Few things are more American than the fast food burger. But the institution and its practices have come under fire of late, in the era of pink slime, Super Size Me, and food-borne illness. McDonald's and others are rehabbing their image by highlighting their producers, introducing healthier menu options, and providing more transparency into their ingredient sourcing and animal welfare practices, but suspicion and doubt towards fast food is in the national mindset.
Restaurateurs are moving in with better quality ingredients. Like Danny Meyer with Shake Shack in New York, Adriano Paganni of Starbelly, Delarosa, and Beretta is elevating San Francisco's fast food burger. Super Duper Burger opened its fifth Bay Area location last month in SOMA, and with its commitment to local ingredients, sustainable business practices, and old-fashioned deliciousness, the local chain is quietly becoming an establishment. It joins a growing group of better burger joints that may not have the lightning-quick service of fast food, but are certainly quicker than a gastropub. Call it fast-enough food.
The Super Duper burgers taste like the vegetarian-fed Niman Ranch beef they're made from, are cooked on a high-tech chrome flat-top grill, and come out dripping with juice and grease. (Be careful: You will splatter it on your shirt if you don't take precautions.) The beef is cooked to medium and looks it; the patties are pink in the middle, which is a huge psychological benefit compared to the overcooked, grayish mystery meat of many fast food chains. The 8-ounce Super Duper Burger ($6.50; $7 with cheese), two patties welded together with secret sauce and California cheddar, is a deeply satisfying meld of beef, cheese, and grease that requires two hands to eat. The 4-ounce Mini Burger ($4.50; $5 with cheese) is a scaled-down version of the same and enough to be a meal in itself.
Once you choose your burger size, you can make it as fancy as you like with the mix-and-match toppings, which offer a range not often seen in similar burger places. Lettuce, tomato, red onion, and the Thousand Island-y secret sauce come standard, and you can add jalapeños, grilled onions, and house-made pickles for free. An extra buck will get you avocado, a fried organic egg, roasted portobello mushrooms, bacon, or blue cheese. The bacon was the only bum note — it was undercooked and seemed like overkill given the burger's grease factor — but the rest of the toppings added verve and flavor. Talk about having it your way.
Super Duper Burger plays up its slogan, "Fast food burgers, slow food values" with its retro-hip decor: vintage Americana signboards that boast of home-baked cookies and artisanal buns, a chalkboard menu, meals delivered via metal cafeteria tray. But it keeps the nostalgia subtle — there are no mason jars, homespun menu names like "Grandma Sue's Apple Pie," or poodle skirts and '60s ballads like the Johnny Rockets of the world. Instead, it feels honest, modern, and most of all, earnest about the values it's promoting.
Any self-respecting burger joint needs to do two other things well: french fries and milkshakes. Super Duper delivers on the shakes ($4.75-$5.75) made with Straus organic soft serve (which you can also order on a cone). The milkshakes taste like chocolate and strawberry, not the chemical approximations, and are thin enough to drink through a straw (nothing is worse than a milkshake so thick it feels like sucking cement).
The fries are merely okay. They have a nice texture — mealy inside, crisp outside — but not much flavor. Even with added salt, they still lacked that umami that McDonald's used to achieve with beef tallow (and now achieves with beef flavoring). The fries are helped considerably by a trio of dips ($1), including homemade mayo that rivals any Belgian frites stand, a kicky chipotle aioli, and the same secret sauce that comes with the burgers. And they serve as a neutral base for the addictive garlic fries ($2.75), which are topped with a melted mess of grated six-month aged cheddar and minced garlic — enough to add flavor without destroying your breath for the rest of the day.
If you're not in the mood for beef, the non-burger options are a mixed bag. There are visible chunks of corn and other vegetables inside the house-made veggie burger ($5.50), which is crisped on the outside, topped with hummus and cucumbers, and reminiscent of falafel. But the chicken sandwich ($6.50) is a dry, thin piece of white meat (albeit free-range white meat) on a ciabatta bun, just saved with a slather of chipotle aioli. The Super Salad ($5.50) is a fairly pedestrian bowl of green lettuce, diced ripe tomatoes, cucumber, and a garlicky Caesar dressing, but add-ons like chicken, bacon, avocado, and portobello mushrooms ($1-$3) can liven it up.
The service isn't instant, but it's speedy enough — no order took more than 10 minutes, and while you wait you can snack on the self-serve pickles, which are appealingly fresh, tangy, and slightly sweet. Plus, Super Duper is following the Shake Shack model of offering beer and wine on tap (you can also get your milkshake "spiked" with vodka for an extra $1.50). Sipping a Racer 5 IPA while eating a sustainably raised hamburger topped with avocado felt very grown-up. In true American fashion, the old has been made new again.