Thursday, January 29, 2009

IEM Session #7- Why Did the White Man Turn his Back on the Cheeseburger?

It’s strange that it’s taken me so long to do a cheeseburger session. They’re one of nature’s near perfect foods. It’s nearly impossible to make one that is inedible, and with very little effort, one can make a pretty decent specimen in a frying pan, on a griddle top, on the grill, in the oven, under the broiler, or even in a steamer (I’ve tried it.) When people learned about this upcoming session, they started giving me suggestions. They would list places where burgers wrapped in paper come to you through a hole in a glass window. They also listed places where women in nice dresses use a knife and fork to eat burgers that were served by swishy waiters who suggested the perfect wine accompaniment for a walnut oil-infused burger topped with Camembert and fair trade radicchio that comes with broiled fingerlings....blah blah blah. I am neither a burger snob, nor someone who thinks a burger should not be elevated to the realms of creative cuisine. However, I do think that it’s wrong to compare a regular old beef patty topped with American cheese on a Costco bun to a creation where the burger is presented as “food”, rather than “grub.” It’s almost like comparing apples and oranges. The two must live and die based on their own merits and shortcomings. On this session, I focused solely on the cheeseburgers that reside in greasy spoon cafes, diner-type establishments, burger stands, and non-big-chain fast food places. I fully intend to do a subsequent session on higher brow burgers, as some of the gourmet burger places aren’t much more expensive than the proletarian variety.

During this session I noticed that white folks don’t run burger joints anymore, at least not around here. In the early 20th century, many European immigrants began running diners and lunch counters, especially on the east coast and in the larger cities of the Midwest. Until a few years ago, almost every burger joint in New York or Chicago was run by Greeks. Starting in the 90’s or so, Middle Easterners and Asians began taking over these places. I’m not sure what the basis for this change was. Perhaps when the original proprietors retired or died, they sold their restaurants when their kids decided they would rather sell real estate than fry potatoes. Or maybe the kids liked the restaurant biz, but they wanted to start doing more high class cooking in an attempt to make more money and attract a better clientele. And when no Greeks were around to transition the place to new management, new “ethnics” were there to fill the void. In the East Bay, the burger joint is almost entirely the domain of Koreans. There are a few other various groups working in the field, but they are in the distinct minority.

I’m not sure what has drawn Koreans to the world of burgers and fries, but I have to say that, for the most part, they seem to be true to the game. They could’ve tried to impart some of their own culinary traditions to these foodstuffs, but they haven’t. I’m not against food fusion, in theory. I know that American food is a marriage of many different cultures' kitchen traditions. However, forced fusion cuisine can come across as combining the worst of the cuisines involved. It’s like how rap-metal somehow managed to take 2 distinct musical styles and birth a new genre that is worse than the worst elements of the genres from which it emerged. I’ve heard of a few Korean-owned places in LA that are trying to combine Korean and Mexican food. They’re putting Korean barbecue like Bulgogi in burritos and tacos. This sounds great to me and I’m sure there’s some way that a similar combo could work well in the realm of the old-time burger joint. Yet, there is also something to be said for maintaining tradition. I must salute the East Bay Koreans for continuing to carry the torch of the cheap burger joint. Without them, all of these old places could’ve been steamrolled to make way for more Jamba Juices.

Eating Day: December 13, 2008

NOTE: All locations in Oakland unless specified otherwise.

1. WOODMINSTER CAFÉ- 5020 Woodminster Ln.- 7:40am- $5.55

For this session, I awoke at 7am on a Saturday to begin eating cheeseburgers all day. I am getting older, but I’m not so old that I go to sleep at 9pm and wake up at 6:30am like my in-laws do. But I rose with the sunrise for you. That is dedication, my friends. I knew there would be a few breakfast-y places where I could get a burger early in the day and I wanted to try and polish off a few right from the beginning to spread the task over as many hours as possible. I went to Glenn’s first. They specialize in breakfast and their sign says they open at 7:30. I got there at 7:30 sharp and the place was dark and the door was locked. Glenn’s, I praised you vigorously on the IEM hot dog session and was fully expecting to talk you up again for the cheeseburger session, but you were closed. How could you do me like that? I schlepped out of bed at the crack of dawn and you can’t even open on time? That is not cool. If you’re on vacation or if there was a death in the family, that’s okay. Just have the common courtesy to put a sign on the door so I’m not stuck outside twiddling my balls in the Laurel District. I waited about 5 minutes before I said “fuck this” and decided to move on. First, I tried Sparky’s, which is just a couple of miles up 35th Ave. , right above Highway 13. Not open yet. I jetted along 13 to the Woodminster, a place I had never even seen before, and was shocked to find it open.

Woodminster is located right around the corner from the crossroads of Lincoln Ave. and Mountain Blvd, only blocks above the crazy Mormon Temple, which looks like Caesar's Palace and is visible from San Francisco. This entire business district's proximity to the Hwy 13 on-ramp would make it a prime target for armed robbery, if people actually shopped up here. When I arrived, they were empty, except for a couple of day laborers drinking coffee. The owner is some kind of Middle Easterner. I assume he's Persian, because I read somewhere that they sometimes serves Persian food, although I saw no evidence of that anywhere on the menu. I asked the guy if I could get a burger so early in the morning. He sighed, paused a few moments, sighed, and then said, "Okay, my friend. How do you want it cooked?" I specified medium rare and wandered around the shop while he went to the back to start the burger. The radio played, "I'm Not Gonna Write You a Love Song," which is sung by an over-earnest girl on a commercial for a product I don't remember. I thought that song was just a commercial, but it's a real song. I'll be damned. While he was ringing up my order, he said in his dramatic accent, "Do you know what I like to eat for breakfast, my friend? I take a beef patty and a fried egg and I put it on a pita!" I knew he was trying to get me to accept this as my order instead of the cheeseburger, but I just responded with, "Hmm." His offering sounded like a perfectly decent breakfast, but it was out of the scope of the session, so I couldn't let him think I was too excited by this creation. I bet he had just dreamt up this thing while he was in the back and got tired of looking for the buns under a stack of other stuff.

