.Go Berserk

Cal Kepner’s Berserk Burger is here to stay

The smash burger I ate last week at Cal Kepner’s Berserk Burger was my first. I’d been reading about them for the past couple of years, but postponed an investigation into what all the fuss was about. After trying one of Kepner’s double smash burgers ($14.50), I finally understood why this trend is more than likely here to stay. My burger came out with crispy edges on the far side of medium well—a perfect cook to meet my aversion to underdone meat.    

The rest of the recipe is straightforward and generously applied to a familiar formula. Two slices of American cheese are melted down until they’re integrated into the burger itself. When the paper-lined plastic basket arrived, it looked like the cheese had just stopped bubbling. Kepner adds lettuce, pickles and a “Berserk sauce” that is related to Thousand Island dressing. I also chose grilled onions as an add-on.  

From Berserk on University Avenue, Kepner’s first restaurant, El Pollo Picante, is within a bird’s eye view right across the street. Trained as a registered nurse, Kepner returned to the Bay Area after working in Arizona for a couple of years. He and his sister refreshed the El Burro Picante taqueria until later changing the menu and rebranding it as a destination for fried chicken sandwiches. 

In February of 2020, right before the pandemic lockdown, Kepner held a successful pop up. “I tried it the week after that and got great feedback,” he said. “We sold out of fried chicken sandwiches again.” The 2020 pop ups gave him the courage to change the taqueria menu to focus on the well-received sandwiches. 

After running El Pollo Picante for a couple of years, Kepner had become acquainted with some of the other business owners in the neighborhood. The owner of an Indonesian noodle house across the street mentioned that he was planning to retire. When he did close up shop, the thought of opening a second restaurant did cross Kepner’s mind, but he didn’t have the finances or the resources to jump into another venture. 

But after the space had stayed vacant for a couple of years, Kepner thought it was time to take a risk. “I’ve known the area for about five years now, and I said, ‘We need a good burger here.’” McDonald’s notwithstanding, he believed that stretch of University Avenue could use a “quick, In-N-Out style burger.” Although he acknowledged that smash burgers are trendy, he explained that he had started to make them at home during the pandemic. 

“I have a flat top grill in my backyard, so I started playing around with making them,” Kepner said. His family and friends told him he should try to sell them. Kepner took a leap of faith and secured the vacant location in the spring of 2022. He’d anticipated opening by summer, but the city of Berkeley is still running behind on the permitting process.

In addition to smash burgers, the Berserk Burger menu includes chopped cheese sandwiches, waffle fries and shake—a banana one. Kepner has no immediate or far-flung plans to add any other shake flavors. “I’m going to stick with the banana shake and the inspiration behind that,” he said. “McDonald’s has a good chocolate shake, but you can’t really find a banana shake anywhere that I know of.” Kepner’s love of fresh banana shakes started when he tried them at Falafel’s Drive In in San Jose.  

“People come in and they’re like, ‘Do you have any other flavors?’” Kepner said. After he replies in the negative, they order it and tell him, “Man, that was a really good banana shake, and I would have never thought of ordering one.” 

The $7 shake is made with fresh bananas and ice cream. I decided to try one and Kepner, who was at the till that day, split a single shake for me to share with a friend. It did taste very fresh, but it was much too sweet for me. In one way, it balances out the salty waffle fries and cheesy burgers, but I’d have preferred a more neutral flavor, a la vanilla or chocolate. Or for even fewer calories, a cold glass of ice water.   

Berserk Burger, open Mon to Fri 11:30am–7:30pm and Sat 12–5pm. 2026 University Ave., Berkeley. 510.500-5850. berserkburger.com. 

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