A bologna sandwich on a restaurant menu usually means one of two things: Your chef is trying to be ironic or you were just transported to the Deep South, wherein it will be fried and paired with pimento cheese with absolutely no irony.
Either way, it’s pretty much a yuck, ever since Oscar Meyer ruined the once-proud meat by foisting the ultra-processed product on generations of unsuspecting children. Usually sandwiched between two slices of Wonder bread. With a second insult of margarine spread on top, in my case. Not a proud culinary moment in history.
Fortunately, there is a third choice in Santa Rosa at Old Possum Brewing Company. Chef Christian Velasquez makes his own thick-cut bologna, lightly fried, served atop sliced artisan white bread with homemade pickles and his own pimento cheese. It’s a revelation rather than a punchline. Bologna is also a way for Velasquez to use up the tasty bits of pig that aren’t bacon, ham or loin—a skill he honed with old school charcuterists and recently at the prestigious Old Salt Meatshop and Market in Portland, Oregon.
“I don’t like to throw anything away,” said Velasquez, who mans the busy Santa Rosa taproom kitchen solo. A Sonoma County native, he’s returned to his roots, with a passion for upgrading the sometimes lackluster menus of pubs by creating nose-to-tail, farm-to-fork eats that compliment rather than detract from the beer.
“We’re not just dumping stuff into hotel pans and serving it. I have 125 sausage recipes alone, and I make the ham on the grilled cheese too,” he says, while creating a Béchamel sauce for the mac and cheese. He says he can’t even keep up with the mac and cheese balls, they go so fast.
It’s not just grilled cheese, however, but pimento and Swiss on a Pullman loaf from nearby Red Bird Bakery. Buttery and soft, it’s a sandwich that’s hard to put down.
Hidden in an industrial center in southwest Santa Rosa, Old Possum Brewing Co. is so off the beaten path that you’ll need a GPS and a keen sense of sight to find it. You won’t find it empty, however. Folks working in the food wasteland around it belly up to the bar in droves, and on a Friday afternoon, nearly a third of the dishes on the menu are already out.
Devastation ensues, though Velasquez digs up an incredible pickle plate on the fly, which includes pickled collard stems — a product usually headed for the compost, but turns out to be delicious.
Another waste product that, in a roundabout manner, goes into the food is the brewery’s spent hops and grains, which are used at Takenoko Farms in Windsor to feed the pigs Old Possum uses for everything from bacon and pork rillette to bratwurst and bologna. Takenoko also uses post-crush grapes, organic vegetable waste and dairy whey as feed.
Just a few months into service, Velasquez and the Old Possum team are still finding their way, with expanded charcuterie and beer menus on the way. The chef plans to offer butcher classes and supper clubs at the space.
“We don’t want to be unapproachable. We pride ourselves on what we’re doing here,” said Velasquez.
The taproom is open Thursday through Sunday from noon to 10p.m., 357 Sutton Place, Santa Rosa, 707-303-7177, oldpossumbrewing.com.
Pickle Plate, $7: A must-get with a variety of pickled veggies including carrots, cucumbers, collard green stems, cabbage, onions and cauliflower. Yes. Yes. Yes!
Fried Cauliflower, $8: It’s not breaded, but simply cauliflower dumped into a fryer to soften it up and add some depth. We loved the tasty chimichuuri made with mint and garlic, though the pools of oil beneath were a bit overkill. Unless you want to use the bread to sop it up, and then, well, pretty delish.
Jo-Jos, $6: I get teased every time I call a potato wedge this Northwest moniker. Natch, being from Portland, Velasquez knows the quirky name as well, Jo-Jos. They’re deep fried and come with a salute to In-N-Out’s special sauce, a sort of Thousand Island with extra pickles.
Bratwurst, $10: Most of us are so used to commercial sausages, made with fillers and sugar, that a real sausage is a bit of a surprise. This is the real deal, and the consistency is drier and crumblier than the uniformly stuffed versions from the grocery store. You love it, or you don’t, but personally, we found this authentic brat to be pretty darn good, especially with stone ground mustard.
Grilled cheese, $10: We’ve already said it’s a winner, but we wish we’d added ham. An extra $3 may seem steep, but this isn’t commodity ham — it’s made the old-fashioned way. Comes with salad or Jo-Jos.
So how’s the beer? The Possumstein Amber did us right with a light hoppiness and flavor that cut through some of the heaviness of the dishes. Not that anyone else would try to eat the entire menu in one sitting. All we can say is that our pants got pretty tight after spending a few hours at Old Possum—though we have no regrets.