This was a good-looking burger. The patty was clearly hand-formed and it sat on a puffy toasted bun, probably from a local gourmet-type bakery. There was lettuce, American cheese, tomato, and pickle on there. With the special bun, I would've preferred more upscale cheese, but whatever. While the burger was probably a little past medium, it was still quite juicy with good flavor. This was a good first entry. As I sat there reading the paper and eating, locals began coming in. Most were there just for coffee to go, but a few ordered breakfast to eat in the restaurant. A couple of guys in their 40's sat there talking about what they were getting their spouses for xmas. One guy, who had just been bragging that his son was on the wait list for Stanford, said, "I'm getting a wine refrigerator for my wife, but it's really mostly for me. Hahaha." At that point, I had heard more than enough. I got up. I folded the newspaper. I picked up my trash. I farted. I walked right past these Oakland Hills schmucks and blanketed them in my stench. It was time to get back to the flatlands.

2. HIDE-A-WAY CAFÉ- 1920 Dennison- 9:35am- $3.35

I picked up Kelly and we went for a quick band practice before she had to go to work. It was the first time we'd practiced that early, but since I was already awake eating burgers, it seemed like a good idea. We rattled off 12 songs in under an hour with machine-like precision. After Kelly left for work, I drove over the weird bridge that goes over I-880 to the other side of the highway by the Estuary. This place is a ghost town on weekends. During the work week, it's teeming with people who work in the maritime industry in one capacity or another. There are all types of boat-servicing businesses and it's adjacent to the bridge to Coast Guard Island. On the weekend, most everything sea-related is closed, so it's a shock that the Hide-a-Way is open. Who's coming here on the weekend? It's not like local residents come here for breakfast/lunch, because it's not a residential area. On one of my many Oakland sojourns, I stumbled upon this spot when they were closed. I had to give it a try.

When I arrived, I was greeted by the proprietor, a tiny Korean woman. "Good morning to you! I be with you one minute." she sang. The establishment has mismatched furninture and kind of resembles a basement in a shitty church where the Jesus Youth Group would hold their meetings. The low ceiling helps to complete that vibe. There's even carpet on the floor. You don't see that everyday in a restaurant. The griddle is behind two deli refrigerator cases and there is an ancient menu with removable letters and numbers- the kind you might see at a snack bar in a roller rink. The woman was preparing something for the only other diners, a couple of skateboarders in their forties. While she worked, she talked to her herself in broken English, frequently interrupting herself to laugh loudly. She came over to where I was standing as if she was going to take my order, but as soon as I began to speak, she decided she wasn't ready for me yet. "Wait a minute. Wait a minute! I busy." She turned around and continued to work on the skaters' food. She sang to me, "I ready! You ready?" I ordered and sat down at one of the tables. A cop came in and picked up something he must've ordered in advance. She brought an order of hash browns to the skaters. "I usually give beer to police, but this police, he no take. Hahahaha!" The skaters informed her that they thought her hash browns were the best in town. "Thank you booooyyyys!" On her way back to the grill, she asked me, "You want to drink something?" I asked her for a cup of water. "Ohh. I have coldest water. I only serve with lots of ice." She gestured behind her. "Last week I have to buy ice. Ice machine break. Cost $800 to fix. Next time I get warranty! Hahahahaha!" She laughed and clapped her hands and faded towards the grill, muttering to herself.

She brought me the burger and sat down on a chair at the table next to mine. There's no way in hell this thing was 1/4 lb., even allowing for the fat that cooked off. It was roughly the size of the single patty at In N' Out, whatever that weighs. It looked to be hand formed beef, rather than an institutional patty, and it came with swiss cheese. The sesame bun was well-toasted, always a good sign, especially when dealing with a pretty run of the mill bun. The burger was quite juicy, and in conjunction with the toasted bun, it was a pretty good offering. With this decent burger and the floor show the lady provided, I can see coming here on a regular basis. I'm guessing she goes totally berserk when the place gets busy, so coming here at lunch on a weekday could provide serious entertainment. I hope to eat lunch here the first day I'm unemployed. This woman will be just the ticket to help me forget that I have almost zero job prospects in this economy. She is the combination freak/chef that Oakland needs to get it through the upcoming depression.

3. YIA-YIA’S SANDWICHES- 200 Alice St.- 10:07am- $4.25

The Hide-a-Way burger just made me hungry. I couldn't wait to get going and eat more burgers. I followed Embarcadero towards Jack London Square until I got to that area where they've replaced all of the old warehouses with faux-loft condos. There's still a bunch of produce wholesalers down there, but they're closed on the weekends, so this area was almost as deserted as the area by the Hide-a-Way. With all of the buildings around there and the distinct lack of other human beings, there's a real post-apocalyptic feel about the place. Yia-Yia's probably gets a lot of traffic from the local businesses and it's right across from the Oakland Amtrak station, so I bet a lot of travelers go in there for a bite before they get on the train. Judging by the hippy-looking logo, this place has been here a long time. It's a huge space. There's easily enough room for 100+ people to eat in there. It felt cavernous sitting there by myself, save for one middle-aged couple. Perhaps some of the condo-dwellers eat in here, but I'd reckon many of them would deem Yia-Yia's below their standards.

