Buns and the city

Digging in to the streetwise beef of Urbun Burger and Mission Burger
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Urbun Burger
Photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

DINE In our hamburger-challenged city, the Mission District would not seem to be a particularly promising place to go burger-hunting. The hamburger is the all-American statement food, while the Mission is many things, but probably not all-American. Among the most conspicuous burger outlets in the Mission is Whiz Burger, which has held down the corner of 18th Street and South Van Ness since time immemorial and even has a parking lot, as if Arthur Fonzarelli might soon be rolling up in a '57 Chevy. I have eaten Whiz burgers from time to time, but I don't remember them — and, in fact, not remembering the hamburgers one has eaten in San Francisco seems to be a central fact about eating hamburgers in San Francisco. They are, generally speaking, forgettable at best.

Why this is so remains a mystery to me. Part of the answer might involve the local tendencies toward preciousness and fuss — obsessing about the pedigree of the meat and the bun (ciabatta? focaccia? baked with organic flour?) and the fancy cheese on top, or the exotic bacon, or the foie gras. All these grand touches are ruinous. A hamburger should not be complicated or fussy. The meat should have fat in it and be adequately salted. The soft bun should be buttered and toasted or griddled a little. Maybe a slice of cheese; the best cheese is wrapped in plastic sheets. Nothing says "American" quite like plastic.

Because the Mission is such a gaudy potpourri of ethnicities, styles, and foods, eating a hamburger there could be seen as a particularly pathetic sort of defeat. You could have had dosas or pupusas or rendang curry for the same money, maybe less. On the other hand, maybe there's an ironic appeal, and maybe that's the bet placed by Urbun Burger, which opened recently in the heart of the Valencia Street scene in a space that once held Yum Yum House.

The aesthetic makeover, it must be said, is sensational, with a spic-and-span factor Ray Kroc himself would approve of. Despite the deepness and narrowness of the layout, there is a sunniness to things. Under the cashier's station at the back is a panel of ceramic tiles in mod colors, while the tables sit on gleaming stainless-steel (or chrome) stems. Seating choices are unexpectedly vast; there are tables with taverna chairs, tables with barstools, and a long counter with barstools.

The turkey burger is to hamburger cookery what fish is in other kitchens: it is the test. A good turkey burger, like a good fish dish, doesn't just happen. Turkey is unforgiving. It dries out easily and doesn't taste like much. The best news I have to give about Urbun's turkey burger ($7.75) is that the fries ($2.75) were excellent — tender-crispy, near-molten inside, well-seasoned. But the burger itself was rather dry and lifeless inside its glossy (egg-washed?) bun. Had the kitchen failed to take the necessary remedial steps of adding at least egg yolk, and maybe some oil, to the ground meat? A slice of pepper-jack cheese struggled to make itself noticed, while the restaurant's signature urban sauce was a little too soupy to bring deliverance. But the fries!

While you can also get a vegan (although not a turkey) burger at Mission Burger, the real burger ($8) here is of beef. And not just beef but a blend of short rib, brisket, and chuck (all from Harris Ranch), none of which are exactly lean cuts. Plus, the patties are seared in beef fat. So moistness and flavor are not issues.

Neither is the setting, because for all practical purposes there is none. Mission Burger isn't a restaurant, per se; it's a kind of station at the end of the meat counter in the Duc Loi supermarket. You find it by locating the sign taped to an exhaust hood, as if the hood were a piece of oversized junk waiting on the sidewalk for a bulk-item collection by the trash company. Seating?

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