When Luka’s Taproom & Lounge, the restaurant often credited with leading the revitalization of Oakland’s Uptown, closed in January 2022 after 18 years, many locals were dismayed. One Nosh reader described Luka’s as an institution. Another, who used to eat several times a month at the spot known for its top-notch burger and beer selection, said he loved how Luka’s reflected the great diversity of Oakland.

Willie’s Kitchen at Binny’s, 532 8th Street (near Clay), Oakland. Open Tuesday-Wednesday, 2-10 p.m., Thursday-Friday, 2 p.m.-12 a.m., Saturday 2 p.m.-12 a.m. Note: An earlier lunch service is paused until a later date.

The good news is that Willie Mendez, the chef whose food delighted patrons at Luka’s, is now serving up some of his most popular dishes at Binny’s Cocktail Bar and Restaurant in Old Oakland. 

Mendez said he’s delighted to have a kitchen available once again for his take on steak frites, his impressive burger and double-cooked French fries (served with garlic, chipotle, and herb aiolis, as well as “old-fashioned American ketchup”), and falling-off-the-bone BBQ pork ribs accompanied by mac and cheese and peach habanero barbecue sauce. Also on the menu: oysters on the half shell and crispy catfish bites, snacks and salads, and a couple of tempting desserts, such as mini churros with chocolate sauce. 

BBQ pork ribs in peach habanero barbecue sauce with a side of mac and cheese at Binny’s.

Classic story of moving up the restaurant ranks

Mendez has been renting kitchen space at Binny’s since April. After Luka’s closed, he had pop-ups in East Oakland and worked at a couple of other restaurants before he discovered that the kitchen at Binny’s was available. His story of working in restaurants is a classic tale of progressing from dishwasher to line cook to sous chef, to where he is today. He “learned from the bottom.” Mendez said he was fortunate to have a mentor in East Bay chef Jacob Alioto. Fans of The Bear, and anyone who has worked in the industry, can appreciate the kind of dedication it takes to continually succeed in a restaurant, especially one with the kind of devoted followers Mendez had during his time at Luka’s. 

Chef Willie also produces his own line of hot sauces (original and peach), which are available at Binny’s, as well as at Farmer Joe’s, Rocky’s, and other local markets and breweries. What started as a side hustle has taken off. The peach version is a revelation, perfect for the summer/fall barbecue season in the East Bay.

While his big dream is to one day own his own bar and kitchen, Willie told Nosh he is happy to be once again giving Luka’s long-time customers what they want — whether it’s the catfish, the spicy Korean chicken wings, or his special gratinéed mac and cheese. Those fries, though — crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside — are reason enough to stop by Binny’s for a late lunch or an evening seated at the horseshoe bar with friends. 

Freelancer Risa Nye is a Bay Area native. She was born in San Francisco and grew up in the East Bay. She spent many happy years on the UC Berkeley campus, both as a student and as an employee. She has...