If fusion cuisine had started in the 2010s instead of the 1980s and ’90s, it would probably be subject to that backlash-to-the-backlash phenomenon that makes the internet so goddamn irritating. Suddenly, people would be defending now-forgotten places like Fuzio Universal Bistro — which somehow managed to serve “global pasta” in the Castro until only a few years ago, and on the Embarcadero until last year — out of fits of contrarian pique. The pasta would still be mediocre, but people would make a stand for or against it based on their places in the wider cultural wars, just as we have ridiculous arguments about woke versus homophobic chicken sandwiches — all of which come from factory-farmed broilers with grotesque body proportions and disturbingly brief lifespans.
How casual appropriation has fallen. But a different kind of fusion lives on, one that’s less about exposing diners to lackluster preparations of every noodle on earth than about bringing together the best of the best of a certain type of cookery.
4505 Burgers & BBQ embodies this with its approach to barbecue, the quintessential American cultural touchstone that transcends food and has become almost sports-like in its regional rivalries. A decade after 4505 Meats began flooding the zone with puffy chicharrones — and, later, the denser pork cracklins — and years after taking up residence in a former barbecue joint on Divisadero and Grove streets north of the Panhandle, founder Ryan Farr and his team have more or less replicated that project in Oakland’s Laurel District. This one’s a bit more inward-facing, so it lacks the people-watching you get on Divis, but it’s larger, more overtly kid-friendly, and a good spot to induce a soporific food coma with a three-meat plate and an Alameda Island Hazy IPA. Speaking as a lover of vintage signs, neon or otherwise, 4505’s is pretty great. It’s got an arrow pointing to another arrow, and the “4505” part spins like a G.M. dealership in 1965.
The space is also big enough that they can butcher a whole hog every single day, satisfying Farr and his no. 2, Andrew Ghetia, providing plenty of pork shoulder and snappy hot sausages. Beyond other staples like brisket and baked beans, you can get fun sides like a Frankaroni, a mac-and-cheese patty with hot dog tucked in it, along with fried chicken strips that are so good Ghetia expresses annoyance that they detract from the real show. For non-meat-eaters, there’s the obligatory cheddar grilled cheese, but the other sleeper hit — for anyone, really — is the grits-and-egg sandwich, which shoots off a ton of heat from its roasted peppers. Further, there are salads, including a green salad that arrives in a metal bowl with carefully sliced radishes and asparagus atop all the cherry tomatoes. Because there’s a burger, there are also fries, whose use of tallow is obvious at first taste. And because this is 2019, there’s soft-serve, although maybe only vanilla. (C’mon, guys, no swirl?)
Farr favors pork over beef — the ratio that probably gave rise to barbecue in past centuries — so you won’t find tri-tip, the centerpiece of California’s own Santa Maria-style barbecue. The real cow-derived centerpiece is the Best Damn Cheeseburger, which is also among the Cheapest Damn Cheeseburgers you’ll find apart from true fast food. In a world of $17 In-N-Out clones, this $9.95 gem throws Gruyere on there, and Farr isn’t one of those fussbudgets who avoids lettuce. Overall, 4505’s true style, however, remains a bit elusive.
It’s about technique — specifically, smoking — more than geography, Farr tells SF Weekly. That could cut both ways: to honor a tradition and to cater to the region’s tastes.
“We’re doing exactly what we want to do in regard to flavor and taste and quality,” he says. “We haven’t adjusted anything for, say, the Bay Area’s palate. We just look at the meat and what we have to cook with, and do it how we want to eat it. We don’t really claim any sort of specific region. We don’t say we’re ‘California barbecue.’ ”
Other regions make their presence felt. Farr learned his craft from cooks from all over, with whole-hog butchery being a specialty of Alabama- and Carolina-style barbecue. But he’s also drawn to Texas for its brisket (and the thick-sauce characteristics of Kansas City, because that’s where he grew up).
To really feel that Lone Star influence, you have to look past the meat plates and order smoked meats by the pound. That’s where you’ll get white bread, pickles, and white onions, as if you were seated near the open pit at the Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas. If you do go with a meat plate, you’ll receive a Parker House roll, which sets up a thorny question: no-nonsense tradition versus the greatest bread ever invented, slightly aristocratic connotation and all?
“We weren’t trying to make a statement,” Farr admits of this bread divide. “Just the most enjoyable common plate.”
While it’s the chicharrones that have paid the bills for years now, and the burger essentially gets top billing, Farr seems proudest of the ribs. They’re what he seems to watch most deliberately, anyway, monitoring the leaner sections of the rack against the fattier pieces toward the end.
“You want them to — visually and physically — feel that when you pick ’em up, you need two hands,” he says. “If you use one, the meat in the center kind of tears and starts to fold over. You want it to have a little bit of give from the bone. When it rests for a little before we serve it, it pulls away from the bone a little bit — so when you’re eating our ribs, it pulls off without falling off. That’s what we’re looking for.”
4505 Burgers & BBQ, 3506 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, 510-210-8235 or 4505burgersandbbq.com
In a class-action lawsuit, workers alleged the Burmese food empire violated labor laws.