Virtually all burger joints these days more or less emulate In-N-Out’s burger build — even Five Guys, which now has an army of fans swearing fealty to its superior burgers. That is most definitely not the case at Top Round Roast Beef, a quasi-burger chain that opened its first Northern California location in the former Pig & Pie on 24th Street, and which still retains the Discolandia sign from the space’s past life as a record store.
Although the walls have images of palm trees, the sandwiches otherwise eschew Double-Double plagiarism in lieu of meatier creations. There’s no ground beef between these buns; it’s all top round roast beef that’s been slow-roasted, seasoned, and topped with au jus.
Apart from flavor, this has advantages. The beef isn’t quite as soft as a burger patty, but it has a good chew — and it’s not the least bit messy. Like a standard burger spot, there are $6 to $8 combinations like a Black & Blue (with black pepper, blue cheese, and caramelized onions, on a sesame bun) as well as a Bar-Be-Cue, the only chopped sandwich (with fried onion and jalapeño straws, BBQ sauce, and Provel cheese, on an onion bun).
If you’ve never heard of Provel, it’s because that white, processed foodstuff is particular to St. Louis. A hybrid of provolone, cheddar, and Swiss, it’s basically a frankenfood — but before you turn your nose up at Midwestern aesthetics, know that it melts like a champ. Reflecting one of the founders’ origins in Buffalo, N.Y., there’s even beef on weck, a roast beef sandwich with “atomic” horseradish on a caraway-and-sea-salt bun.
There are a number of different bun types, but more importantly, the powers-that-be at Top Round love variety in their condiments. Apart from ketchup, spicy mustard, barbecue sauce, and “round sauce,” there’s also a trademark-sidestepping housemade cheese “wizz.” Mayo is only available in packets, but you can add hot peppers and horseradish to your sandwich and Heinz malt vinegar to your fries. It’s the condiment selection of your dreams.
Top Round goes to great lengths with its fries, which can be had with cheese wizz, with gravy, or dirty, which means gravy and Provel cheese and onions. You can get meat-and-egg sandwiches for breakfast, and fried chicken sandwiches and hot dogs later in the day. For dessert, there are frozen custards — although while there are plenty of flavors, they feel a bit expensive in the $4.99 range.
The interior has gone full Jetsons with the graphic design, and since the only other locations are in Texas, Kentucky, and L.A., Top Round likely placated the skeptics at Calle 24 who rightly want to preserve 24th Street’s Latino character. Still, it could de-emphasize its proto-corporate nature by not making its burgers look like you just picked up a sack of them at a drive-through window, or like they were dug out from under a giant pile of burgers. They’re a bit … smushed. (This is not hard to fix. Taking them out of the foil wrapping and serving them on a paper-lined plastic basket instead would go a long way.) As is, Top Round feels more like fast-food than fast-casual.
Also, too bad they couldn’t procure topround.com, which is a landing page for recipes that looks like the Beef Council bought the domain in 2003 and forgot all about it. Still, on the whole, Top Round is quite good — and most of all, it’s original. Eating like a Missourian is nearly exotic.
Top Round Roast Beef, 2962 24th St., 415-780-3811 or eattopround.com