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Many hamburger places are at some pains to keep you from seeing, or wondering, exactly what's going into — as opposed to on top of — your burger. So I was rather surprised to find, at Bullshead Restaurant (a West Portal spot that recently opened a branch in the Castro), a glass display case near the entryway, laid out with various high-end-looking cuts of meat along with a selection of preshaped burger patties, as at a butcher's shop.
"Is this stuff for sale?" I asked.
A staffer behind the counter nodded.
"Even the buffalo burgers?"
"Yes. They're $10.95 a pound," she said. She pointed out the buffalo burgers in the case, where they lurked in the back, behind their beef counterparts, and were distinguishable from same by a darker color, almost the purplish shade of a bruise, as were the strip and loin steaks. My first thought was that $10.95 per pound is a little steep for hamburger, even if beautifully formed into grill-ready patties, but on the other hand it's roughly comparable to the tariff for Boca Burgers, the excellent poseurs made of soy.
Buffalo meat is also supposed to be better for you than beef: lower in calories and cholesterol, higher in protein. The restaurant's documentation contends that eating it contributed to the well-being and longevity of the various tribes of Plains Indians, for whom the animal was an important source of food. Even if the health factor is a wash, we should still cast a kindly eye on buffalo meat: the buffalo is an American original, its return from near-extinction is a modest but real ecological triumph, and the burgers made from its flesh are, quite frankly, superior to beef burgers, at least at Bullshead.
They are also a little more expensive, on the order of a buck to a buck and a quarter per order, depending on the dosage of meat you want. (You choose between third- and half-pound allotments, and your options include, in addition to buffalo and beef, organic beef and turkey.) But they are dressed just like their more plebeian siblings, in garb that ranges from a simple slice of cheese (American, Swiss, cheddar, jack, or mozzarella) to more elaborate combinations involving mushrooms, bacon, blue cheese, and avocado. There is even a Hawaiian burger, topped with pineapple rings — shades, for some of us, of the dread Hawaiian pizza from undergraduate days.
But let us first consider the terrain as it might appear to a vegetarian or someone who just isn't that hungry. Our party one evening included such a person, and her eye was first drawn to the ocean burger, where said eye remained until we were told the fish was deep-fried. So long, see you tomorrow. That left the garden burger ($8.95), which the menu card laconically described as a "grilled vegetarian patty" with slices of avocado and a sauté of mushrooms and onions. I was not feeling too optimistic in this matter, fearing that we would be served one of those disks of mashed legumes with bits of carrot and peas and a few sprouts shooting forth like strands of uncombable hair. But the vegetarian patty turned out to be quite nearly fantastic, of plausibly burgerish texture and well seasoned with cumin and just enough cayenne pepper to be interesting. The avocado and sauté were fine, and the side of coleslaw needed only some salt to pass muster.
The pepper jack buffalo burger ($9.75 for a one-third-pound edition) didn't carry much of a pepper charge — a pity, since pepper jack cheese is a lively variant of a stolid old standby. But the meat was so luxurious it did not matter: it was intensely flavored without being greasy and had been cooked medium rare, as ordered, with a center rosy as a child's cheeks on a bright winter morn. The organic-beef version (also $9.75 for one third of a pound) was creditable, but it did not have quite the intensity of flavor or the moistness.
We tried the latter — along with an excellent pastrami sandwich ($7.95) served with commendable fries — at the Castro location, which opened recently in one of those upstairs-downstairs buildings across the street from the Cala Market. Previously there had been several generations of Italian restaurants in the split-level space, and a canopy of inverted wine goblets still hangs like a flock of glass bats on a rack above the bar on the main floor. The aura is sunny and pleasant, with an unobstructed view of street traffic (which is ceaseless and stares right back at you), but it doesn't feel like a place that serves buffalo wings and buffalo burgers, and it doesn't look anything like its West Portal sibling.
"Don't you feel like we're at a restaurant someplace in the Midwest?" one of my companions said apropos the latter location. Yes: apart from the display cases up front, the senior Bullshead is a warren of old wood, yellowish floors, and yellowish light and could easily be named the Pine Cone and be seated beside one of those old two-lane US highways that crisscrossed the country in the long-ago days before the interstates. The setting is a little creaky, yes, a little dowdy, but it is also friendly, and familiar in a profound way. It's a little bit like the diner in Diner, a spot for impromptu gatherings by the cheerful young, or that nameless café in the cartoon strip Blondie where Dagwood Bumstead is always stuffing his face at lunch. I don't think that place serves buffalo burgers, at least not yet.SFBG
West Portal: Tues.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Mon., 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
840 Ulloa, SF
Castro: Sun.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–11 p.m.
4230 18th St., SF
Beer and wine
Pleasant noise level
Castro location not wheelchair accessible