Yia-Yia means "grandmother" in Greek, but there ain't nobody's yia-yia working here unless yia-yia also happens to mean "40 year old dude" in Korean. I'm guessing that the original owners sold to Koreans about 10 years ago or so. Yia-Yia's has a menu nearly identical to Prospect Park downtown (again, run by Koreans), which also caters mostly to the workers in its vicinity. It is mostly desolate on weekends, too. Yia-Yia's is the usual burgers and fries plus pancakes and eggs and some assorted sandwiches- like a strange attempt at a cheesesteak. Why Yia-Yia's, Prospect Park, or the Hide-a-Way are open on Saturday is a puzzlement. They can't even be making enough money to cover the power bill. The burger at Yia-Yia's is perfectly serviceable, though. If I worked loading boxes of cabbages onto semis, I'm sure I'd eat here all the time. The patty seemed like it might have been a pre-formed formerly frozen specimen, but I'll be jiggered if it wasn't dripping with juice with a perfect char-crust on its surface. Once again, the sesame bun was toasted. The American cheese was fully melted. I'd be surprised if the original Yia-Yia's family running this place did their cheeseburgers any better than the current owners. It was good enough that I didn't think to take a picture until I was almost done eating it. It's a decent-sized burger for the price and eating off Broadway is a good way to get a meal in this general neighborhood without having to endure crowds of douches. Best of all, there was a bathroom open to customers, which was a godsend.

Only 3 burgers into the session and I was already primed to release my payload. The bathroom looked like a facility you'd see in a factory, but it was clean enough. There was a sign on the wall reading, "Please don't throw away any T.P. or napkins in toilet." Huh? What is this, Mexico? In many Third World countries, the sewers aren't equipped to handle anything other than bodily waste, so all paper products must go into the wastebasket. Putting shitty paper into a garbage can result in some pretty smelly bathrooms and a lot of flies. Sorry if I broke you commode, Yia-Yia, but there's no way in hell I wasn't flushing. It's a goddamn restaurant, for chrissake! The turd was shapeless, yet substantial, like an overturned Wendy's Frosty. It would take more burgers for my turd to firm up to the desired consistency, but I was quite happy with the results and felt freed to eat anew. I turned on the exhaust fan while I washed my hands. Yia-Yia better get in there and fix that thing. It sounded like someone was grinding gravel in the ceiling. I left Yia-Yia's contented. I had a decent cheeseburger and defecated vigorously. And I left the bathroom smelling far better than if I had left a dozen squares of shit-stained generic toilet paper in the lidless garbage can. Mission accomplished.

4. ADAM’S BURGERS- 3401 Lakeshore Ave.- 11:05- $5.39

I drove downtown to try Rico's Diner. I parked my car 2 blocks away and put money in one of those new-fangled parking meters they have all over Oakland. I walked to the restaurant and went inside. When I ordered a cheeseburger, the lady at the counter said, "Sorry, burgers won't be ready until 11." I had to get eating, so I neither had time to wait around for 15 minutes or the time to ask the lady what the hell her response meant. Burgers won't be ready? I wasn't asking her to make a goddamn lasagna. It's a cheeseburger. Are they slaughtering the cows and finishing the cheesemaking process until 11am? It made no sense. Anyway, I forfeited 40 minutes of paid parking and drove over to Lakeshore. Of course, the whole shopping district was packed with couples who were far too old to have babies. They pushed their strollers down from the hills to enjoy the weekend and deprive me of easy parking. I could've parked in the Trader Joe's/Walgreen's parking structure, but that lot is a nightmare to enter and exit. Instead, I drove 4 blocks up Trestle Glen and parked on a side street.

Despite the crowd on Lakeshore, when I got to Adam's, there was no one in there, except a Korean lady and her husband. There was classical music playing, interspersed with commercials for jewelry at the Shane Company voiced by Tom Shane himself. While I examined the menu on the wall, the lady actually begged me, "PLEASE order something!" Times must be tough for a greasy spoon in Doucheville, even though the coffee shops, Trader Joe's, and specialty restaurants seem to be doing just fine in this neighborhood, even in this sucky economy. The lady seemed somewhat relieved when I ordered the cheeseburger, but also a little disappointed when I didn't get fries and a drink. Adam's was the first place so far that had a flame-grill, rather than a flat top griddle. The old man was back there cooking my burger, causing flames to shoot up high into the air. While I waited, I studied the gumball machine. There was a sign attached that read, "Winner gumball wins free burger of your choice." I had already paid for my burger, but I figured I could use the free burger for next time, so I dropped in a quarter. According to the menu, the "Adams' Burger" comes with pastrami, grilled onions, and swiss. If I won a free burger, that's what I was gonna spend my gumball on. Not only did I not win the free burger, but the gumball was practically petrified, so I nearly broke my tooth trying to chew the damn thing. I wouldn't be surprised if those same gumballs have been in that machine since a guy named Adam actually ran this place.

I sat down and browsed through a Korean newspaper, the only available reading material. The burger arrived and it was beautiful. I'm not sure the beef was really a 1/3 lb. patty, but it was perfectly char-broiled and placed on a toasted sesame roll. There were all the usual toppings, but they zazzed things up by adding both red and yellow onions. The burger was very juicy and seemed to be hand-formed. I'm not a big proponent of mayo on burgers to begin with. I think it's a totally superfluous condiment that adds little to most sandwiches. I usually don't even notice the stuff unless a place goes overboard with it, which Adam's did. That stuff was piled on. And they added a little too many vegetables. It's as if they were ripping off Nation's' m.o. This burger was better than Nation's. It didn't need all of that other stuff mucking up the delicious beefiness. Next time, I'm ordering it without mayo and pulling off some of the veggies. A couple of guys came in there and went to the counter while I ate. They talked to the lady for a little while and then left without ordering anything. The lady sighed and looked like she was gonna cry. It was a very depressing scene sitting in that big room all alone listening to minor chord cello music while reading a Korean newspaper and witnessing the proprietors' desperation. I was seconds away from going into their bathroom (for customers only) and slashing my wrists. Except for their over-topping, Adam's serves a first rate burger. And they have a big selection of other sandwiches, including a lamb burger and fish burger. And they have butterscotch shakes. I WILL be eating here again- unless they're already out of business. But unless they start getting more business in there, or the lady goes on Prozac, I'll be getting all of my orders to go. I've got enough problems of my own.

