2026 University Ave. (near Milvia Street), Berkeley
Expected opening: early Sept.
When a hallowed East Coast food staple gains traction in the Bay Area, cautious optimism is recommended. Who could forget, before Phat Philly arrived, the trauma caused by purported “authentic Philly cheesesteaks,” laced with alfalfa sprouts or studded with avocado, featured on many a diner menu? And prior to the advent of spots like Boichik and the late, great Beauty’s, East Coast ilk claimed that authentic bagels were nearly impossible to find in the region. Now relieved of bagel duty, those same East Coasters might want to turn their attention to the upcoming Berserk Burger, which will join Oakland standbys like IB’s and Degrees Plato in offering chopped cheese, an East Coast classic with an extremely specific cultural ethos.
The origins of chopped cheese (which some also call “chop cheese,” hold the “ed”) , a savory concoction of ground beef, onions and melted cheese titularly chopped together on a grill and then, with a swipe of condiment, crammed in a sliced hero bun, are complex.
“While spiritually tied to a single bodega in Spanish Harlem — namely, Hajji’s — the chopped cheese can be found across the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn,” noted a 2016 First We Feast article. “There, the sandwich serves several purposes: affordable food for lower-income communities; a proud symbol of regional identity; and, because of its complex history, ideal fodder for local legend. It’s not a burger, and it’s not a cheesesteak — it’s New York’s very own.”
Understandably, longtime fans of chopped cheese haven’t been elated when some restauranteurs, alleging to have discovered the sandwich, termed it “a steal” or created their own upper-echelon version then labeled it “guilt-free,” like celebrity chef April Bloomfield did at her Upper West Side restaurant, White Gold.
That won’t be the case at Berserk, says chef-owner Cal Kepner. Kepner purchased University Avenue taqueria El Burro Picante in 2018 and transformed it during the pandemic into a chicken spot called El Pollo Picante, a shift he said he made with an eye on keeping menu items accessible and affordable.
He’s planning a similar approach with Berserk, saying that he expects to serve chopped cheese as one might find it in a New York bodega, but geared toward Berkeley townsfolk and Cal students. Kepner said his version will use Angus chuck ground beef, onions, a secret housemade condiment and, of course, cheese all pummeled on a grill to umami-rich perfection.
“We’re going to be using American cheese only,” Kepner said. Customers will also have the option to add lettuce, tomato and/or onions to the mix.
Chopped cheese purists should now brace themselves, as Kepner said that he will also offer his West Coast riff on the East Coast dish. “It’s going to be a spin off of the West Coast burrito style,” he said, mentioning how some spots throw fries inside their burritos (e.g., Señor Sisig’s California burrito). But he’s not intent on pushing the envelope too far. “While I know avocado is very California, we won’t be doing anything with avocado when it comes to our West Coast-style chopped cheese,” Kepner said, so East Coasters can unclench a bit at that news.
These sandwiches, and the rest of Beserk’s menu, will be served up by this fall in the long-vacant 2026 University Ave. space that popular local restaurant Jayakarta used to call home. Jayakarta’s owners shut its doors in 2019, saying then that the costs of running a restaurant in Berkeley were too high. Speaking of costs, Berserk Burger’s chopped cheese will range between $14 to $17, depending on optional add-ons. That’s a higher price point than you’ll see for most NYC bodega chopped cheeses, but Kepner says that in his restaurant’s case, each serving will come with a monster pile of shoestring fries.
And, yes, just as Kepner’s Berserk Burger’s name suggests, he will also serve smashburgers at the spot. In fact, they’re the star of the show, a genre of en vogue hamburger wherein a bacon press or spatula is used to smoosh a meat patty to achieve maximum contact with a searing grill.
The result is a thin patty with crispy-to-caramelized edges that, as the fat has been smashed away, must be eaten as soon as possible after serving to avoid an unpleasantly dry experience. At Berserk, the menu will include single, double or triple patties “on a brioche bun,” Kepner said, “but it’s not a buttery brioche bun and it will have the bite of a potato bun.”
Berserk Burger will also offer banana milkshakes topped with whipped cream and dusted with crushed Nilla Wafer cookies. “I plan on adding chocolate, strawberry, vanilla and Oreo down the line,” Kepner said of the spot’s eventual shake offerings.
The space will have the vibe of a fast-food joint, Kepner said, with a concise menu of surefire hits. “We’re focusing a lot on simplicity,” Kepner said, “with a pared down menu only featuring very few items that I can perfect.”
Kepner hopes to open Berserk Burger in early Sept., with take-out service only for the first few weeks as it gets its sea legs. A mural by a local artist will grace one of the walls, Kepner said, and a flatscreen on another will feature the menu. (Berserk’s decor will follow the same scheme as its logo: UC Berkeley’s signifying hues of blue and yellow.)
By early Oct., Kepner said that customers should be able to sit at stainless steel tables inside. There’s an open kitchen at the spot, so one can imagine downing a glass of beer or wine (both will be on the menu) while watching their smashburgers get smashed or their chopped cheese get chopped, as they debate the merits of East or West coasts.
Featured image: 2026 University Ave., the future home of Berserk Burger, as it appeared on Tuesday, Aug. 23. Credit: Zac Farber