by Vickie Lewis
Living and working in big cities, such as San Francisco, can be a wonderful culinary and social experience. One can find restaurants offering nearly every type of ethnic cuisine, and there are plenty of taverns, bars, and cocktail lounges to meet the needs of the masses. So when Powder Keg Owners, Gigi Reloj and Nicolette Endriga moved from SF to suburban Hercules over a decade ago, they found that they missed the dining experiences they were used to enjoying—most notably, they missed the wonderful seafood and sushi that they love so much. They found themselves returning repeatedly to SF to dine and socialize. After a while, their entrepreneurial sides emerged and they decided to bring some of what they loved about San Francisco to Hercules.
Before opening The Powder Keg Pub six years ago, Gigi and Nicolette established themselves in Hercules with the opening of the Shinsen Sushi Restaurant. They owned and operated Shinsen Sushi for three years. When they decided to expand to open a venue with more seafood options, an expanded menu, and a full bar, they sold Shinsen Sushi, and soon after opened Powder Keg.
Powder Keg Pub is located in a mostly residential neighborhood on the corner of Sycamore and Railroad Avenues, near the central waterfront in Hercules. It is somewhat small inside, but has a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere. There are approximately twelve to fourteen tables inside, a seafood bar that seats approximately 10 – 12 guests, and a full beverage bar with seating for eight. There is also ample outdoor patio seating in the front and on the side of the building, perfect for enjoying the warm, sunny weather and gentle bay breezes.
Gigi and Nicolette chose the name “Powder Keg” to pay tribute to the history of the Hercules community, which was previously the factory site of Hercules Powder Works. This was one of the largest explosives and chemical factories in the world, and in the early 1900’s, was one of the largest producers of all of the TNT used by the United States during the Great War. In keeping with the theme, Powder Keg Pub has been thoughtfully decorated with framed prints and articles about the Hercules Powder Works, as well as other “memorabilia” such as original powder boxes, powder kegs, and other original items that the owners have managed to procure. The front of The Powder Keg’s menu provides a wonderful historical recap about Hercules’ history and the Hercules Powder Works. Other appealing decorative touches include tasteful tiffany lighting suspended from the ceilings, and my favorite of all—the beer keg bar stools!
This was my first opportunity to actually eat at the Powder Keg, as on previous visits, the restaurant and bar were both full and overflowing with customers. During our visit, my guest and I had the pleasure of actually sitting and dining with owners Gigi and Nicolette, as well as the Bar Manager, Craig Stokes. We were also joined later by Head Chef, Jules Lujan. As a result, we got the opportunity to try not only our two entrees, but everyone at the table ordered individually and we all shared a little of each other’s appetizers and entrées, as well. This was truly a culinary tasting!
Powder Keg has a full menu of mixed bar drinks, beer and wine. Many of the mixed drinks are original creations and/or have unique names and/or ingredients. My drink was a Tropical Affair, and others ordered a Fresh Hound, Sunrise (non-alcoholic), and two Bloody Mary drinks, the “Miss Piggy” and “Bubba Gump”. I was especially intrigued by the beautiful presentation of the Bloody Mary drinks. The drinks are all made from scratch—no Bloody Mary mix. The Miss Piggy is created with bacon infused vodka (made in-house at the Powder Keg), and includes caramelized bacon crumbles. A large slice of crisp bacon was visible sticking out of the drink next to the celery sticks and pepperoncini also served in the drink. The Bubba Gump boasted three large prawns hugging the rim of the glass, also adorned with the celery stick and pepperoncini. These are two of the four different Bloody Mary offerings at the Powder Keg, which does a robust bar business both during and after restaurant hours.