5. SPARKY’S GIANT BURGER- 4120 Redwood- 1:45pm- $4.55

I drove back home to rest for a couple of hours and deposit the sequel to the dump I had taken at Yia-Yia's. I sat around for a little while before the urge came. Unlike the Yia-Yia blob, part 2 looked like a brown Nerds Rope. It was not very satisfying to behold or to produce, but I was glad to be rid of this matter anyway, as I had many more burgers to eat. I wasn't full before the dump, but the bonus turd only helped me in my cause, for now I was actually hungry again.

I drove back to Sparky's, which wasn't open when I went there early in the morning. They were packed now. It's similar to a 1/4 lb. Giant Burger in some aspects, but they have a few tables, a counter with stools inside, and table service. All of the tables were full and the line at the to-go window was about 8 deep, even in the chilly drizzle. I sat at the counter. Like the 3 previous stops, Sparky's is also run by Koreans, but unlike the other places, Sparky's has some employees in addition to the owners. They seemed to have their children working for them, but there was also a white girl behind the counter. She was a dead-ringer for P.J. Soles as Riff Randall in Rock N' Roll High School, if Soles actually resembled a high schooler, rather than a 35 year old. She had a tight t-shirt on and long pigtails and she was smacking bubblegum. Pretty hot.

There were a few older black folks among the clientele, but the bulk of the crowd were white people. But these were neither the hipster nor yuppie types I usually associate with White Oakland. They ranged in age from 20's-70's, but they were all dressed and groomed without flair, as if they were on their way to a football game in Nebraska. Where do these "regular white people" live? Didn't they get the memo that Oakland is now only for the edgy, the ethnic poor, and the rich? It's refreshing that not every honky in this town is putting on serious airs of one kind or another. Huzzah, you unattractive crackers! I doff my ironic trucker cap to you.

Riff Randall took my order and brought me a glass of water in an actual glass. The burger arrived with the top off to display beautiful char-grill marks and a big hunk of melty American cheese. And the bun was toasted. The whole thing was on an orange Fiesta Ware plate. The burger was purported to be 1/3 lb., but I'm gonna say it was more of a quarter pounder. The burger was classically gorgeous, but it was a little on the dry side, probably from overcooking due to the mad rush. So, it was a little less delicious than it should've been, but still pretty solid. On a slower day, it could be great. I really liked the whole vibe of this place. It's situated up in the hills with redwoods and eucalyptus trees surrounding the parking lot and there are Bay views. Usually, such beauty comes with a price tag of douchebaggery, but at Sparky's, you can just be a normal person and be surrounded by the same. Places like this are a dying breed in this area, so I suggest you eat here soon and often before they put in a bistro.

6. RICO’S DINER- 400 15th St.- 2:20pm- $5.75

I remembered that Rico’s was open until 3pm, so I decided to drive downtown before they closed. It’s a travesty that you have to pay to park in downtown Oakland on Saturday. Practically everything is closed. There are empty parking spaces everywhere. There is a free garage on Clay, but that's several blocks from Rico’s, so I ponied up a dollar to park on the street a block from Rico's. The scene by my parking space would’ve made a great Oakland photo essay. On the sidewalk, in front of a locked office building, was a sleeping homeless woman surrounded by her belongings. In addition to her dual shopping carts, the pavement was strewn with blankets covered with stacks of old magazines, paperback books, and a selection of empty fast food cups marked with cryptic Sharpie labelling. The items covered a 20 foot radius around her. She slept uncovered, except for a newspaper over her face, clad only in a slip, a pair of men’s briefs, and rubber boots. In the parking space in front of me was a late model Ferrari. I once had a vagrant sleeping in the cab of my Toyota pickup for a month. The bench seat was collapsed, so your ass sat on a metal bar and the seat did not recline at all. It was uncomfortable, no matter how you sat. The Ferrari had two-tone leather bucket seats that undoubtedly recline all the way back, as there is no backseat. Why didn’t this woman utilize the Ferrari for a dwelling?

The spot that Rico’s occupies used to be Jimbo’s, which had been in this location for decades. I ate there regularly when I worked downtown. It was another diner-type place run by a Korean couple. Like at Prospect Park, the counter lady called fried potatoes, “frenchee fry.” I loved that. Although the fixtures at Jimbo’s were pretty worn, the place seemed pretty clean, but there were visible roaches. On one particular visit, I saw three roaches- on my table. On other visits, I saw roaches on the floor and the wall. Not surprisingly, Jimbo's was closed by the Health Department in the early 2000's. After a few months, they reopened sans-roaches. However, they wound up closing for good shortly thereafter, about the same time my job downtown ended.
When I heard a new eatery was taking over Jimbo’s space, I thought for sure they’d put some kind of fancypants place in there. When I learned another diner was going in, I was skeptical.

When I got to the door, it was locked. I was pissed. I was turning to leave when the owner gestured from the other end of the place and shouted, “We’re open!” He rushed over and let me in. “We lock the door when it’s slow like this.” I don’t blame the guy. He probably gets vagrants and miscreants coming in and out of the joint all the time, especially when there’s no crowd. Jimbo’s had ancient booths with torn up Naugahyde and tables with cracked formica. Rico's replaced those items and have established a sparse décor of modern-looking tables and chairs that may have come from Ikea. Despite the new furnishings, Rico’s doesn’t come off too sterile or hoity-toity.

