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Wes Rowe and the San Francisco Burger Rampage 

Wednesday, Apr 27 2016
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We nod in sync as we chew. This one's definitely good. As we drive off, feeling quite full by this point, Rowe returns to the subject of high-end burgers and peanut butter.

"I like a greasy, shitty burger, you know?" he says. "I like them when they're done really well — but in essence, I want it to be a greasy, shitty burger. I don't want you to challenge me with it as much as soothe my soul. For example, peanut butter: That can come off as a challenge, but it's also just peanut butter. It's familiar, and familiar flavors in burgers are a really good thing."

We've got one more fancy burger to go, however: The Hux Deluxe at Huxley, in the Tenderloin. It's a four-ounce, $15 creation that comes with MSG aioli, pickles, frisee, fried onion, a bacon wheel, and "'Merican cheese."

With all those ingredients stacked, it's tall — and there's a knife sticking out of it to lend stability (and a whiff of danger). I joke about needing to unhinge my jaw. Both Rowe and chef Manfred Wrembel say, "Squeeze it down!" at the same time, with the same degree of impatience. So I do, and it's layer upon layer of umami, knitted together with delicious monosodium glutamate. Rowe initially mistakes the bacon wheel for more onion until quickly realizing its true nature as the fountainhead of that salty goodness. The Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night" is playing as our chatter melts into a companionable silence — until we order chicharrones, to get the most out of the aioli.

"I can taste the MSG on my fingers now!" Rowe says as we leave. We're three for three.

Then it was on to the greasy-spoon half of the burger tour. Had we the time, there are near-infinite places where this adventure could take us, not all of them expressly burger-related. Rowe loves the mashed potatoes and gravy at Frisco Fried on Third Street in the Bayview ("I'm pretty sure they make it out of turkey necks, but he wouldn't tell me. I asked his daughter and she said, 'He wouldn't even tell me!'") and I love the extraordinary weirdness of the Silver Crest Diner, on Bayshore.

"I've never had their burger," Rowe says. "I've only been at the bar in the back, for ouzo."

We don't see eye-to-eye on everything. Rowe likes Popson's more than I do, and I like Super Duper more than he does. But by the time we get to Sam's on Broadway — a North Beach hole-in-the-wall if there ever was one — we're in total agreement: This place is a revelation. The walls are paneled in wood, everything's served on paper plates, you can get fried shrimp for $8.50, and you pay when you're finished in spite of it being counter service. On T-shirts, there's a favorable blurb from Anthony Bourdain saying, "That's a good motherfuckin' burger! Top 3 in the world!" (which sounds to me like the words of an intoxicated person who's been put on the spot). And the burger: It's got a ton of ketchup and mayo on it, and Rowe and I have enough of a buzz going that if we hadn't already chowed down three that day already, we could probably order one more. In other words: This is the perfect drunk food.

Rowe is a little jealous. Not so much of the burgers as of the open, diner-style kitchen, with the grill in the very front — and the fact that Sam's is licensed to sell cigarettes, and WesBurger isn't.

A few days later, we meet up and drive to the 54-year-old Beep's Burgers in Ingleside, which elicits another favorable McDonald's comparison right off the bat.

"I don't know the difference," Rowe says. "McDonald's is really fucking processed, and I don't know to what degree less this place is, but the proof is in the pudding."

Beep's is just across Ocean Avenue from City College, where Rowe studied for a few years. He's delighted to find Dublin Dr. Pepper — the bottled kind, also from Texas — and speculates on Beep's profit margin, selling it at $2.25 a pop. We order two. It tastes more like berries than ordinary Dr. Pepper, and Rowe misses the carbonation.

"I didn't get that first sip of watery eyes and a runny nose," he says.

It's windy, and we almost want to eat in the car instead of at the lone picnic table in the parking lot — as Beep's has no indoor seating — but other than that, we both give it high marks.

"The bun has a really nice, squishy feeling," Rowe says. "Way better than a place that's doing frozen Restaurant Depot or Sysco buns. And Beep's sauce is just like mustard and mayo, I think. I could eat these forever and be happy."

Burger rampages notwithstanding, how many burgers does Rowe eat in a week? Not that many, it turns out.

"I have one, and it's the special I test every week," he says. "I take bites here and there."

OK, but what about eating other people's burgers?

"Maybe one more than that," he says. "I have to be careful, I can't burn out on burgers. I don't know too many people who eat more than two burgers a week on average who are creative and healthy people."

The risk of this burnout foremost in our minds, we make our sixth and final stop: Hamburger Haven in the Richmond. Although he's afraid it's "against the rules," in the end, we share a patty melt on rye with onion rings and two cups of coffee. Hamburger Haven is even older than Beep's, and in spite of closing fairly early (8:30 p.m.) it has an Edward Hopper vibe, with yellow windowpanes filling the rear with strange light.

"I've been going here probably the longest of any place in San Francisco," Rowe says. "I used to live in the Presidio, and it's one of the closest places I could go to. The couple who owns and runs it probably own the building, and if they ever sell it, maybe I'll have WesBurger location no. 2."

About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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