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Cheeseburger Cheeseburger Cheeseburger 

Trying a burger (or four) at favorite joints old and new

Wednesday, May 28 2003
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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.

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.

The place looked delightfully the same, with its long tables and walls brocaded with framed "Best Burger" citations and menus signed by notables. We wended our way through to the charming outdoor patio, scoring a choice table next to the koi pond (where signs instructed us that the fish don't enjoy coins, but that our servers would be happy to take our spare change instead).

I was momentarily thrown when Bernice told me after she'd ordered an Efrain burger, with grilled onions and fried onion rings (ignoring the somewhat dated options of the double-pattied Carol Doda burger, or the Red Skelton burger, tricked out to look like a clown's face), that she rarely ate red meat. I had visions of the 12-year vegetarian swallowing a chunk of lamb off the fair fingers of the Bachelor, with dire results ("Don't do it," she counseled her fellow flesh-avoiders, of her romantic but ill-considered re-entry into the carnivorous world). It turned out that Bernice lives with a vegetarian, but adheres to the tenets of slamayrianism, a rather laissez-faire food philosophy recently explained to her during the course of a dinner party: "Slamayrians don't eat meat frequently, but when they do, they enjoy it." The founding philosopher laid out some of the occasions when meat-eating is not only permitted, but encouraged: When traveling. When dining at someone's home. When at a restaurant whose specialty is meat or a dish that contains meat. (At which point the founder's girlfriend interjected, "It's pretending you're a vegetarian, but you eat meat at the drop of a hat!")

Alas, the burgers we had that day, while decent, weren't really amazing enough to reward (or excuse) the slamayrian. I complained a bit about the vagaries of memory to my sister, who wondered if the burgers at the Grubstake II were as good as she remembered from the years she lived just a few blocks up Polk. "They were open until 4 a.m.," she mused, "and it's surprising just how often I found myself needing one in the hours after midnight." That was enough to send us to the phone book, where we found out that the Grubstake II was now just the Grubstake, tout court, but still doing business at the old stand. And that was enough to throw the baby into the child seat and drive over to check the place out.

The red-painted railway car was as she remembered it, as were the '70s-era landscape murals painted on the walls of the dining room. But the counter grill was now supplanted by a full kitchen, from which steaks, chops, and breakfast items, as well as a number of Portuguese dishes, could be obtained. (The menu informed us that the car was a remnant of the Key Line -- decommissioned when the Bay Bridge opened -- installed as a diner on Pine in 1927, and in continuous operation ever since. And that the Grubstake I, on Mason, is now the site of the Parc Fifty Five Hotel. Redevelopment had so far spared this tiny oddity.) Wendy ordered the Claim Jumper, a cheeseburger with fresh sautéed mushrooms; I got a Grubstake, a cheeseburger with bacon, and couldn't resist an appetizer portion of linguiça, while I overheard several guys sitting at the counter conversing in mellifluous Portuguese.

My sister favors ketchup on her burgers; I'm a mustard girl. But we both enjoyed our classic, and classically satisfying, sandwiches. (Ben was entranced by his first chocolate milkshake.) The fresh-cut, skin-on fries were a trifle limp and oily, but good. The linguiça was tasty enough that I envisioned coming back, in another mood, to try the Bacalhau á Gomes de Sá or the Bife á Portuguesa com Ovo a Cavalo. But tonight it was sufficient that our cheeseburger hunger was well slaked.

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Meredith Brody

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