[Photographs: Brad Japhe]

Meridian International Sports Cafe

2050 University Avenue, Berkeley CA 94704 (map); 510-705-1450; berkeleymeridian.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Good flavors made possible by original sauces and quality ingredients.
Want Fries with That? Delicious duck fat frites are outstanding.
Prices: 5-ounce cheeseburger, w/ choice of cheddar or bleu with parsley fries, $9.00
Notes: 24 Beers on draft including several noteworthy regional microbrews

If you live in New York or Los Angeles, you may know just how hip and trendy gastropubs have become. People pack themselves behind a crowded bar for the privilege of waiting an hour or two for a $10 beer to wash down a $20 burger.

And yet for all their flashiness, it can't be denied that many of these exclusive destinations back up the hype, offering gourmet hamburgers that have elevated the stature of a dish once regarded as a purely pedestrian meal. There's nothing pedestrian about dry-aged ground ribeye, crumbled Roquefort, onion-molasses compote, and lightly toasted ciabatta, some of the hamburger enhancements made popular by The Spotted Pig, Minetta Tavern, and Father's Office, to name a few of the nation's more notable gastropubs.

But within the significantly toned-down confines of Berkeley, California, there is a palpable resistance to all things flashy and mainstream. Although gastropubs have not proliferated throughout this notoriously countercultural community, there is Meridian International Sports Cafe situated on University Avenue in the heart of downtown. Meridian's non-pretentious vibe, inviting atmosphere, and original menu finally make the gastropub approachable for Berkeleyans by being comforting but not conforming.

The first thing you notice when you walk into Meridian is how lofty and open it is. Huge ceilings with well-adjusted acoustics allow you to hear more of the sports commentary rumbling from the dozen or so flat screen TVs around the bar and less of the monotonous din that hangs ominously over many a crowded watering hole. I sit down to a friendly and attentive bar staff that asks me to choose from 24 beers on draft, mostly regional microbrews.

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Their burger is served with thick cut steak-fries and your choice of cheddar or bleu cheese for a reasonable $9. I decide to go with the bleu cheese burger and add crumbled bacon. It doesn't take me long to choose Bear Republic's exquisite Racer 5 IPA to balance out the pungent flavor of the bleu cheese and the smoky bacon. The delightfully hoppy flavor and aromas of this hearty, pale monster are perfectly suited to pierce through the biting strength of the bleu.

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Before delving into a hamburger, I always cut it in half. Besides making it easier and cleaner to eat, it's the quickest way to gauge how your meat was actually cooked—my medium rare burger comes cooked as ordered, with the fresh juices of the handmade patty saturating the lightly grill-toasted ciabatta bun. Cutting the burger in half also gives the opportunity to look at an aesthetically pleasing cross section. Here I see big clumps of bleu cheese lightly melted atop a crispy, charred five-ounce patty that has an almost glowing redness at its core. Crumbled bacon and sweet red onions are smothered on top of the cheese, which is oozing off the sides of the burger, and the meat is sitting on a bed of lettuce and chopped tomato. The only thing I need to add are the sweet and crispy pickles served on the side. I'm delighted when the bartender informs me that the kitchen does its own pickling.

I take my first bite: The flavor of fresh ground beef is perfectly accompanied by the salty tang of quality bleu cheese. I pause in a moment of culinary bliss, punctuated by that cold, refreshingly piney goodness that only a top-notch India Pale Ale can offer.

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The french fries, sprinkled with parsley and perhaps a few other herbs, are thick, but well cooked so they're not mushy, which steak fries tend to be. The fries come with a deliciously rich and savory remoulade—like an herbal mayonnaise on steroids. Garlic Parmesan fries and duck fat frites are available for an extra price, and both are addictive enough to deserve to be criminally outlawed.

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I was very satisfied with my burger experience at Meridian. Their burger had the chef-prepared hallmarks of good gastropub cuisine in an environment that was easy to digest—elegant but not pretentious—and I got to drink delicious beer at a reasonable price while watching tennis and basketball on large HD screens. I ended up with an empty plate and a full belly. Bonus points were added for promoting civic awareness: They preempted several meaningless midseason college basketball games to show the politically-savvy diners a live Obama delivering his State of the Union Address. Hearing the woes of the world while I dined reminded me that even in trying times, the good life is never more than a burger, beer, and ball game away. Thanks to Meridian International Sports Cafe, you can find it in the heart of Berkeley.

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