The appetizer selection at Powder Keg is extensive, and well over half of the offerings are seafood. Fresh shucked oysters are the first item on the menu, and Powder Keg has become the local “go to” place for this delicacy, serving approximately 1,200 to 1,400 oysters each week. Also offered are Oyster Shooters, Fried Oysters, Garlic Baked Oysters, and Rockefeller Oysters. Other seafood choices include Garlic Sautéed Mussels, Prawn Cocktail, and house made New England clam chowder. Unfortunately, my guest and I are not not big shellfish eaters, so we were more inclined to avail ourselves to the non-shellfish selections, such as the Fried Zucchini, Fried Mushrooms, and Macaroni & Cheese. We did, however, sample the fried oysters served with lemon and tartar sauce, which were crispy and very tasty. The Fried Mushrooms were my favorite of the appetizers, but honestly, they were all very good. The batter on the zucchini and mushrooms is light, flavorful, and fried crisp so as to preserve the juiciness of the vegetables within. The macaroni and cheese was creamy and baked with crunchy bread crumbs, prosciutto, and generous amounts of cheese on top. Gigi also ordered a beautifully presented iced platter of fresh clams on the half shell, which were heartily consumed by the seafood lovers among us! Our final appetizer was served after Chef Jules joined us, who personally prepared for us the daily special, small squared portions of pork bellies caramelized on each side with moist centers. These were served over a roasted butter nut squash puree, with caramelized onions and molasses drizzle. We enjoyed the rich flavor of this unusual appetizer, which is something we’d never previously tried.
Already feeling extremely full and satisfied, we indulgently selected individual entrees from the menu, which we cut into smaller pieces for sharing. Powder Keg’s menu includes salads, sandwiches, burgers, and full dinner entrees served beginning at 5 PM daily. One crab melt, one tuna melt, two hamburgers, and fish and chips rounded out our culinary tastings, and each choice was served with either garlic fries, regular fries or onion rings. Burgers are made from seasoned Angus beef, and the French fries are cut from fresh Idaho potatoes, which may be ordered thin (i.e. shoestring) or hand cut. Side salads are also available as accompaniment to sandwiches or burgers. Fresh tilapia is used for the Fish and Chips instead of the traditional codfish, and I could definitely tell the difference in the taste when I sampled it. Each entrée was generously portioned and beautifully presented—especially the hamburgers which appeared to be nearly 6 inches high! If you like burgers, you should definitely try one at the Powder Keg. I loved the flavor of the Cowboy Up burger, which includes bacon, pepper jack cheese, onion rings, jalapeno peppers and chipotle BBQ sauce. Yum!
And yes…we had dessert too! We sampled the Crème Brulee, which is a standard offering on the menu, and also sampled another of Jules’ specials–Bread Pudding with a sour cream mousse topping, which was excellent! Gigi also had the bar prepare us mini-portions of dessert cocktails—Banana Crème Shots, made with Frangelico, Banana Liquor, with graham cracker crumbles on the rim—and the Ghirardelli, made with Vanilla Vodka (made in-house), Frangelico and Ghirardelli chocolate sauce.
I cannot wait to go back to Powder Keg for many reasons. First and foremost, I almost feel like part of the family now because everyone was so friendly and welcoming during our visit. Other reasons to return include Powder Keg’s collaboration with the Hercules Community Garden, which allows them to serve organically grown and freshly picked herbs and vegetables whenever possible. Mondays through Fridays, they have Happy Hour from 3 PM to 7 PM, offering $4 draft beers and well cocktails. Daily cocktail specials are also available Sunday through Thursday for $4, such as Margarita Mondays, Rum Punch Thursdays, etc. (I plan to go on Saturday when they have $4 all-day Sangria!) From a dining perspective, the very talented Chef Jules creates daily specials which enhance an already robust menu. You won’t want to miss Prime Rib Tuesdays; and, if you’re an oyster lover, you won’t want to miss the $1 Oyster specials on Mondays and Thursdays. Finally, Powder Keg has great breakfast menu served only on Sundays from 9 AM to 1 PM.
Although Powder Keg is a bit “off the beaten path”, it is well worth the trek to Hercules to check it out. Whether you want a scrumptious lunch or dinner, fresh seafood, Sunday brunch, or just casual drinks and appetizers after work, you can get it all at this quaint little restaurant near the bay—without having to venture into San Francisco!