By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
By Max A. Cherney
By Anna Roth
By Alex Hochman
By Anna Roth
It was way past dinnertime; I was on deadline and working late, and there were the makings of a pretty decent quesadilla in the fridge -- tortillas, cheese, green onions, radishes, salsa, and a ripe avocado (well, that was on the counter, actually) -- but since that was also what I had assembled my lunch from, I wasn't all that excited about the prospect. I was suffering from protein withdrawal, and moments away from giving in to the inevitable and constructing an uninspired and uninspiring rerun.
4138 24th St.
San Francisco, CA 94114
Region: Castro/ Noe Valley
Efrain burger $6.25
Claim Jumper $6.25
Grilled linguiça $4.75
Barney's Gourmet Hamburgers, 4138 24th St. (at Castro) (and other locations), 282-7770. Open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 24, 48, J. Noise level: moderate.
Alameda Grill, 1520 Park (at Webb), Alameda, (510) 523-1700. Open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed Sunday. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Noise level: low.
Bill's Place, 2315 Clement (at 24th Avenue), 221-5262. Open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Muni: 2, 29. Noise level: moderate.
The Grubstake, 1525 Pine (at Polk), 673-8268. Open Monday through Friday from 5 p.m. to 4 a.m., Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. No reservations. Not wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 19. Noise level: moderate.
And then Cathy and Jensen returned from their dinner out, and Cathy offered me her leftovers: half a cheeseburger. It was quite massive, on a good bun, anointed with salsa, bacon, raw onion, and avocado, and boy did it hit the spot. Cathy, an eater with wide-ranging tastes who is nevertheless a notable burger fan (I've seen her choose one from menus with much more ambitious offerings, such as at Zax and Zuni), told me they'd satisfied that night's cravings at Barney's Gourmet Hamburgers, a small local chain, and I tucked the knowledge away for future use.
Which turned out to be not all that long after, unsurprisingly. (Any burger that was so tasty when consumed at some distance from the time and space of its initial construction would, I figured, be even better eaten on site.) A Barney's burger was the perfect snack after seeing two of the three movies in a personal catch-up minimarathon at the Landmark in Piedmont: Raising Victor Vargas at noon, A Mighty Wind at 2, and Bend It Like Beckham at 4. The Vargas clan had chowed down on burgers on screen, awakening a hunger that I satisfied a couple of hours later at a Barney's conveniently located right down the block. Cathy's burger, I saw, was called the Baja (burger joints often have an inexplicable need to name their creations, as we'll see); I chose the Sunshine, slightly modified (hold the sprouts and switch out the whole wheat bread for a bun, but leave the avocado, aged cheddar, and scallions in place, thanks). It was superb: excellent ingredients, carefully prepared. This was one swell cheeseburger.
There wasn't enough time to finish it before the next movie started, so I took half to go, and polished it off furtively during Beckham. (God forbid my fellow matineegoers should catch a whiff of onions, though I will point out that at least it was a good deal quieter than popcorn.)
The sandwich had been such a success that I craved another, and another Barney's, farther north, seemed an appropriate place to take Anna and her friend Nicole out for a brief respite during their studies for finals at Cal. (Anna's announcement that she'd just been chosen as the new arts editor for the Daily Cal in her sophomore year deserved a fancier meal, I felt, but at a less stressful time.) Both girls avoid red meat, and Barney's offers an array of alternatives: In addition to beef, you can choose among Gardenburgers, tofu burgers, turkey burgers, and sandwiches made from whole chicken breasts or grilled portobello mushrooms. The adorable pair enjoyed their generous Baja chicken (topped with Monterey Jack cheese, avocado, salsa, bacon on the side -- so I could take it home!) and Western chicken (cheddar cheese, sautéed onions, barbecue sauce, bacon on the side), as I did my Cheese Lover's burger (with jack, cheddar, and Swiss). The dull curly fries and the overbattered onion rings weren't a success, but we did like our chocolate shakes.
My burger craving, it turned out, had been not so much satisfied as reawakened. Within the week, I had crossed the main drag of Alameda in a trance after seeing the proprietor of an antique mall pause to take my money for a pottery lamp and two 1961 copies of Esquire magazine in between bites of a huge, juicy-looking burger: "Best cheeseburger in the Bay Area!" he said, and "Where?" I breathed. He pointed over to the Alameda Grill, a tiny spot with outdoor bench seating.
Alas, my small, sad cheeseburger (too late, I realized he'd been inhaling a larger and therefore possibly juicier version), though a step up from the ubiquitous fast-food burger simulacra, wasn't the stuff of burger dreams. (There's a reason they named it Hamburg Heaven.)
Sometimes the burger we love is the burger of our youth: Calvin Trillin and his friend William Smith had a running argument as to whether the world's best burgers were served at Winstead's in Kansas City or at Bob's Big Boy in Glendale, manifestations of what Trillin terms Hometown Food Nostalgia. (I can't weigh in on Winstead's, but having eaten at Bob's Big Boy a number of times, occasionally within sight of David Lynch, its biggest fan, I can assure you that Bob's Big Boy is not the One, despite a delightful line of Big Boy-abilia. Love those checked pants.) Therefore, I kidnapped Bernice from the office one day and set out to recapture a taste of my youth: a cheeseburger at Bill's Place, conveniently located at the end of Clement in enough proximity to the Palace of the Legion of Honor that I could pretty well count on having one as a restorative after a cultural excursion en famille.
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