I first met Sal Bednarz, the owner of Actual Cafe and his fiancée, Gail Lillian, this past winter at a charity benefit for a Cambodian children's cycling organization held at our friends' bike shop, Missing Link Bicycle Cooperative. My husband and I were hanging out and chatting with friends about one of our favorite topics: where to find the best burgers in the East Bay. Sal's ears perked up when he heard the subject of our conversation and enthusiastically jumped right in. As we compared notes on our likes and dislikes of various local offerings over the next hour, I could tell he was pretty opinionated on this subject. And apparently he wasn't satisfied with just sounding off on what he was looking for in a burger; he revealed to us that he was planning on opening up his own restaurant in the near future.
Cut to the spring of this year: Sal emailed me to let me know that he had launched a Kickstarter campaign to get his dream burger project, Victory Burger, off the ground. He's hoping to raise $25,000 in the next 9 days, and he and Gail held a Memorial Day cookout with a free tasting of some of the future menu items in order to promote their new enterprise.
Patrons packed the sidewalk in front of the future space -- conveniently located right next door to Actual Cafe -- as the small crew dished out Victory Burger samples, pickled vegetables and arepas.
The Victory Burgers, sandwiched between a toasted Acme sesame bun with lettuce, grilled onions and housemade ketchup, were juicy and delicious. The arepas -- cut in half, filled with a crunchy jicama slaw and corn salad, then slathered with a housemade Romesco sauce and avocado dressing -- were fantastic. And I predict the colorful assortment of pickled vegetables, with strong coriander flavors, will be a popular favorite.
So what prompted Sal to launch a sister business? Here's more of the backstory behind his next venture from the man himself.
You've already got a lot on your plate as the owner of the successful Actual Cafe and there's a lot of burger establishments in the Bay Area. What inspired you to start Victory Burger?
Well, to start with, I love to build things. I thrive on complex projects. Running Actual Cafe is still a challenging day job, but it requires less of my own skill as we mature and my staff takes on more responsibility. It's important for me to mention that there's no way Actual Cafe could be what it is, or that I could be building a new place, without a really solid crew here. I'm lucky to have been able to attract and retain a group of hard-working, creative, personable, and interesting people to the cafe -- they make my job a whole lot easier. I've also got a great manager, and I just hired a great sous chef who's working on Victory Burger, and also contributing great new ideas to the cafe's food operation.
This neighborhood has so little in the way of good food options -- aside from Actual Cafe, there are a couple other coffee shops (Farley's, Tribu), a taqueria, a McDonald's, and a Giant Burger. Even looking farther, the closest really interesting food is B-Side BBQ, Sea Salt, Paisan, and the Temescal row. Most of these places are also fairly expensive, and this neighborhood is not dripping with money, so I thought a simple menu based on not screwing up really good ingredients and presenting them with minimal fuss like other street food experiences was the right way to go.
Also, although there are a lot of burger places around, there aren't that many good ones, especially if you don't want to spend $20 or more on your meal.
What's the overall idea behind Victory Burger?
It's street food: simple presentation of well-prepared, excellent ingredients. I'm inspired by modern food trucks who have demonstrated that a really small menu of simple but delicious things presented in a really casual way works. Incidentally, my fiancée Gail owns Liba Falafel Truck so I'm pretty well immersed in the travails of delicious food trucks (so much so that I know I never want to own one myself!)
We're drawing on flavor combinations from other cuisines that I really appreciate. We've got some Southern food influences (fried pickled okra, cooked greens), Latin American (arepas, fresh chilies), Vietnamese (banh mi), but all drawn together with common presentation and flavor elements so it doesn't feel like a collection of random menu items. Opening an 'American' restaurant allows us to do this -- all the food we consider American was stolen from somewhere and we're not bound by a single set of recipes.
From an aesthetic standpoint, we're going for old industrial/shipyard (but modern) interiors and facade: lots of concrete, big chunky metal and old wood. The decor and the marketing materials for Victory Burger draw on the World War II era during which this neighborhood was populated as workers came from around the country to work in shipyards and factories. It also recalls a time when we all recognized that doing difficult things required that we all do our part: making Victory gardens, buying war bonds, recycling and conserving and women leaving home and family to work. I think there are good lessons there for modern times.
What will make Victory Burger unique?
Our menu will be delicious, and we'll be aggressive about setting our prices to make them accessible. We'll be doing several vegan and gluten-free options: a delicious and unique veggie burger; arepas in both veggie and meat varieties; lots of pickled veggies (including fried pickled vegetables). Our customers demand this, and we're putting a lot of energy into accommodating these requests in unique ways, rather than just doing it because we have to. In the end, our vegan and gluten-free options will just be delicious food that happens to have those attributes, not something trying to be something else.
Our facade will be unlike other places in this neighborhood and unique across our city. We're trying to blur the distinction between inside and outside by opening much of the front of the restaurant, having seating indoors, on the sidewalk, patio and in the parklet.
We'll continue with our existing local focus by buying from local purveyors/producers/distributors, hiring local crew and keeping our dollars circulating in our local economy as much as we can.
What makes a great burger?
Meat that you can actually taste. This requires that the patty be thick enough that we can properly control cooking temperature. It also requires that the patty be cooked over high heat on a flame grill -- the sear that we achieve through grilling as opposed to frying on a griddle brings out the complexity of the meat flavors. We're using Five Dot Ranch meat, which is the best I've tasted for burgers. It's got the right fattiness, the right flavor (Five Dot cattle feed on pasture grass supplemented with grain -- no corn), and it's from a local ranch that's been in the same family for decades.
Getting the meat temperature right. For me, that's medium-rare to medium, depending on my mood. The biggest mistake most burger places make is to overcook the meat. I hate ordering a medium-rare burger and getting one cooked medium-well and this happens a lot, no matter how much you pay for the burger.
Not overwhelming the meat with other junk. Do we really need another teriyaki/sprout/nacho cheese/fried-chicken-on-top burger? If the burger doesn't work with just a patty on a bun and a little veg and sauce, it doesn't work. Adding more crap is just an attempt to cover up a basically flawed start. We'll offer some add-ons (avocado, bacon, fried egg, a couple others), but not try to disguise the fact that we're actually serving hamburgers under there.
Getting the bun right. Different strokes for different folks here, but the bun needs to be properly matched to the burger: size, thickness, and texture. The crust and crumb of the bread have to be tough enough to hold up to the juiciness of the patty (the patty is juicy, right?), but not so tough that you can't easily bite through them, even with soft ingredients inside. Buns need to be cut and toasted to bring out the flavors of the bread and to give sauces a place to go.
Pickle on the side. A burger is rich. Some bites of sour pickle help break up the experience. We'll be serving pickles made from things other than cucumber (okra, whole pea pods, celery, chilies, and other fun stuff).
Basically, this all boils down to starting with great ingredients and not screwing them up, which is my general philosophy on cooking.
When will Victory Burger open its doors?
Barring catastrophe, [we'll open] later this year. We expect to have permits in the next couple weeks and building the place won't take more than a couple months. If everything goes perfectly, this means we're opening in early fall. It's likely that not everything will go perfectly.