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Battle of the Burgers 

In a land of vegetarians, heres where to find the beef.

Patty sizzling on the grill, cheese melting over its sides, bun toasting nearby, crisp lettuce and tomato at the ready -- a burger is about to be born. And when a burger is right, it occasions transcendent bliss. A moment of silence save for the sound of chewing. But when a burger is bad ... well. Soggy, greasy, gristly: The list of pitfalls is painful and long.

So what makes a burger perfect?

Good, fresh beef. Not a lifeless frozen patty, but ground chuck, USDA grade A at the very least.

A hot grill. Not a frying pan or griddle; these leave the meat too greasy. Charbroiling, that is to say, cooking the burgers over hot coals, is ideal.

Cheese. Another big gun in the flavor department, rich and pungent cheese can make an already tasty burger absolutely divine. Sharp cheddar or aged Swiss are best.

Crisp lettuce -- green leaf is best, with a juicy but firm tomato slice, and mayonnaise or a "special sauce" with a mayonnaise component. The lettuce provides texture and the tomato a note of piquancy. The mayonnaise is the catalyst for that magical hamburger "juice" where all the flavors come together. (Pass around lots of napkins.)

Soft fresh bun. No stale chewy French roll, sliced bread (how gauche!), or English muffin, thank you. Those who think these breads can be gourmet or "funky" are sadly deluded. The best hamburgers are made with egg-bread rolls, toasted. Standard white buns can also work if properly toasted, as can extremely fresh foccacia or challah rolls.

Don't forget the pickle -- either sliced on the burger or in wedge form alongside, it provides a much-needed touch of acidity. Delish.

If you don't want to cook your own, the East Bay has enough hamburger havens to keep even Homer Simpson happy.

Fatapples (two locations)
1346 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley
510-526-2260
7525 Fairmont, El Cerrito
510-528-3433
Perfectly cooked and perfectly fresh. The meat here is so good that you can even enjoy it medium-rare if you like. Cheeseburgers are the best here, with longhorn cheddar coarsely grated and generously showered over the patty. This cheese never entirely melts, but this creates an enjoyable hearty effect. Another option is New York sharp cheddar, which the cooks thinly slice and melt atop the burger while it is still on the grill. Bleu-cheese dressing is also available, as are sautéed mushrooms, grilled onions, and bacon. Mayonnaise is always served on the side, at the diner's request, so don't forget to ask for it.

Autumn Moon Café
3909 Grand, Oakland
510-595-3200
Burger aficionados around the bay, including San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer, agree that Autumn Moon makes an outstanding burger. Generously large USDA Choice ground chuck patties are flame-broiled, then served on big fresh challah rolls from Semifreddi's. Chef Kerry Hefferman' s grilled onions, which she makes according to a secret recipe, are a succulent topping, and the lettuce and tomato are always fresh. Co-owner Wendy Levy was a vegetarian for seven years, but now she admits: "Sometimes a burger is just what you need. ... A few years back my friend was held up at gunpoint and we had to drive around in a police car for hours looking for the suspect. When we got home, my friend said, 'Let' s have hamburgers.' It just felt right."

Café Rouge
1782 Fourth, Berkeley
510-525-2707
This is the place for ladies who really lunch. The philosophy at Café Rouge, a specialty meat restaurant opened by graduates of Chez Panisse, is that no meal is better than the quality of its ingredients. The burger is no exception. Niman Ranch beef is used to make the hamburgers here. Excessive as a velvet baby diaper? Perhaps, but on first bite all arguments are silenced by the deep true flavor of this beef. Expert cooks prepare your burger exactly as you request it. This -- and a fresh sesame bun, ripe juicy tomato, and crisp lettuce -- elevate the Café Rouge burger to a true gourmet experience.

The Smokehouse
3115 Telegraph, Oakland
510-845-3640
This wooden shack's red picnic tables and menu of hot dogs and hamburgers cry out for a summer's day, though in reality, the place is a late-night favorite for Cal students and neighborhood residents. The burgers here are flame-broiled right before your eyes. They are not fancy and are served with only ketchup and relish unless you specify "deluxe" toppings: a hearty tuft of iceberg lettuce, a firm slab of tomato, and that most luxurious of condiments by the Smokehouse's standards: mayonnaise. (Yet more exotic toppings include cheese and chili.) The quality of the beef does leave something to be desired and a bit of gristle might be found hiding out in your burger, but what the patty lacks in pedigree it makes up for in character; that fresh grilled flavor saves the day. The bun is also lightly grilled, making for a pleasant texture reminiscent of a home barbecue. The Smokehouse knows what it is, and as long as you know what it is too, you're sure to enjoy it.

Oscars
1890 Shattuck, Berkeley
510-849-2164
No review of East Bay burgers would be complete with out a visit to the long-standing, strong-smelling Oscar's, whose smoky aroma has been perfuming the intersection at Shattuck and Hearst for decades. This greasy spoon recently changed hands, but never fear; the new management is keeping it real. These flame-broiled burgers can really hit the spot if you are acutely hungry and the meat is thankfully gristle-free these days -- but beware of the squishy white bun.

-- Kathryn Jessup

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