By Ethan Fletcher
I realized something as our lunch order arrived at the new Asian/fusion/brunch restaurant, Berkeley Social Club: This might be the damnedest collection of dishes I've ever seen share the same table.
On either side of a savory onion-tomato soup was a spicy pork bowl with bulgogi-style barbecue and a plate of waffles topped with boneless Korean-style spicy-sweet fried chicken. Not to be forgotten: a side of "Millionaire's bacon," restaurateur-owner Steven Choi's signature menu item that pops up liberally across the menu (in addition to receiving a call-out on the wait staff's shirts).
Opened in November, Berkeley Social Club (hereafter referred to as BSC) replaces Perdition Smokehouse, the much hyped but short-lived barbecue-and-beer oasis from The Trappist's Chuck Stilphen. Before that, a handful of other concepts have cycled through in an attempt to fill this cavernous space on University Avenue near Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley. Choi's hybrid approach—serving robust, calorie-busting Asian-inflected breakfast and lunch fare by day and contemporary Korean cuisine by night—is undeniably odd. But it's also could be the right strategy to bring in enough diners to ensure this restaurant actually sticks.
After all, there is a curious lack of fun, interesting brunch spots in the downtown Berkeley area. There also aren't many contemporary, sit-down Asian options, and the food at BSC is hearty and affordable enough to appeal to Cal students looking for an affordable splurge—either for brunch or dinner. For the neutral diner, however, the experience can be a bit jarring, something that's heightened during lunch service when the menu attempts to bridge the restaurant's two disparate culinary concepts.
Or maybe I'm just being cranky ("Get off my lawn!" the old reviewer shouted at the bulgogi in his scrambled eggs.) The truth is that many of the dishes are quite good when judged individually.
The soup successfully blurs the lines between a traditional tomato soup and a French onion soup, offering sweet stewed tomatoes with sautéed onions and savory, gooey mozzarella cheese. BSC's rendition of the now-ubiquitous chicken and waffles was solid as well. The waffle itself is a thin Eggo-style version that's denser than the fluffy version you typically see at restaurants. Which was good, because it holds up nicely to the chicken, in this case boneless dark meat fried in a light, flaky, extra-thin batter and featuring the characteristic sweetness and spiciness typical of Korean-style fried chicken (aka KFC). It wasn't the best version I've ever tried—I would have liked more spice and savory bite to contrast with the sweet powder-sugared waffle—but the chicken itself was moist and delicious.
Now, let's take a moment now to address the Millionaire's bacon. Given its high profile, and the fact that it's trademarked (seriously), the side dish is clearly one of Choi's prized items and a pillar of his culinary empire—it's also served at several of his seven other restaurants. So, is it worth the hype and the $6 price tag?
That depends. First of all, Choi might want to take local inflation into account. Given the Bay Area's tech boom, a million dollars simply doesn't sound as impressive as it used to—Billionaire's bacon is probably more appropriate. Semantics aside, the bacon certainly makes an impression. Coated with brown sugar, chili flakes, and cayenne pepper and then slow-cooked for several hours in a convection oven, these XL-sized slabs of pork come out dark and glistening like something out of a Game of Thrones banquet. Personally, I'm a traditionalist when it comes to bacon, which I prefer thin, crispy, and savory. But BSC's candied version—blending sweet and spicy with fat and salt in a concentrated, almost jerky-like texture—is undeniably impressive and more deserving of a studied knife-and-fork treatment than any I've ever munched.
Also impressive is the restaurant's revamped interior. As I said, it's a large space, and while designers actually opened up the layout from Perdition days, they did a nice job of filling it back up with interesting details such as reclaimed wood, oversized dangling lights, and additional flat screen TVs that make the place feel fun, festive, and welcoming (just make sure to steel your back when you come in; the massive metal doors also wouldn't be out of place in Game of Thrones, and they are heavy).
And for me, that was one of the restaurant's most enduring traits. For all of Perdition Smokehouse's noble ambition in serving hormone-free, humanely raised meat for barbecue, it was a place that could come across as rather stern. BSC doesn't take itself too seriously. That attitude spills over onto food, where executive chef Ike Huang isn't afraid to cook up dishes that can seem completely out of left field.
Among the items on the breakfast menu (I repeat, on the breakfast menu), is a curry carbonara consisting of rice with sautéed carrot, onion, and mushrooms, plus pieces of bacon and a soft-boiled egg, all covered in a sweet yellow curry. There is also a French toast in which the toast is stuffed with a slightly savory mascarpone, covered with corn flakes, and deep-fried for a creamy interior and crispy-crunchy exterior. Both were pretty good—I loved the texture of the French toast, the flavor of which reminded me of county fair–style fried dough, while I thought the curry overly bland—but ultimately, my favorite dishes were the more traditional Asian ones.
The pajun pancake was a tasty, fluffier version of a standard Korean-style savory pancake, the doughy batter serving as an creamy binder for bouncy shrimp, scallions, onions, bell pepper, and, once again, bacon. It's topped by a soft poached egg and served with a savory soy-vinegar sauce, with some jalapeños for heat. My favorite dish of all was the spicy pork bowl. The thinly sliced bulgogi-style ribbons of marinated pork were sweet and sharply spicy, complemented by tender oyster mushrooms and pickled veggies served atop white rice that was slightly crisped up at the bottom of the bowl.
Those last two dishes were good enough to make me want to come back to delve deeper into the dinner menu. And heck, I'd probably also come back on the weekend for a hearty, unique brunch with a big group of friends. I might, however, steer clear of lunch so I don't have to choose between the two.
2050 University Ave., Berkeley
Breakfast & Lunch
Sat. & Sun. 8am-3pm.
Dinner Sun.-Thu. 5-10pm,
Fri. & Sat. 5-10:30pm.
Average entrée: $13.
Beer and wine only.
Credit cards accepted.
At BSC, sample the spicy pork bowl, right, bulging with bulgogi ribbons of marinated pork. Photo by Pat Mazzera.