In just under two years of existence, Bernal Heights’ Old Bus Tavern has made a few pivots, navigating between its founders’ culinary aspirations and their desire to establish a stroller-friendly neighborhood spot that locals patronize on the regular. There’s also the reality of eating food in a place with fermentation tanks inches from some of the tables, something that may place a cap on the prices a restaurant can charge.
In the meantime, the Volkswagen-obsessed microbrewery and gastropub has accrued what might be described as a localized cult following, and its continued success is yet more evidence that Mission between Cesar Chavez and 30th streets constitutes one of the finest pockets of eateries in town.
Every time I’ve gone to check it out, Old Bus has reconfigured its menu shortly thereafter, but I’ve enjoyed it every time. As of mid-March, owners Jimmy Simpson, Bennett Buchanan, and John Zirinsky have gotten all the (VW) bugs out, and Old Bus is back with a slightly rejiggered emphasis on beer over food. Gone are the quail eggs, to say nothing of the torchon au foie gras and Perigord truffle supplements that graced the New Year’s Eve menu. But the Frito Pie is still there, and so is the burger, so none of the changes were soul-altering. And Old Bus is now open seven days a week.
In other words, the great winnowing process that is cleaving fast-casual from fine dining and hollowing out the middle has hit Old Bus. On the whole, what’s there is quite good, although the pendulum could stand to swing back just a little away from pub food, and a couple things showed up a little differently than described. Take the smoked and spiced cauliflower with Alabama white sauce ($11). It’s neither especially smoky nor spicy; it mostly tastes like fried things. And it comes with “pain de mie” that looks suspiciously like the bottom half of a hamburger bun.
There’s an entire menu section called “Chili Things,” and the Hotsy — egg, cheddar, chili, and bacon on brioche, with fries, $11 — is a good example of what it’s about. Even 10 years ago, such a monster would have come off as a parody of American eating habits (but now the kale side salad is). While there’s nothing wrong with this sandwich, it’s merely good, a lot of promise enveloped in meh. For something called the Hotsy, it needed hot sauce. And why not serve a variation with tater tots instead of fries and call it the Hotsy-Totsy?
An $8 pickle plate was like the vinegary crudité platter, six different veggies arranged around a central bowl of dip (cukes and beets being the best of them). And the $5 cornbread, another holdover from the previous menu, was simplicity defined. Whereas the Hotsy piles stuff on with less regard for the effect, this crumbly-moist slab lets the jalapeño-honey butter do its thing.
Three for $12.50, three fish tacos — all but mandatory at a California microbrewery for Karmann Ghia fans and other breezers — come with the typical onion and cilantro, but also a loving portion of pastor aioli and two little bites of charred, pickled pineapple. In all honesty, these are some of the best thought-out fish tacos I’ve ever had: You need that squirt of acid, and lime is so ordinary. Plus, the aioli mustered more spit-grilled smokiness than the entire plate of cauliflower could.
And what better way to serve carrot cake than in the form of madeleines (five for $8) with ginger cream cheese frosting?
Brunch offers largely the same menu, on the same mismatched plates. That folksy trend gets on some people’s nerves, but Old Bus takes it to the limit with granny-ware and the kind of suburban cheesiness that should only be photographed using Instagram’s “1977” filter. One quibble I had was with the braised kale salad with beet and avocado ($12). Points for the B-team of avocado-tequila dressing and cotija, and pepitas are never out of place, either — but this isn’t a braised salad. That kale is raw.
Mull over that false advertising while masticating your roughage, then move onto a $15 burger that’s got it all going on. It’s In-N-Out-esque, but bigger and fuller, with a special sauce that has noticeably more zip. Apart from eggs, Old Bus’ brunch menu contains two dishes that can’t also be had for dinner — savory bread pudding and cornmeal hoe cakes — and neither happened to be available, barely two hours after the start of service. I do my best to take a zen approach to life’s little setbacks and not act like an aggrieved Yelp-hole, which is why I generally don’t kvetch about service issues or other hiccups unless they seem existentially terrible, but that was a shame. Should’ve got my ass out of bed a little earlier, I guess.
Still, nothing can compete with the $6 Frito Pie. It’s not the kind made by slicing open a vending-machine bag of corn chips, either. These “Fritos” look like instant ramen’s cousin, and that cheddar-beer sauce is perfection against the base of refried beans — here called “pinto bean puree” — to the point that the chili is almost a secondary concern.
And, strictly speaking, food altogether is a secondary concern. Old Bus has only a handful of its own beers on tap, and the one I thought I’d like the least ended up being my favorite: the Brettanomyces-heavy Deft Funk Dark Sour, which controls its barnyard quality and channels it into cherry cola. I’m always put off by anything that ventures too far into Belgium’s coriander-bubblegum-pepper territory, but the Lemon Basil Saison was tart enough and light enough to keep me interested while holding up to the Frito Pie. The tasting notes for Wookie’s Delight Imperial IPA emphasize the dankness, although I thought it was pretty balanced. Outa-Space Pale Ale, meanwhile, was full of tropical fruits and a very pleasant nose. If you’d rather a cocktail as an aperitif, I suggest the Old Green Bus with gin, a Martini that puts celery front and center, but really, Old Bus went four for four on beer in my book.
In spite of the retooling, they’ve still done better than Queen’s Nails, the art gallery next door that closed in 2013 after a map of the United States made of 50,000 matches was set on fire as part of an art installation, causing $5,000 in damage and a minor panic. The entire interior at Old Bus, full of blankets and vintage ads, with well-placed skylights and a stained-glass transom that catches the sunset in striking ways, is meant to draw your eye away from the brewing equipment that takes up much of the space. It’s hard to say that matters at this point. On a recent Friday night, there was a Donald Trump piñata lying prone across a few kegs. I was so chilled out I almost forgot to wish the president bodily harm.
Old Bus Tavern, 3193 Mission St., 415-843-1938 or oldbustavern.com