By Omar Mamoon
By Kate Williams
By Pete Kane
By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
While we dine on steamed crab dumplings with spicy cucumber salad and crème fraîche (for Mr. Big Mac) and fresh pea soup (for moi), I tell him of my first McDonald's experience, which came kinda late, as such things go. I was watching a movie in film school, a French Connection knockoff in which some American cops go over to the South of France to bust up a drug ring, and one officer is sickened by his proximity to liver pâté and bouillabaisse. (Spurlock is about to move on to roasted Alaskan halibut with artichoke risotto, niçoise olives, fennel salad, and kumquat vinaigrette -- this for the man who just heartily recommended the McGriddle -- while I've ordered roasted Rhode Island bluefish with Italian butter beans, baby artichokes, and ruby beet vinaigrette.) The cop in the movie can't stop talking about McDonald's, which he misses acutely (today that wouldn't be a problem, with the proliferation of what young Frenchies call McDo, pronounced "mack-dough"). "Right after the movie," I say, "I went directly to the nearest McDonald's, ordered a Quarter Pounder With Cheese, french fries -- they were still cooked in pure raging beef fat then -- and a milk. And it was so good that I ordered the exact same thing all over again."
The fast-food emporium in Spurlock's hometown of Beckley, W.V., was the now-vanished Burger Chef, and he has confessed to a lingering jones for the sloppy, chili-dripping Tommy's Burger as served at the corner of Rampart and Alvarado in L.A., but "My favorite was the Big Mac," he says nostalgically, "though I'll never be able to eat at McDonald's again," because the diet functioned as aversion therapy, not because McDonald's has posted his picture at every one of its 30,000 outlets worldwide. We start our meal, in fact, with a solemn toast to the recent death of McDonald's Chairman and CEO Jim Cantalupo of a heart attack at the startling age of 60; Spurlock repeatedly and unsuccessfully tries to set up an interview with him, Michael Moore-style, in the movie.
My burger of choice in Southern California, which I've been trying to find an equivalent for up here without much success, was the ineffable juicy delight served at Pie 'n' Burger in Pasadena, conveniently inconvenient to my house (thereby saving me a couple of cholesterol points, no doubt). It was tasty and affordable (when Spurlock tells me that he spent $780 on his McDonald's spree, I say I wish I was interviewing him in New York, where we could have equaled that sum in one meal at Ducasse or, even better, at Masa, in the Time Warner Center, where the omakase meal, largely raw fish, is $300 a person. Our lunch would only cover about four days of his Value Meals, especially since I've gone straight for the $25 prix fixe, with which I'm well pleased).
Joe's Cable Car, 4320 Mission (at Silver), 334-6699. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. No reservations. Not wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Muni: 14, 44, 49, 52. Noise level: moderate.
In fact, I've recently tried two rather far-flung local burger emporiums in the hopes of re-creating the Pie 'n' Burger paradigm. My first foray to Tower Burger, way up near Twin Peaks, was pleasant in almost every regard -- cute neighborhood, simple but clean and comfortable room, plenty of parking -- save the actual $4.75 cheeseburger, whose Niman Ranch meat patty cooked up characterless, soft, and juiceless. I like a crust with some resistance and a still-oozing interior -- it can be done!
My second attempt, a long, curving drive out Mission Street to Joe's Cable Car, initially seemed more promising, since there was plenty of literature around the strenuously decorated place (walls papered with Polaroid pictures of satisfied customers, artificial flowers, screaming neon signs including one saying "JOE'S BURGERS ARE ADDICTIVE" -- just what I wanted to hear) enthusing about the fresh-ground-daily 100 percent USDA Choice rib-eye and chuck steaks "specially selected, trimmed to perfection" for Joe's steakburgers. My 4-ounce burger had much more of a beefy snap to it than the Tower one did, but it still lacked in the crust and juice departments. I could see eating one again, but not making it a habit (especially at a base price of $7.25, with cheese 60 cents extra. There's an $8.50 burger at 500 Jackson that has it beat all hollow, and that place throws fries in for free).
But after a screening of Hair at the Castro (during which I overheard a man beside me telling his horrified companions about some of the statistics he'd learned from Super Size Me: "There are 13 teaspoons of sugar in a can of soda!"), my car knew just where I wanted to go. Within minutes, I was at the drive-through, ordering a Quarter Pounder With Cheese, french fries, and a milk. The taste was instantly familiar. I was shocked by the stinging salt of the fries, and squeezed sugary ketchup on them. Within a few stoplights, nothing remained but a faint greasy smell and a lingering sense of guilt.