Talking Turkey

When you want a burger without the mad-cow guilt

If you're like me (and I hope you're not), you've been having a tiny minor freakout over the whole mad cow thing. It's the kind of cognitive dissonance that eats at you (sorry) enough to make you swear off steaks, burgers, and mystery-meat items such as hot dogs, but doesn't make you quite paranoid enough to check every can of refried beans for lard content or ask about the origin of the stock in your soup du jour.

The burger thing in particular has me bothered -- mainly because I love burgers more than Elvis loved fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches. And while I can -- and sometimes do -- seek out the elusive grass-fed, free-range meat patty at places like Acme Chophouse or the Davis Food Co-op (which I visited a few weeks ago, lured by the enticing motto "Our burgers are free range, not deranged!"), more often I just opt for the safe, easy, though sometimes unsatisfying alternative, the turkey burger.

I know what you're thinking: Turkey burgers are unsatisfying because they're not red meat, because they don't gratify the carnivore jones. But that's not it. A turkey burger done right can scratch the burger itch almost as well as a hearty hunk of Hereford (almost -- my palate's not completely delusional). The problem lies in the fact that many restaurant kitchens treat the turkey burger as ground beef wearing whiteface, figuring that if they doll it up enough with cheese and ketchup and sautéed mushrooms and bacon bits you won't feel like you're missing out on the real thing.

What they ought to be doing is what Whiz Burger (700 South Van Ness, 824-5888) does: Call a turkey a turkey. Celebrate, don't obfuscate, its turkey-ness, and let it stand up and be gobbled, damn it.

Ironically, this old-fashioned drive-up burger stand in the Mission District (in its former incarnation, Carazzi's, it was the reigning king of the great, greasy bacon cheeseburger) is one of the last places you'd expect to find a good turkey burger -- or anything remotely health-conscious. This is a screw-the-diet, bring-on-the-Philly-cheesesteak-with-extra-onion-rings-and-a-root-beer-float kinda place (or better still, the fresh banana or mango milkshake made with Bud's ice cream).

But the no-dietary-concessions approach works to the Whiz advantage, because restaurants that specialize in health food tend to skimp on the fat and condiments that give a burger its addictive qualities. Whiz does turkey right. First off, the patty is firm and thick, not thin and crumbly, so that when it's grilled, it holds its juices and doesn't come out the consistency of lumpy sawdust. Second, it's seasoned with a bit of salt, lots of pepper, and nothing else, so the taste of the meat comes through. It's then topped with traditional accouterments -- shredded lettuce, chopped onions, and tomato -- and (most important) sandwiched between two oversized, moist sesame buns that have been slathered with mayo and mustard, but not ketchup. In my opinion, ketchup, like barbecue sauce, isn't compatible with white meat, and it can really muck up a good bird burger. (For those who can't call it a burger unless there's ketchup, you can get the red stuff on the side.)

Perhaps the best part of ordering a Whiz Burger is that, beef or bird, you get to eat your meal sitting at a picnic table in the sublimely retro backyard parking lot. That, and the fact that since milk cows have yet to be proven crazy, you can wash it down with a fresh banana shake and a clear conscience.

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