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I'd Like to Thank the Ground Beef 

Television awards make us hungry for an S.F. burger and Maine lobster

Wednesday, Apr 25 2007
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I don't watch a whole lot of the Food Network, despite an obvious affinity for its subject matter. And it's not because I don't watch a whole lot of TV; I do, much to my surprise. I blame TiVo, and the fact that TV suddenly got better. As Peter Biskind recently said in Vanity Fair, for the first time in history, a grown man could spend the entire day watching television. And I'd rather watch The Sopranos than Giada de Laurentiis, and My Name Is Earl than Paula Deen.

I thought the increasingly dense awards season had blessedly drawn to a close, but no. The Food Network had concocted its own awards for "the people, places, and products that impact pop culture," and I, helpless in the grip of said culture, watched it.

I quickly realized, as awards were bestowed in such categories as Hot Chocolate — Garrison Confections won over Theo Chocolate and Jin Patisserie, in case you hadn't heard — and Play With Your Food — a Jell-O artist triumphed over people whose mediums were fruit-and-veg, junk food, and tortillas — that I was much more interested if I felt like I had a dog in the hunt. That is, if a nominee were either familiar to me, such as the brilliant Bacon-of-the-Month club invented by Dan Phillips of the equally brilliant GratefulPalate.com (he was robbed by Zingerman's Z-Club for Delectable Delivery or the Year) or was from the Bay Area. Philly's Citizen's Bank Park — doesn't the name just trip off the tongue — beat out our equally evocatively monickered AT&T Park for Best Ballpark Eats.

Even though I'd never eaten there, I was crushed when Burgermeister, an entirely Bay Area-based four-outlet chain, was beaten by the Northwestern Burgerville, whose Walla Walla onion rings I remembered with pleasure from a Portland visit, in the category of Better Burger. I managed to both redress the past and partially compensate Burgermeister for its humiliating loss by showing up at the North Beach Burgermeister less than 24 hours later, and ordering a half-pound avocado cheeseburger, medium-rare, for here rather than to go.

"Here" was a somewhat oddly shaped wedge of a room, which, despite cheerful red-topped tables set against a narrow wooden banquette, and bouncy, colorful reliefs of San Francisco signifiers — cable cars, Victorian houses — applied to its golden-yellow walls, still felt like a fast-food outlet. And by that I mean someplace you didn't want to linger, even after paying a minimum of $7.95 for your burger ($7.25 for a vegetarian or vegan burger), and washing it down with your choice of six beers on tap, or three wines. With the burger comes either french fries, coleslaw, or spring salad.

A considerable portion of the real estate of my table was taken up by a cluster of condiments: ketchup, two types of mustard, A-1, Lea & Perrins, two kinds of Tabasco, and Cholula Hot Sauce. My really medium-rare burger didn't need much encouragement. It was so juicy that it almost rendered its rather-too-spongy lower bun useless. I would have preferred a more resilient bun, with a bit more character. I found the patty, despite its Niman Ranch pedigree, too obviously machine-formed and thin, not the chunky, hand-formed domed patty of backyard barbecue lore that I prefer. I loved the crisp, thin garlic fries that I got instead of the regular kind for a small supplement: They were liberally showered with lightly golden, still supple, sautéed diced garlic. And the vanilla malt — made, of course, with San Francisco's own local Mitchell's ice cream — was properly thick and sweet.

Both Burgermeister and Burgerville were lauded for their commitment to local products — indeed, "fresh, local, sustainable" is the headline for Burgerville's Web site. I get a bit tired of the "local" drumbeat heard not only through the Food Network Awards program, but also as a currently trendy, inescapable food mantra or prayer. Yes, local is fine for many foodstuffs, but there are also lots of things that I crave that must be transported many, many miles to satisfy. White truffles, East Coast oysters, and Maine lobster immediately spring to mind, not that they're ever very far from my mind.

I've never been to Maine, but that hasn't stopped me from consuming more than my fair share of Maine lobster. And, within less than 24 hours, I was sitting down almost across the street from Burgermeister, at the recently opened North Beach Lobster Shack, trying to decide between the Maine Lobster Roll (lobster mixed with Hellman's mayo and green onions, stuffed in a top-loading bun baked especially for North Beach and its sister restaurant, the Old Port Lobster Shack in Redwood City) and the Naked Lobster Roll (just lobster meat in the bun with sides of drawn butter and mayo, and chunks of lemon). It occurred to me that it was my mother's birthday, so I ordered one of each, with a side of clam "chowdah" thrown in, to go.

If you stay inside the airy comfy shack, decorated in lobster-shack style, with board-panelled walls trimmed with a fake roof, hung with maps of Maine seacoast and a variety of buoys, hokey but charming, you can choose between picnic tables with benches, and wood tables and chairs — I chose the chairs, and my back thanks me. The clam chowder, served in a thick mug, tastes happily of cream, and is studded with carrots, red bell pepper, celery, biggish chunks of skin-on potato, and chewy chunks of what must have been rather large clams. It's a good chowder, and if I finished it, I would have no room for the lobster roll.

Which would be a pity. My mother and I both prefer the naked version, either as it comes, or with a teensy bit of lemon; even the melted butter tends to obscure the sweet lobster flavor. The salad version, scant as it is with both dressing and the minced green onions (some lobster rolls are eked out with a scandalous amount of chopped celery and/or masked with mayo), comes in a close second, however. Both come with excellent potato chips, Kettle Krinkle Cut from Salem, Ore., and slightly sweet coleslaw.

On a subsequent visit, I try North Beach's quite nice beer-battered fish, three chunks of haddock in a thin lightly gilded batter. It is served with chips, which are pale mealy fries, and dilled tartar sauce, coleslaw, and pickle chips, in a paper-lined red plastic basket. I also tried the Shack's fried whole belly Ipswich clams, about a dozen in the half-order, slightly gritty, slightly livery, as good as can be 3,000 miles away from their home. The Shack's lobster bisque is astonishing: rich, buttery, freighted with chunks of lobster meat, as good as any found in the best French restaurant in town. They certainly have plenty of lobster shells for the stock. I'm not as taken with the crab cakes: two big discs served with coleslaw and your choice of fries, rice, sautéed red potatoes, potato salad, or fresh vegetables. The cakes seem a little stolid and characterless next to the other dishes, especially after the vivid lobster bisque. My heart belongs to their lobster. I nominate it for my Fresh, Non-Local, I-Hope-It's-Sustainable Award.

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