1915 San Pablo Ave., Oakland CA 94612 (map); 510-788-6217; hopscotchoakland.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A delicious, flavor-rich burger is accentuated by uniformly excellent toppings, but it's brought to a new level of beef-vana thanks to a slab of griddled tongue.
Want Fries with That? Chips come standard, but upgrading to duck fat chips is worth the $2. Absolutely do not skip the Yonsei oyster to start your meal.
Price: First Base Burger, $14, + $1 for cheese; duck fat chips upgrade, $2; Yonsei oyster, $5 each
Notes: Hopscotch is worth a visit for their cocktails, as well, and its proximity to the Fox Theater makes it a perfect pre-concert spot.
I've got a confession to make. It's been a little while since I visited Hopscotch with the intention of trying their burger. A burger so good, so flavorful, that I sometimes find myself gazing eastward across the Bay, wistfully plotting my next trip to Uptown Oakland.
So, why have I held back? For one, Hopscotch's pocket-sized space fills up quickly. I didn't relish the idea of fighting off my fellow burger lovers to get a stool at the bar in the charming classed-up diner space.
But mostly, I sometimes get too wrapped up in the memory of a meal to sharpen my critical eye and do my journalistic duty. My first visit to Hopscotch included a few cocktails, the company of a great friend, and a wonderful concert at the nearby Fox Theater.
And an absolutely stunning burger.
For that, I apologize loyal AHT-ers. I was selfish and wrong to have held back. I hope that you'll forgive me, and perhaps we can raise a toast to the glory that is beef between bread together at Hopscotch sometime.
So let's get down to it.
The First Base Burger ($14) is a seven-ounce blend of scrap from high quality rib eye and chuck roll, with some beef tongue thrown in for good measure. It's ground in-house each day, hand-formed, and seasoned with salt and pepper. The meat cuts, sourced from Kansas City's NatureSource, remain consistent, but the fat ratio can change slightly based on what the restaurant receives. I tried the burger twice in the course of a week, and I found it to be consistently beefy and well-salted, with a nicely loose grind and a gorgeous medium-rare interior. Cutting the burger in half resulted in a gush of juice which, thankfully, didn't lead to a dried-out patty: the meat stayed moist, flavorful, and intensely beefy
Toppings include tangy-sweet pickled onions, wonderfully ripe jewel-toned tomatoes, and a swath of sesame aioli. Oh, and of course, a slab of griddled beef tongue.
Yeah, man. BEEF TONGUE. Unctuous, salty, and tender, the tongue deepens the beefy richness of the burger, while adding a decadent oomph of texture and flavor. A decidedly unexpected topping, the tongue skyrocketed this burger to over-the-top amazing levels, without doing so in an overbearing, flavor-dominating way (see: grinding bacon into your beef).
The inspiration for this unorthodox topping comes from chef Kyle Itani's half Japanese heritage. Itani spent time studying cooking in Sendai, where tongue is a specialty. There, it's usually served in a stew or soup. At Hopscotch, Sendai salt cures it for 24 hours, then braises it slow and low for three to four hours before being sliced and griddled to order. The time spent curing and braising the tongue explains its melty texture and the wonderful intensity of this flavor.
Anyway. My tongue rhapsodies aside, the sweet, crisp vegetables of the fresh and pickled variety provide a welcome fresh contrast to the richness of the tongue and beef combination. Sesame aioli lends a nutty richness, as well. You can add cheese for $1 and bacon for $2—I went with a sharp cheddar add-on for my second go-around, and, to my great surprise, found it entirely unnecessary. The tongue and aioli provide all the salt and richness you could possibly want. A Semifreddi's brioche bun holds everything together—its slightly eggy sweetness stands up well to the saltiness of the innards, even if it does succumb to the dripping meat juices by the end.
Housemade Kennebec chips come standard, but go for the duck fat upgrade ($2). The fresh-fried potato flavor remains the star, but with a subtle hint of roasty warmth from the duck fat.
Our meal kicked off with an amuse bouche of sweet, crisp sugar snap peas, swimming in a spicy-sweet dressing of ginger and soy.
But the Yonsei oysters ($5 each) are another must-order item on the menu. Briny raw oysters (Church Points from Oakland Bay, Washington, when I visited) are topped with a melting dollop of raw uni, pickled salmon roe, and citrus-infused soy. It's a one-bite wallop of flavor: the ocean-rich flavor of oyster and roe is matched by the bright acidity of citrus before reaching a smooth, delicate finish thanks to the uni. They try to use uni from the Mendocino coast as much as possible, I'm told, but if it happens to be unavailable, they'll outsource to the east coast or Japan.
I tried a lovely smoked scallop appetizer which is no longer on the menu, but the kitchen's deft handling of fresh seafood leads me to believe that you'd have a hard time going wrong with any of the ocean hailing starters.
And there you have it. A meal for the ages, featuring a beautiful burger crowned with slabs of griddled beef tongue. I'll see you in Oakland, friends.