When the news first broke about Overland, a restaurant and bar in Oakland’s Jack London district that touted itself as the new hub for Bay Area country music fans, people mostly seemed to fall into one of two camps: those who were overjoyed and those who saw this as the latest sign that the “real” Oakland was dead or dying.
But when I finally had a chance to visit the bar, I thought about owner Paul Hayward’s nod to an even older Oakland — one populated by saloons and prospectors, back when the Overland site was a favorite haunt of Jack London himself. Mostly, though, I thought about how I’d rather have a place like this — that was doing its own thing — than yet another cookie-cutter Italian restaurant or Cal-cuisine spot.
The food at Overland is low-key — which isn’t to say it limited to generic bar bites, though a quick glance at a menu heavy on burgers and fried things might lead you to think that’s the case. Instead, Hayward has drawn on the many years he spent on the road as a traveling musician to put together a mish-mash of odd American regional specialties — many of which no one else seems to have gotten around to bringing to the Bay Area. So Overland serves pizza, but it’s St. Louis-style cracker-crust pizza, which, if you haven’t spent much time in that particular swath of the Midwest, you might not have known was a thing. And, in addition to normal burgers, the restaurant serves variations on a burger in which the patty is stuffed with melted cheese — aka the Juicy Lucy, a specialty of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
Hayward hired chef Gabe Purchase, a Colorado transplant, to make all of this stuff taste good, and for the most part Purchase is up to the task. Before the restaurant’s official opening, the Overland website promised outlandish stuffed burgers filled with everything from mac ‘n’ cheese to spinach-artichoke dip. This sounded more like stunt food from the Guy Fieri school of “extreme” cookery than anything I’d actually want to eat, but Purchase has wisely whittled the list down so that the filling options seem practically demure in comparison: just cheddar cheese, for instance. I went with an “Italian” stuffed burger that had mozzarella cheese and pepperoni hidden inside the patty, which was slathered in tomato sauce for good measure.
The problem with a stuffed burger is that the beef has to be cooked well-done in order for the cheese to melt, which in this case yielded a dense, puck-like thing — more akin to a sausage patty, or Salisbury steak, than a burger patty. As far as I could tell, the advantage of placing the cheese inside the patty has more to do with novelty than taste. (Despite the name, a properly cooked medium-rare burger should be juicier than the juiciest Juicy Lucy.) And yet, once I stopped thinking about it as a burger, I do believe I liked this odd, marinara sauce-topped meat-puck sandwich, which combined the comfort-food pleasures of eating mozzarella sticks and spaghetti-and-meatballs.
It should come as no surprise that a country bar might have Southern leanings, which, at Overland, are mainly reflected in the inclusion of pulled pork — most prominently in a barbecue sauce-laden sandwich served on a corn hoagie roll. The sauce was a little sweeter than I prefer, and, not having been smoked, the meat wasn’t what a purist would properly call barbecue. Still, this was a tasty sandwich — extra-creamy coleslaw made for a nice foil to the sweetness of that pork, which had been braised overnight in Dr. Pepper.
As for the pizza, the St. Louis style is characterized by three things: an unyeasted, cracker-like crust; a kind of oozy processed cheese known as Provel (Overland makes its own version in-house); and the fact that each pie is cut into little squares like a bar pizza. This was the dish I was most wary of, but it turned out to be the best thing I ate at Overland. When eating a pie topped with balsamic onion jam, ghost pepper jack cheese, and peppered bacon, it’s probably best not to think of it as a pizza at all. But the flavors — sweet, spicy, salty — all cohered in a pleasing way, and the cracker crust was well charred and light enough to keep from weighing us down. It made for an ideal bar snack to share over a couple rounds of cold beer.
However, Overland’s pizza oven, a holdover from the Italian restaurant that previously occupied the space, will make way for a smoker sometime next month. The plan, Hayward said, is to start serving barbecue ribs, whole smoked chickens, Texas-style brisket, and maybe even smoked tofu — a sign, perhaps, that Overland is a Bay Area restaurant after all. If you want to try the pizza, this is the month to do it.
Hayward’s fondness for regional cuisine — these bits of edible Americana — seems only to be strengthened when those dishes don’t tend to get much love outside their region of origin: hence, the St. Louis pizza and the Juicy Lucys; hence, Hayward’s interest in perhaps adding Skyline chili, a much-disparaged specialty of Cincinnati, to the menu.
If you go for Saturday or Sunday brunch, the breakfast tacos are the thing to get — a Tex-Mex classic that is as unfussy as it is reliably tasty: flour tortillas topped with sausage or bacon, scrambled eggs, and the same kind of three-cheese “Mexican” blend you’ll find in any grocery store. I would have liked some salsa for my tacos — even the kind from a jar would have been fine. But, short of that, a few squirts of Tapatio made for a fine accompaniment, as did the well-balanced, workmanlike Bloody Mary whose garnishes were held together, patriotically, with an American flag toothpick.
Right now, brunch has a bluegrass theme, complete with live music. But according to Hayward, when football season comes around, Overland will be the Bay Area home for fans of the Texas Longhorns and the Green Bay Packers. (Hopefully, partisans of the local squads won’t hold that against the place. At least it isn’t a 49ers bar!)
For now, the food at Overland might not be quite interesting enough to merit a special visit on its own. But against a backdrop of self-serious Bay Area restaurants at which every last garnish is artisanally scratch-made, how can you not be at least somewhat charmed by a place whose entire non-alcoholic beverage selection consists of fountain soda and five flavors of Red Bull? Besides, if you’ve come in search of a gourmet experience, you’ve missed the point of a country bar, which, as Hayward is fond of saying, is more about hospitality and having fun. There is a down-home ease to the order-at-the-counter service, and every night there’s some kind of event to check out — country karaoke on Tuesdays, line dancing on Thursdays and Fridays, and, often, live shows on the weekends.
On a recent Thursday night, when Overland hosts the Twang Honky Tonk line dancing event that Hayward started hosting in the Bay Area years before he had a country bar of his own, an upbeat young woman in cut-off jeans and a headset microphone taught a group of novices the “Watermelon Crawl” — a dance I presumed was good for beginners, but which my dining partner quickly concluded was the most complicated dance he’d ever seen.
But this was a place where it felt safe to be as comically uncoordinated, and un-cowboy-like, as the two of us were — to be as goofy and corny as we wanted to be. And that, it seems to me, is something that Oakland could really use.