Fuel & Fuddle, in the heart of Oakland's university district, was one of Pittsburgh's first student-centric restaurants to appeal to parents and professors, too. With a mix of witty décor and good food made even more likable by winking menu descriptions, its trio of owners hit upon a winning formula for uniting Oakland's diverse throngs in their hunger for quality casual dining.
Ten years later, we stopped in to see if it was still going strong. In aspiring to look like a repurposed gas station, Fuel & Fuddle succeeds to the point where we had to inspect the architecture for evidence that the building had ever, in fact, been a garage (no, but helluva job, guys). The ambience conjures the nostalgia of road trips on a Route 66 most of us are too young to remember, and establishes the expectation of good, uncomplicated American food. And while the menu is heavy with auto-themed references and puns -- dip sticks, kick-gas nachos -- the overall effect is more hip than kitsch.
The menu is organized by how the food is eaten: Fingers, Spoons and Forks, Hands, and Big Platters. Across these categories, much of the food is in the group you might think of as "goes well with beer": wings, burgers, sandwiches and fries. But Fuel & Fuddle also offers plenty to reward those looking for something new. Pizza, baked in a splendid wood-fired brick oven visible from most of the dining room, comes with everything from Jamaican jerk chicken to hummus (the "Hummus Amongus") to smashed potato with bacon, cheddar and a salad, on top. In the "Fingers" section, appetizers as eclectic as satay and baked Brie coexist with old standbys such as quesadillas and crab dip; a pepperoni roll has been candidly rechristened the "Rollafatty." Under "Big Platters," Cape Cod seafood pasta beckons through listings that include ribs, glazed salmon and "truck-stop sirloin."
With prices this reasonable, we tried a bit of it all. Wings with bourbon BBQ sauce were big and crispy, but the sweet sauce packed hardly any spice; next time we'll try "swamp rub." Fire-baked Brie was wrapped in pizza dough and charred on the bottom for an extra dash of bold flavor, which beautifully complemented the creamy cheese. A generous drizzle of honey lent to our impression that this dish could have been offered as dessert, while a few slices of tart apple -- too few -- brightened it up.
We also chose a simple pizza Margarita, the "classic Maggie," with tomato sauce, basil and mozzarella. Unfortunately, Maggie suffered a bit by comparison to her sisters at authentic Italian pizzerias. Her run-of-the-mill toppings recalled takeout more than a true ultra-fresh, ultra-crisp Margarita.
Sandwiches were served on big Italian twist rolls, which looked formidable but were light enough not to engulf their fillings. Angelique's Veg Head had a filling of hummus, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, sprouts and Provolone that was garden-fresh without tasting overly fibrous. The hummus was hearty and savory, ably serving double-duty as meat substitute and dressing.
Jason's sandwich was naughtily named "Rosemary's Breasts." The chicken was fairly moist, and the whole-grain mustard was a tangy touch, but the roll could have used more time near that fire. And with no toppings aside from melted provolone, the whole thing was a bit dry.
We could not leave Fuel & Fuddle without sampling alligator stew, a delicacy unique this far north of the bayou. The thick, spicy, yellow stew studded with chunks of chicken, andouille sausage, and, yes, alligator (which tastes less like chicken, and more like halibut) was the South in a bowl. The big mound of smashed potatoes in the middle was thick and chunky.
Fuel & Fuddle serves up good food and good times in an atmosphere that is clever without being condescending, themed without being imagineered. So stop in and fuel up. The fuddle is up to you.