Rico’s is run by an Asian dude, but I don’t think he’s a Korean; probably Thai or Laotian. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Koreans have mastered greasy American cusine, but Southeast Asians? I wasn’t sure. The burger looked similar to the one I got at Woodminster. It was on a big puffy toasted roll (Acme, according to the menu) and it had a big slice of cheese that seemed like cheddar on top of a thick chargrilled patty. And it came with a slice of honeydew, aka "the money melon." This burger was amazing. It outclassed every other burger ingested earlier that day. It was unbelievably juicy with such a great beefy flavor that condiments were unnecessary. This burger was almost too good for this session. This was the kind of specimen I would expect from the gourmet burger session. It didn’t have any of the elements you would expect from a diner/fast food burger. I doubt you can get a burger of this quality anywhere else around here without spending significantly more at a sophisticated establishment. This is a burger lover’s burger.

I ate with the place to myself for a few minutes until a lone lesbian came in and ordered a grilled cheese. After she sat down, a 20-something Asian dude with a Black Flag “Nervous Breakdown” t-shirt came in with a fat blonde with a Betty Page haircut. They had to leave, though, when they were informed that Rico's takes cash only. Good riddance! I didn’t need their type fouling up the ambience with their cool vibrations while I ate the most kickass cheeseburger in town.

I had to take a leak, so I asked the owner if I they had a bathroom I could use. He pointed behind the counter. “Up the stairs.” At the top of the steep staircase, there was a room with the old wall menus from Jimbo’s and a fully-made futon bed. I’m gonna guess that one of the Mexican cooks sleeps up here. I hope they don’t lock the guy in here in some sort of Wal-Mart-esque indentured servitude. If an employee doesn’t sleep up here, Rico's should offer a "bed and burger" package where you sleep in these spartan quarters and then come down the next day for an otherworldly cheeseburger- after 11am, of course.

7. RED ONION- 2870 Pinole Valley Rd. (Pinole)- 3:34pm- $4.39
I need to have my head examined. I sat in traffic for 55 minutes to get to Pinole. According to Google Maps, that’s only a 16.6 mile trip, almost entirely on the freeway, but Bay Area drivers lose their mind and start driving like senior citizens the minute a raindrop falls. I was tempted to turn around about the time I hit Berkeley, but I had made a commitment to myself that I would finally try the Red Onion, a Pinole institution. I didn’t go to Val’s on this session because I thought it would be too much driving to go down to Hayward AND Pinole. After sitting in traffic for almost an hour, when I should have been eating, I was wishing I had driven the other way.

Red Onion is on the end of a strip mall in a brown Taco Bell-like adobe structure. I’m not sure this is their original location, because this place clearly used to be a Mexican restaurant, if not an actual Taco Bell. I’m sure some West CoCoCo-er will give me the lowdown. On the wall was a framed drawing of an alien lizard holding a sign that read, “will work for food.” The style was reminiscent of early Lookout records releases. This isn’t too surprising when you realize so many of the early Gilman bands were from Pinole/El Sobrante and their environs. Ever wonder what happened to the members of Isocracy? Maybe one of them teaches art at Pinole Valley High School (right behind the Red Onion) and their best students’ artwork hangs for sale at the Red Onion for $200.

Registered sex offenders take note, The Red Onion is not a place you want to visit. This restaurant is crawling with Fillipina teens in tight clothes wearing pornstar makeup. If you come here, you WILL violate your parole. Please go to the Jack in the Box up the street instead. On my visit, a whole crew of these teens came in en masse. I think they were coming from an event at PVHS. They were touching each other’s hair, holding hands, and occasionally kissing each other playfully. They were constantly talking with their boyfriends on their cellphones. The only male with them was their supersized catty gay friend (imagine a Bruce Vilanch, Jr.) who proffered advice about the girls’ love lives.

The menu hypes things up that deserve no hype, e.g. “Burger comes with 2 slices of Kraft© American cheese!” The standard 1/3 lb. burger is massive if you get it with everything. And you get a choice of grilled or raw onions. I was only slightly full at this point, but when I saw this burger I was deathly afraid that I had been Ali Baba’d. The sandwich would require a detachable jaw to eat, due to the pile of grilled onions, the cheese, the leaf lettuce, and the oversized tomato slice. The bun was not toasted and it came with a load of their house dressing (mayo aged in the sun), so naturally, it was a goopy mess. It was a good burger overall, but it was griddled, rather than chargrilled and a little overcooked. According to the menu, their default burger is cooked medium well. I only later realized that I could’ve gotten it cooked to my specifications, so this is partly my fault, but they never asked me how I wanted my burger cooked. Still, even if they cooked it less, there’s no way this burger could compete with Rico’s on the strength of its patty. The grilled onions were a nice touch and I appreciated that they gave me so much of them, but when you serve a burger, the meat comes first. Do not try and dazzle me with leaf lettuce, grilled onions, and real Kraft© American cheese if you’re not going to take it to the limit with the beef.

Luckily, most of the mass of this sandwich was the toppings, so I didn’t feel as full afterwards as I had expected. I was getting to the point where a regular person would probably stop eating, but I was nowhere near uncomfortable. All in all, this is a pretty decent burger and if it had come at a different spot in the batting order, it might rate a little higher in my mind. I would totally eat here again, as I know now that I can order the burger how I want it. Even if the burger still doesn’t approach Rico’s quality, the side order of nubile Filipinas will more than make up for that flavor discrepancy.

8. JIM’S BURGER STATION- 1100 23rd St. (Richmond)- 4:38pm- $4.09

The original intent was to check out the Ember’s, a Mitch Cardwell recommendation on San Pablo in Pinole. Apparently, Billy Joe from Green Day’s mother works here, or maybe she owns it. I wanted to see in what kind of establishment a big rock star’s mother waits tables. I drove by the place and it seemed very Denny’s-esque. This usually translates into a longer wait and higher prices than necessary, so I nixed eating there. Sorry, Billy Joe’s mother. I'll catch you later. (Mitch says the Emberger is great.)

