Hook Burger Bistro
1811 N. Rose Ave., Oxnard
$4.50 – $8.95

It’s all about the bun. The burger that is. If the bun is too big, the burger gets lost inside; if the bun is too thick or tough, the burger often falls out. Even if a burger is cooked, flavored and topped to perfection, a mismatched bun can tarnish the whole affair. Not so at Hook Burger Bistro — the new Oxnard burger joint — where they’ve mastered both the burger and the bun.

According to a staff member, this is the latest endeavor of the owners of the Habit Burger chain (who’ve been serving up burgers in SoCal since 1969). Yet, Hook Burger Bistro is like the chain’s rich cousin — a lively, modern bistro built with some serious attention to detail. The details include stunning rustic hardwood floors, exposed beams and built-in wine racks that reach the tall ceilings. Beer and wine are jotted down on a chalkboard behind the bar, burgers and fries are served in shiny chrome baskets, and other dishes are served on crisp, modern white plates.

Since its quiet opening on Nov. 1, I’ve stopped in a few times to check out their wares – both during the busy lunchtime rush and at dinner time. Each time, I’ve enjoyed the food and the delicate balance between upscale and casual.

The menu, posted on a digital screen above the counter, first appears to be a simple list of burgers, sandwiches and salads. After a closer look, the culinary details (like caramelized bourbon onions and wasabi tartar sauce) might begin to spike your hunger.

The prime burger is the centerpiece of the menu. What I love about this burger is its size (not too big, not too small), its proportions (just right), the meat (tender and full of flavor) and of course, that bun (buttery, soft). I tried it plain without cheese, allowing the flavor of the meat, the bourbon onions and the bun to really shine. On another occasion, we ordered it with blue cheese, which added some serious soul and tang to the sandwich. This burger’s strength is its simplicity.

Then there’s the hickory burger. Topped with a slice of cheddar, thick bacon, a pile of crispy onions and a smear of barbecue sauce, it is anything but simple. You just might get lost in the chewy bite of the smoky bacon, the sweet sauce and the burger juices dripping freely down your hand. The latter being, in addition to the bun, another trademark of a great burger.

The steak sandwich was also outstanding and uncomplicated. Upon first glance, you might think this sandwich a tad, shall we say, naked. What appears to be just sliced steak on a roll is really much more, thanks to a generous spread of garlic-spiked butter and a pass through the toaster. We ordered the steak cooked to medium, and it had just the right amount of pink. It came with a side of french fries that were thinly cut and piled high, but we found them lacking in both salt and crispiness. On the other hand, the sweet potato fries and onion rings were delectable.

If you find yourself at Hook but aren’t in a burger kind of mood, there are other options. The chopped barbecue chicken salad is filled with a mix of greens, tomatoes, cucumber, black beans, barbecue grilled chicken and crispy onions. It comes with homemade ranch dressing and barbecue sauce, a tangy topping to the salad when drizzled on together.

The ahi tuna sandwich is topped with wasabi tartar sauce and red onions. Though the seasoning was packed with flavor, and the natural oils from the tuna dripped out and infused the bun with flavor, the fish itself was too salty.

When our server inquired if we liked the sandwich, I mentioned that the salt flavor was really strong. She explained that they had had other complaints about the saltiness and were working to adjust the seasoning. And without missing a beat, she then offered me a replacement meal or a milkshake to make up for it.

Not surprisingly, we opted for a milkshake. On this particular occasion we chose the Oreo shake, packed with cookie crumbs and topped with whipped cream. On another visit, we were tempted by the strawberry cheesecake shake, but ended up trying the caramel latte shake instead. Both were sweet, cold and creamy — offering a grown-up, sophisticated play on the ever-popular burger and shake combo.

The service at Hook is bubbly and efficient. Though customers order at the counter, there are plenty of servers meandering through the dining room, happily offering napkins, condiments and drink refills to those who need them.

In addition to great service, Hook offers bistro food at a shockingly great value. The burgers start at $4.50, and the most expensive item on the menu is $8.95. The draft beers cost around $4, and glasses of wine around $5. This is a great place for a quick weekday lunch or a lingering Friday night dinner.

For being such a new restaurant, Hook is humming along happily, drawing hungry crowds and hooking more and more fans each day.

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