Usually when I'm looking for late-night eats in North Beach I make my way to My Canh, where I satisfy the rice-mongering Filipino in me at a table alone, inhaling a fried pork chop plate topped with a runny egg. But on nights I feel like some conversation at the counter, I head to Sam's for a burger.
If you've been here before, you'd know that the guy commanding the grill in a black cap isn't Sam. He's Mike.
Since 1970, Mike Shawa has been called Sam, after his uncle who first opened the burger counter in 1966. Sam was the first Palestinian transplant that brought Shawa and eventually 50 other family members to San Francisco.
Even after the transition of ownership from uncle to nephew, people still got the name wrong. Using the same ground chuck from Quality Meat Company since the place opened, the sign outside used to read "Sam's Chuck Burger."
"I had to change the sign to 'Sam's Hamburger' because everyone used to call me Chuck!" Shawa says. "Now they call me Sam. It drive me crazy."
Here, the skinny patty with cheese is and has been served the same way has always been: over the veggies and in between a sesame seed bun. The perfect greasy note to complete a drunken lap through North Beach.
And every exchange in this place is replied with a friendly "Why not?"
Is it too late to make it a double? Why not? I'll be right back, I've gotta answer this phone call. Why not? Forgot my cash. Gotta head to the ATM. Why not?
At 22, Shawa's uncle gave him his first job flipping burgers at the small nook clothed in burgundy stools, faded collaged photos of those who've come and gone, among wooden wall paneling one might find in their basement-turned-living room. The place hasn't changed an ounce since it opened 47 years ago, when it became the first fast food burger spot in North Beach.
At 68, Shawa is a North Beach landmark and can be seen grilling the same burger through the same grease coated window on Broadway. "This is [my] first job and the last job," he says, laughing.
Throughout the years, through the same grease coated window on Broadway, Shawa has also seen the North Beach neighborhood change from a residential family neighborhood, to the money run downtown scattered with strip clubs and bars where young tech workers roam. Shawa reminisced over a plate of fries about his post-work routine of heading down the street to the Baghdad and La Casbah for a $.99 drink and belly dancing performances. "That was a real show," Shawa said. "This neighborhood used to be family style. Boy and girl holding hands walking down the street. Now all punk."
In the late 1990s, his burger was even put to the test when a Carl's Jr. opened up around the corner on Broadway and Columbus.
"They scared me," Shawa says. "If I lose my burger, what's gonna happen? Am I gonna have to make falafel?"
Unexpectedly, his burger gained popularity and the Carl's Jr. closed down a handful of years later.
"It's never been easy and it's still easy," Shawa said. "I enjoy work here."
The father of a doctor, a banker and a son that works the shop four nights a week, Shawa said that he's nearing his retirement and plans to pass the burger shack down in the next year or so. It's been 14 years since he's made a return to his home in Gaza Strip. "I'd like to go back one more time," Shawa says. "My farewell trip. Say goodbye to everybody."
What am I having? I'll take a single. Everything on it? Yeah, sure. Something to drink? I'll have a Coke. Ah, make it an Anchor.