The new plan was to hit a couple of places in Richmond before heading back to Oakland for the evening portion of the session. I haven’t spent much time in Richmond in my 12 ½ years in the Bay Area. I know that there are parts of the town that are pretty hairy, becoming even more so in recent years, but I really want to get to know Richmond better. Even more than Oakland's International Blvd., 23rd Street in Richmond makes me feel like I’ve been transported to a business district in a Mexican city. There’s lots of cool stuff to see. Taquerias/pupuserias are everywhere. There are several Mexican bakeries and grocery stores. There are stores selling bootleg junk (e.g. Dora the Explorer umbrellas, Selena blankets) where half of the stock is on the sidewalk like in a central market in Mexico. There’s even a Charrito western wear store so you can look like a badass when you dance to Norteño music. There are also a few older establishments like Jim’s, which have undoubtedly been here much longer than the stores selling bootleg Vicente Fernandez live DVD’s.

I arrived at Jim’s about as late as I’d want to be eating on that particular block in the darker months of the year. There were a lot of menacing characters in ridiculously baggy pants with gold teeth hanging out on the corners doing nothing. It was freezing in there. For some reason, the door was propped open until a 7 foot Samoan said, “Fuck this for real!” and closed the door. I thanked him and he said, “I’m not trying to catch no flu, dog.”

Surprise, Jim’s is run by a Korean family. There appeared to be three generations behind the counter. I gave my order to a teen with a sideways baseball cap who looked like an extra in a Godzilla movie. The guy was really polite- small town Midwest polite. He kept calling me “sir” and seemed really interested in whether I enjoyed my cheeseburger. And I did. The menu claimed this was a 1/3 lb. burger, but it was kind of hard to gauge. The patty was thin, but huge in diameter. I don’t know where they got the buns to accommodate a patty like this. You could put a 45rpm record on this well-toasted bun. The meat was seasoned and salty, but in a good way, and I liked how they went heavy on the mustard and light on the mayo. For a strictly fast-food type entry, I would say the burger at Jim’s rivals In N’ Out in overall greatness. If you’re in the “bad part” of Richmond , and you don’t feel like H. Salt, this is the place to go. There are signs on the lightposts on 23rd Street that say, “Disfruta la calle 23” (enjoy 23rd St. ) I’ve had great tacos and pupusas on this street and I really like the atmosphere up there. Despite the inherent dangers some may perceive, yo disfruto mucho la calle 23.

9. BIP’S BROILER- 3211 Encinal (Alameda)- 6:49pm- $6.70

NOTE: No burger photo available, due to foolishness.

After Jim’s, I headed out to Point Richmond to try the Great American Hamburger and Pie Co. While technically part of the city of Richmond , Point Richmond couldn’t be more different than the rest of the city. While most of the city is either rundown working class, outright ghetto, or older suburbs, Point Richmond looks like Marin. It’s got a kitschy downtown with a half dozen blocks of businesses and restaurants with an old-time/maritime sort of feel. The surrounding streets are narrow, winding thoroughfares with historic-looking houses that probably pre-date the 1906 earthquake. And almost everybody’s white. The area is separated from real Richmond by several miles of industrial buildings. There are no residential or business districts on this stretch to attract unsavories towards Pt. Richmond, so it stays looking quaint and safe. This was my first time out there and I didn’t expect it to look like that. Pretty strange, I must say. The area is cute and all, but fuck them anyway because Great American Hamburger and Pie Co. was closed! I drove all the way out there just to eat at that place and it wasn’t even open. And it wasn’t even 5:30 yet? WTF, Point Richmond!

I decided to drive back to civilization via San Pablo to allow my hunger to replenish itself. I was a little full after Jim’s made the session official and I could tell that I was about to enter the danger zone. I called good-guy Clark Mosher along the way to see if he wanted to meet up with me, as he had expressed interest in joining me for part of the burger session. He said he was going to be in Alameda soon, so I told him I’d come pick him up. Driving from Richmond to downtown Oakland via San Pablo is a drive and a half. It probably would’ve been faster to take the freeways, but there was a lot of traffic on 80 heading into the City, so who knows? I called Clark again after I got through Alameda's Webster tunnel. He told me I could pick him up at Jason Morgan’s house, which is sort of near Bip’s, the next place I wanted to try. I didn’t think I could wait until I got to the other side of the island to go to the bathroom, so I urinated in a parking lot behind a bank. It was pretty cold outside, so the pavement emitted a nice cloud of steam. In addition to the urinary pyrotechnics, this leak freed up some more space in the antechamber.

I picked up Clark and we headed down to Bip’s after taking a detour down a street completely decorated with Christmas lights. In addition to the usual Santa and Jesus stuff, one lawn had a homemade statuette of Bolt, Disney’s newest cartoon character. We discussed forcing the homeowners to pay us to keep us from contacting Disney regarding the unlicensed use of their intellectual property. It took almost 15 minutes to drive down that street. We almost missed out on Bip’s, which closes at 8pm on Saturdays.

The owner is a jovial rotund gentleman who was nice enough to let me order food so close to the closing time. Clark had been drinking at a beer-tasting festival all day and drunkenly informed the very young counter girl about what I was doing. I think he may have been trying to hit on her and must’ve thought she would be impressed that he was the temporary sidekick of a dork who had been eating cheeseburgers all day. Girls love that shit! She informed the owner of my endeavor, so I had to explain it to him. I told Clark later that I prefer to eat incognito so the staff doesn’t try and go the extra mile just because they’re being scrutinized by a "food critic." According to the owner, the building was originally opened as a restaurant in 1952, but Bip’s only opened 2 years ago after the owner bought the place and completely renovated it. It looks more authentic than most retro 50’s diners you see these days, but he doesn’t go too far and make everybody dress up like extras from Grease. There’s chrome everywhere and the whole exterior is covered with windows. The counter and tables are probably reproductions, but they look just like the stuff you see in old photos.

