Here's the Beef

Balboa Cafe; Bill's Place; Burger Joint; Mo's Grill; Original Joe's; Pier 23 Cafe; Polkers Gourmet Burgers

But when you want the great unfettered American hamburger, sesame seed bun and all, two San Francisco establishments come immediately to mind. Nothing could be finer than sitting at one of Pier 23's big round patio tables on a sun-drenched day, listening to Carmen McRae and Tony Bennett, watching the boats go by, allowing the whole sweep of the bay to infect you with a beatific sort of tranquility. There are a few scrawny palm trees to add to the whole South Seas atmosphere, and a centrally located, happy, stretching Buddha is absolutely appropriate. It's almost beside the point that the burgers ($7.50, $8.50 with cheddar, jack, or blue cheese) are so good here: They're thick, smoky, and juicy, just like what you'd grill yourself out on the patio on a good day. The onions are sweetly grilled, the tomatoes are perfectly ripe, and the skinny, skin-flecked fries are crunchy and unbeatable. No milkshakes, but there's a do-it-yourself float ($4) involving a tall glass, a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream, and a bottle of Thomas Kemper root beer.

Burger Joint is simplicity itself: burgers, fries, and not much else. With that sort of intensive repetition going on in the kitchen, a high degree of know-how is a practical inevitability. Organic Niman-Schell beef is ground and formed into patties slender enough to interact with the other burger ingredients, yet thick enough to juice up your mouth and give you something to think about. Placed on a perfectly soft-crunchy bun, this juicy, flavor-packed hamburger ($5.75) tastes remarkably like a good porterhouse steak. The boxlike fries are equally exemplary -- thick and crunchy on the outside, they're as airy as a soufflé when you bite into them. To complete the triad, a milkshake ($4) is only as good as its ice cream, and Burger Joint's shakes -- chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla -- are made with marvelous Double Rainbow ice cream (enough said). The food is served in a fun and friendly retro-Jetsons sort of setting, with curvy red, aqua, and lime green Formica the primary aesthetic statement, which just goes to show: A great burger comes in many packages.


Balboa Cafe
3199 Fillmore (at Greenwich), 921-3944. Open Monday through Wednesday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Thursday and Friday until 11 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted for parties of six or more. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: possible. Muni: 22 (and, within a block or two, the 41, 45, and 76). Noise level: pleasant.

Bill's Place
2315 Clement (at 24th Avenue), 221-5262. Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: possible. Muni: 2, 29 (and, within a block, the 1 and 38). Noise level: festive.

Burger Joint
807 Valencia (at 18th Street), 824-3494. Open daily 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Reservations not accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 14, 26, 33. Noise level: normal.

Mo's Grill
772 Folsom (at Fourth Street, in Yerba Buena Gardens), 957-3779. Open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Reservations required for parties of eight or more. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: possible. Muni: 12, 45, 76 (and, within a block, the 15, 27, and 30). Noise level: happy.

Original Joe's
144 Taylor (at Eddy), 775-4877. Open daily 10:30 a.m. to midnight. Reservations accepted for parties of three or more. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 27, 31. Noise level: convivial.

Pier 23 Cafe
The Embarcadero (at Greenwich), 362-5125. Open Wednesday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday and Tuesday 11:30 a.m. to "depends on the crowd." Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: F, 42. Noise level: lively.

Polkers Gourmet Burgers
2226 Polk (at Vallejo), 885-1000. Open daily 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. (burgers served 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.). Reservations not accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 19 (and, within a block or two, the 41, 42, 45, 47, 49, and 76). Noise level: mellow.

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