The burger hopper

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paulr@sfbg.com

The hamburger has a certain Zelig quality in America: It turns up all over the place, in guises high and low, at fancy metropolitan restaurants and greasy truck stops on the outskirts of every Podunk and Palookaville from coast to coast. Some, like the famous Zuni burger, are made from carefully ground high-end beef; many others many, many others are made from meat whose provenance we probably don't care to think about.

The hamburger, then, is democratic in the best American sense. It looks as good in coat and tails as it does in a pair of sweatpants. It uncomplainingly accepts the companionship of cheese, yes, all kinds of cheese, but also of bacon, avocado, mushrooms, and grilled onions not to mention lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles. It can be made in a flash cooked in a pan, under a broiler, on a griddle, over hot coals and eaten with ease, being a variant of that incomparable finger food, the sandwich. It is suitable for practically any occasion; it is our national food. Presidents and paupers alike eat hamburgers.

Yet as democracy in America wanes, one cannot help wondering about the fate of the burger. Of course, San Francisco is not the ideal location for these kinds of ruminations, for this has never been much of a hamburger town. The city's culinary roots are, instead, Franco-Italian, Chinese, Mexican, and maritime none of them huge on ground-beef patties and in later years we have witnessed a bloom of vegetarian regimes in which the trusty burger is anathema or worse. Add to all this a raft of concerns about mad cow disease and E. coli contamination, LDL and the ethical treatment of animals, and you have a recipe for ... linguine with broccoli, or something.

Yet the burger is a hardy little fellow, and places that honor its tenacity persist and even, modestly, proliferate. One new such spot is Toad's, which opened toward the end of January in the old Café Arguello space at Valencia and 26th Streets. You would not think, walking into Toad's, that here is a restaurant dealing mainly in hamburgers and hot dogs, nor for that matter that you were entering a restaurant named Toad's; the cream-and-dark-wood look is one of understated elegance and makes the tall, straight, boxy space look like a small Town Hall. The flat-panel television mounted above the bar toward the rear and tuned to ESPN does give a slight sports-bar air and does, perhaps, whet the appetite for such all-Americana as buffalo wings, potatoes, nachos, and curly fries, all of which the menu offers.

Not too many years ago, curly fries were a Jack in the Box exclusive, but now you can get them at one-off places like Toad's, and they're every bit as good crisp and slightly spicy coils as the fast-food version. You can get a full order of them, complete with buttermilk ranch dressing, for $3.95, but a better option might be to upgrade the fries included in the cost of your burger. This slight surcharge bumps the price of the well-seasoned and juicy avocado cheeseburger, say (with a half avocado's worth of buttery, ripe slices and choice of cheese), from $8.95 to $9.95 and provides more than enough curly fries, unless you are really fixated.

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