The burger came with fries, which I gave to Clark . He seemed to enjoy them in his drunkenness, but I didn’t eat any, so I can’t comment. The burger was great, though. It was char-grilled on a toasted bun and was exceptionally juicy. There was a cheese choice and I opted for cheddar, which came in a thick melted slice. I appreciated that mayo was not a default condiment. At this stage of the game, mayo was an obstacle I wished to avoid. The owner seemed to enjoy talking to us and was intrigued with my session. Unfortunately, all of the talking distracted me and I forgot to take a photo of the guy’s beautiful cheeseburger.

10. CHUBBY FREEZE- 600 Hegenberger- 7:27am- $4.05
I took the “secret road” that leads out of Alameda into East Oakland by the Airport. I wanted to go to The Hegenburger, simply because the name is great. (It’s on Hegenberger Ave. and they serve hamburgers. Genius.) Alas, they had closed earlier in the afternoon. I'll get there someday. It probably would’ve been better to have eaten at Chubby Freeze earlier in the day. It’s also on Hegenberger, right across the street from the Oakland Coliseum. It wasn’t that late, but it was really dark outside, because of the season, and the freaks really come out at night on that street.

Chubby Freeze has to be at least 40 years old. I would be surprised if they didn’t have car-hop service at one time. The building is well-lit and quite visible right next door to a Jack in the Box, but Chubby Freeze never seems busy when I drive by. They were empty when I arrived for my visit, although the Jack in the Box drive-thru was backed up at least 15 cars deep. There was a derelict in the parking lot rummaging through the outside garbage can putting trash into his pants. While I waited for my food, a couple of other people came in to order. While the first guy waited for his food, he played the Super Pac-Man machine in the corner. (How often do you see one of those?) A female crackhead on a bicycle with a banana seat and sissy bars rode up to the door. She wheeled her bike inside and rested it against the window. She went up to the black dude playing Super Pac-Man first. She stood next to him with her hand outstretched without uttering a word. There was drool dripping down her face. I was on the other side of the room and I could already smell her. Her essence was the lovechild of a turd and a rotten egg. The guy playing the machine must’ve been getting asphyxiated. She just kept sticking out her hand. The guy was trying to pretend that he was so wrapped up in Super Pac-Man that he didn’t see the crackhead, but the stench must’ve finally become too much for him. “Get the hell away from me, nigger! I ain’t givin’ you shit!” The crackhead gave up and started drifting towards me. I had my dollar at the ready and gave it to her while I held my breath, careful not to make contact with her skin. A chubby Chicana in her early twenties had come in. She was in a clinging low cut dress and she was made-up perfectly, obviously on her way out for the evening. After she ordered, the crackhead descended on her with a thrusting hand. “Ewwww. Get awaaaay from me,” the Chicana said in a Valley Girl accent. She whined to the counter guy in broken Spanish that she wanted him to do something about the crackhead. The dude grimaced, shook his head, and came around the counter. I don’t know whether he was more irked by the crackhead or the girl’s crappy Spanish. He opened the door and pointed for the crackhead to leave. She just stood there. He took her gently by the arm and promenaded her out the door. The crackhead smiled a toothless smile, mounted her bike, and rode off. Thank God the counter guy had the presence of mind to wash his hands immediately afterwards.

I was surprised to find out that Chubby Freeze was run by Mexicans. I was starting to think that Koreans had cornered the market on downscale burger joints in Oakland. It took at least 15 minutes to get my burger, which is way longer than it should’ve taken, considering I was the first one there. I took the burger outside. There was no way I was going to eat inside with the revolving door of nutcases trolling that neighborhood. I set the burger on the roof of my car and took a photo. The Mexican girl’s friend was sitting in the driver’s seat of her car on a cell phone looking at me while I struggled to get the perfect shot with my $80 digital camera. I think she was talking about me and saying something like, "There's some weirdo here taking photos of a hamburger." I’m glad I could fit in with the other freaks that night.

I locked my door and unwrapped the burger. It was a pretty meager offering, roughly the size of a Mc Donald’s cheeseburger, except with lettuce, tomatoes, and big pieces of onion. It looked like somebody had sat on the thing. And it was dry and tasteless. What the hell happened? You would have to try hard to make a burger this bad. You could make a burger better than this with your foot. It tasted like big-chain fast food, but from a bad chain. It must’ve been a frozen patty that was quick-thawed in a microwave and then overcooked on the griddle. Nothing else could explain this abomination. Chubby Freeze has several shakes available, so I might come back here again to try the shakes and maybe give the burger another chance. I refuse to believe that they could stay open for so long serving a letdown like the one I had eaten. Jack in the Box is 50 yards away, Chubby, and they’re kicking your ass serving mediocre burgers. Step up your game just a little, for crying out loud.

This burger put me over the edge. After Bip’s, I was just about full, but the Chubby Freeze sealed the deal. I was now officially uncomfortable. I filled my car with the gaseous remains of the Chubby Freeze burger and her 9 far superior siblings, but the flatulence offered no respite. It wasn’t even 8pm, but I needed to plan out the rest of the night’s eatings. Would I attempt to keep eating or rest first? The session was more than official, but I really wanted to put away a lot of burgers on this session. However, this parking lot was no place to strategize. There was a guy on the sidewalk yelling at the cars on Hegenberger while he scratched his ass with a hairbrush. I wanted no part of this trainwreck. I quickly exited the lot to go devise my battle plan elsewhere.

