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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.
In keeping with the restaurant's handsome look, the Joe Six-Pack menu is full of sly upscaleness. The beef burgers are made from Black Angus, and there are several meatless choices available (including the amazingly lifelike Boca burger), along with homemade chili and soup of the day ($4.95 a bowl), which, even when it sounds drab — zucchini and mushrooms, maybe, classic bottom-of-the-bin, end-of-the-week stuff — is likely to be spiffed up with some cumin and chili pepper. You can get Stella Artois and Big Daddy IPA on tap. The one thing Toad's doesn't have is the alfresco option. For that you'll have to traipse over to Barney's Gourmet Burgers in Noe Valley.
Like Toad's, Barney's is a burger joint with a fair amount of discreet spit and polish. The space used to belong to a bistro, and the beer garden–worthy garden out front, set with umbrella-shaded tables and potted plants, was an important draw for diners who might otherwise be tempted to step into Little Italy (now Lupa) across the street. When Barney's took over, there was quiet mourning in some quarters at fate's lack of imagination, but the place has had a long run and — to judge from the crowds in the garden day and night — a successful one.
As it happens, Barney's, too, offers curly fries, and they are as good as Toad's (and Jack's), right down to the ranch dressing. Although I made the mistake of ordering the curlies separately, I thought I was exercising moderation by getting only a half basket of them ($3.50) and was dismayed to find, when I weighed myself the morning after, that I'd gained five pounds. Moral of story: no morning-after weigh-ins, and curly fries should probably be eaten with tweezers, or handled with some of the same ceremony and officiousness that Seinfeld's übertoff Mr. Pitt brought to the enjoyment of his Snickers bars. (Knife! Fork! White linen napkin!)
The burgers, they are fine and conform nicely to the local standard. (Assuming you know what I mean, I shall say no more.) Lighter eaters and beefphobes will be relieved to learn that Barney's offers turkey burgers outfitted in various ways — dusted with Cajun spices ($6.95), maybe, then blackened like Gulf red snapper. Such a burger might not play in Palookaville, but here in the big city, it's the people's choice, or one of them. SFBG
Dinner: nightly, 5:30–9:30 p.m.
Lunch: Sun., noon–3 p.m.
1499 Valencia, SF
Beer and wine
Barney's Gourmet Hamburgers
Mon.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.
Sun., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.
4138 24th St., SF
Beer and wine
Pleasant noise level