Beef. It's What I'm Writing About

Call it a primal urge or a backlash against tofu, but we're salivating for a juicy burger

Ever have one of those days where you're flipping through the channels looking for anything that isn't a reality show involving love, money, little kids singing the Titanic theme song, or celebrity has-beens eating bugs, and you see an ad for Thighmaster or Jack La Lanne's Power Juicer and for a second you actually debate calling in and ordering one? No? OK, maybe it's just me.

At any rate, a few weeks back I had the kind of Pavlovian response an advertiser wets his pants over to a “Beef. It's What's for Dinner” radio ad narrated by Sam Elliott. Call it a primal urge or a backlash against tofu patties, but I found myself salivating for a juicy, hunky burger, the kind of meat sandwich that satisfies the dormant carnivore in you, and one that doesn't skimp on fat, trimmings, or bun width.

Over the years, there have been several places where this craving could be curbed: the late, great Kieser's on Irving Street, an old-fashioned burger parlor that was king during my post-college years; Bill's Place out on Clement, still one of my favorite waitresses-wearing-uniforms, burgers-named-for-local-celebs kinda spots, though it's not quite as on top of its game as it was back in the day; and Joe's Cable Car in the Excelsior, definitely the place for patty melts (with extra grilled onions).

But for an all-around, dripping down your chin, rare means rare, no special sauce, no creative toppings ground-beef experience, Bullshead in West Portal (840 Ulloa, 665-4350) kills the cow.

Bullshead has been serving up “great meats, no bull” since 1979, under the spatula of Tom Shim and his wife, Soon. It has a large contingent of neighborhood loyalists and is also the unofficial hangout of campaigning supervisors, St. Francis Woods slummers, and the publisher of a certain other newspaper (who shall go unnamed). Décor is not the attraction here, nor is banquet space: The small, dark room is barely wider than a hallway, and if the smells of sizzling beef didn't give it away, you'd guess this was an old-timers' bar.

But beauty, as they say, is only flesh deep, and once you sink your teeth into one-third or a half-pound of fresh-ground cornfed Midwest chuck, the beef-a-roma filling your nostrils, the meat juice staining your favorite sweater (sorry, just me again), you won't care if your chair hits the person behind you every time you take a deep breath.

Shim gets his beef from United Meat, a 78-year-old family-owned company in the city, then ages it seven to 14 days in-house; the various cuts are on display for diners who are picky about such things, but most leave the choice to Shim. He cooks his burgers over a charcoal broiler and serves them on sesame buns, with sides of coleslaw and hand-cut home fries. The secret, Shim says, is fresh, lean beef with no additives or sauces that cover up the flavor.

“We don't do anything tricky. And nothing's frozen or reheated. The flavor that comes through is just 100 percent real beef.”

Reasoning that if a lot of meat is good, more must be better, Shim has recently decided to launch the woolly mammoth of patties — the family burger — a 1-pound slab designed to feed several people (or one really, really hungry velociraptor). He's had to delay its debut because he hasn't found a company that can make a bun big enough.

But frankly, if a half-pound of meat doesn't cut it, you've been watching way too much TV.

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