There may be no meal on earth that has been built up, beaten down, and resurrected more times than the cheeseburger. We’ve all eaten burgers on more occasions than we can count, and yet somehow we maintain a faint craving for one at all times. For any meal, at any time of day, a cheeseburger doesn’t sound bad, especially if it’s 3 a.m.
It’s the middle of the night and I’m at Sam’s in North Beach. I’m sitting at the old wooden counter with about 10 seats and strobed lights of cars passing whiz up and down Broadway. The front window is completely fogged up from years of living directly above the smoking grill and a haze of fumes fills the entire restaurant, infiltrating my nostrils with smells of salt and cooking oil. This is a happy place.
Open since 1966, Sam’s has grown into a hometown favorite and it still resides in a different time. Sam’s is old San Francisco, when the cigarettes they still sell could be lit up right at the counter and puffed on in between bites of dinner. In classic form, the $6.50 quarter-pound cheeseburger is prepared on a grilled sesame seed bun, topped with American cheese, and laid upon shredded lettuce, fresh tomato, red onion, ketchup, and mayonnaise.
This is the best cheeseburger in San Francisco. There, I said it. It looks like any other cheeseburger and it certainly doesn’t have the decadent flare of a burger from this century, but what it has is experience. Nothing has changed about this burger in decades. As I take one bite into the perfectly crisp bun and the cheese suspends itself in the air, I think, “Man, if this burger could talk.” Everything about it feels complete, right down to how it fits in your hand. When I slice it in half and open it up, it glows like a precious gem, oozing and colorful. It’s juicy, it’s savory, and the bun-to-meat ratio could not be more on-the-money if an architect constructed it. Some things are food, and some are works of art; Sam’s burger is a masterpiece.
Cheeseburgers are simple. There is no secret, there is no right or wrong, and nothing is perfect. Sometimes it’s just about where you are, who you’re with, and a damn tasty burger. Sam’s will always be the perfect example of that.
Sam’s, 618 Broadway, 415-391-1539, no website.