An introduction to this project
There’s a moment in American Beauty when Annette Bening, playing an uptight real-estate agent, tries to sell a house to a young couple. As they step into the slightly dingy kitchen she says, “This kitchen is a cook’s dream!”, as if saying it with enough enthusiasm were enough to make it true.
Whenever I cook in my apartment’s tiny kitchen, with its dull knives and scary refrigerator and total absence of counter space, I hear Bening’s voice in my head—”This kitchen is a cook’s dream!”—and I give a silent, bitter laugh.
Home cooking is the food of aspiration, of striving to make things nice, of gathering around the table for warmth. Restaurant meals, at which waiters fulfill your needs and chefs seek out new ways to please you, are the food of fantasy, of regression. Take-out is the food of realism. It’s the food of silent, bitter laughter, of gathering around the VCR. I’m a realist.
So let’s start with French fries. French fries encapsulate the central problem of take-out food: the qualities that make them delicious render them unfit for the journey from fryer to home. Classic American fries depend on the contrast between crispy exterior and soft, mealy interior. Such fries store their heat on the outside, away from their core, meaning they cool off quickly. And a cold French fry is little more than a hollow potato chip filled with a strange, pasty whiteness that unpleasantly coats the tongue and the mouth’s roof.
Any fry-maker, then, has to negotiate a compromise between in/out contrast and heat retention. Ronald McDonald, who has made more fries than anyone else in history, has plumped for the former, and that’s why, if you can get them straight out of the fryer and eat them within three minutes, McDonald’s fries are the ne plus ultra of the French-fry experience. But after that, their heat drops off precipitously, and their deliciousness with it.
San Francisco’s own Burger Joint, which is very conveniently located, especially if you happen to live at my house, takes the opposite tack. Its big, thick fries de-emphasize the contrast between in and out—the insides are less fluffy, the outsides barely crispy at all. But they survive the trip home better than crispier fries: they retain their heat longer, and even after they’ve cooled a little they still taste pretty good—less greasy salt-retention, more peasanty potatoish heartiness.
But it’s not called Fry Joint. You don’t go there to get your fry fix. You go there for the American hamburger, perfected.
Burger Joint does not offer burgers with names like the Hulaburger and the Kosher Bacon Cheese Grande. At Burger Joint, your choices are strictly limited. You can have your hamburger with cheese or without. You can have lettuce, tomato, onion, mayonnaise. In a single concession to the culture of personalization, you can get grilled onions for 50 cents. But what you get will be a hamburger that doesn’t try to distract you from its essential hamburgerness, a hamburger that achieves sophistication with high-quality meat and a little black pepper rather than a dollop of blue cheese.
The first sign that these burgers are to be taken seriously: When you order one medium rare, it comes medium rare. I have ordered perhaps 50 burgers medium rare from Burger Joint (three of them while researching this column), and 49 arrived medium rare. (The other one seemed a bit underdone. I should stress, however, that this anomaly occurred during an awful anhedonic period in which I found myself unable to enjoy anything I ate. I may have been projecting my own anxieties onto my food: I was feeling a little raw myself, in other words, and I probably took it out on the burger.)
The second sign—and again, this is anything but par for the course: These burgers deserve to be medium rare. The Niman Ranch ground beef at Burger Joint exemplifies the happy trickle-down phenomenon of local foodism: burgers (from a burger place, not a restaurant that lists a $14 burger beneath the $22 Chilean sea bass) that don’t want to be drowned in sauce or emboldened with bacon; burgers that want to be enjoyed medium-rare with a little ketchup. This is where the inside/outside dynamic that was conspicuous by its absence with the fries makes its triumphant return: the peppery char of the dark outside; the cool, clean pink tartare within, like a parable of purity in a corrupt world or something.
Some additional thoughts: (1) Herbivorous friends say Burger Joint’s veggie burgers are as good as such things get, but I question the policy of serving them on whole-wheat buns. Why does a refusal to eat meat necessitate a concomitant aversion to refined flour? (2) The hot dogs are terrific: like the burgers they’re from Niman, so you can eat them without that low-level what-the-hell-am-I-putting-into-my-body anxiety that accompanies most hot-dog experiences, but biting into them generates the rubbery burst of flavor-juice that separates a hot dog from a sausage. (3) The milkshakes are excellent; the lemonade is a bit too chemical. (4) Is the staff embarrassed to wear hats embroidered with the suggestive letters “bj”?