11. AHN’S ¼ POUND BURGERS- 439 Grand Ave.- 8:03pm- $4.05
I decided I should buy two more burgers and then return home to eat them and rest before venturing out again if my hunger returned. First stop was Hamburger Dave’s on Piedmont, a place I’ve driven by a million times and never tried. They were closed. I’d also passed Ahn’s repeatedly and never stopped. Tonight was the night. During the day, there is some indoor seating at Ahn’s, but at night, you’re ordering through a bulletproof window like at a Quarter Pound Giant or Kwik Way (R.I.P.) There was a whole family in there. They were Asian, but not Korean, probably Vietnamese or Thai. (Could this be the downscale version of Rico's?!) There were 2 teen girls sitting on chairs with their feet propped up on an unused metal prep table. They were on their cellphones texting a mile a minute. When one of the girls noticed me at the window, she rolled her eyes, sighed, and then slooooowly got up to take my order. She wrote down the order on a pad of paper, handed it to one of the men, and returned to the same position to continue texting. One of the men began to work on my burger, but due to the position of the window, I couldn’t see the prep area or a cooking surface.

Taqueria Mi Jalisco is on MacArthur, pretty close to my apartment. I’ve eaten tacos and burritos there a few times and have noticed that they also have a “special hamburger” on their menu. I was planning on picking up a burger there before heading home to eat both that burger and the one from Ahn’s. Mi Jalisco is usually open pretty late, way later than you would expect considering its sketchy location, but it was closed when I got there. Why?! Thinking fast, I drove straight to the Dimond District to my own neighborhood Quarter Pound Giant Burger (henceforth QPGB), the place you go when everything else is closed.

12. ¼ LB. GIANT BURGER- 2055 Mac Arthur Blvd.- 8:27pm- $4.30

Unlike some QPGB locations, the one in the Dimond is NOT open 24/7, but it stays open quite late by Oakland standards, maybe even until midnight on weekends. They’re trying really hard to gentrify the Dimond. The neighborhood association even tried in vain to stop a Little Caesar’s from opening in the Dimond in an attempt to keep the district moving upward. QPGB's are usually found in the more depressed areas of the East Bay, and the one in the Dimond seems to attract “the wrong element”, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dimond Gentrification Association eventually tries to somehow force out our local QPGB like the Lakeshore/Grand people seem to have done with Kwik Way. At night, this location is window-service only. The Mexican women inside were encased entirely in glass with the lights turned way up. Their only contact with customers is via a hole in the bulletproof glass. Aristocrats driving by at night might lament this sight and start thinking about putting in another coffee shop.

I don’t eat at QPGB much, but the burgers are usually quite good, especially at the Dimond branch. Every QPGB location is completely different. I think they’re all independently owned and are no longer under any kind of franchise restrictions, so the quality can vary greatly, depending on the location and who’s manning the griddle at the time. I got my burger and took it home with the Ahn's burger.

I was extremely full at this point. I unbuckled my pants and sat down in front of the TV. As usual, a Law and Order rerun was on. I wanted to slowly finish these burgers and hoped I'd be hungry enough go to the Oaks card room, Oscar's, or the Smokehouse after a little sitting time.

The Ahn’s burger was another letdown. To be fair, it had been almost 30 minutes since I had picked it up, so it wasn’t at its peak of freshness. However, even in its compromised condition, I could tell it wasn’t that great of an entry. It wasn’t as slipshod as the Chubby Freeze, but it wasn’t too far off from that. A griddled burger, it was quite small and dry and overly salty. Like the Chubby’s offering, it didn’t seem much better than a big-chain fast food burger, which is not okay when you spend $4 on such a small burger. It kind of reminded me of the burgers they had at Hardee’s before they upgraded their product years ago. Because the burger sat for half an hour before I began eating it, and because Ahn’s is so close to my home, I will not discount them completely. Like Chubby’s, they are also purported to make good shakes, so even if I get a lousy burger, the shake could atone for the burger's flaws.

It was a cold night, so the QPGB burger wasn’t very hot when I tried it, even though only 10 minutes had passed from the time I received it. Burgers are best when eaten right after cooking, so I may not have been eating this burger under optimum conditions, either. Even in its handicapped condition, the QPBG burger was leaps and bounds better than the Ahn’s or Chubby burgers. Their sandwich was closer to being a member of the In N’ Out genus, rather than the Hardee’s or Jack in the Box genus. It was a step up from Chubby's, but I’ve had better burgers from QPGB. They went way overboard on the onions and mayo, which again turned the bun and the lettuce to a soupy mess. I don’t recall them doing that at past visits at this location. The burgers there are griddled, but they’re usually quite juicy, so I think they cooked it a little too long this time because it was somewhat dry. The flavor was pretty good and still quite beefy, so it wasn’t entirely without merit.

I could only manage a couple of bites of each burger before I knew any additional food would induce certain projectile vomiting. I went to the bathroom to attempt defecation, but could only summon noxious-smelling urine and a fart that sounded like a train whistle run through a digital delay pedal. I sat back down in front of the TV. The next thing I knew, it was 11pm. If I had any energy left, I could’ve sprung to my feet, buckled my pants and headed to Berkeley. I could’ve found at least a couple more places to get non-chain cheeseburgers at that hour. But it was cold outside, and even though I was actually somewhat hungry again, I was in no condition to go gallivanting around the East Bay anymore. I shrugged and proceeded to eat the remains of the cold, congealing burgers before me. In this state, all burgers are equal. They were each gone in under a minute.

Eating burgers will never get old. If there is room in my stomach for anything, there is room for a cheeseburger. God bless Korea, because the USA has clearly dropped the ball in the sport of mom n' pop cheeseburger making.

The Best: Rico's Diner

The Worst: Chubby Freeze

COMING NEXT TIME (probably March): IEM #8- Pizza by the slice


Protex said...

Can I be your 'pace car' for the pizza challenge?

-- Patrone

k. irène said...

I scrolled down just checking out the pix before I read anything and KNEW Rico's was gonna be the best. QPGB is awesome to me though...

Hey, I am gonna be in SF for a few days at the end of March!

Jez said...

Very Nice. I imagine you went on a strict raw vegetable diet for the next couple of days after this event. I know I would have to. That much beef + my colon = nasty mess.