Tasting Americana 

Wherein our man Kauffman samples some no-frills, old-school burger joints.

A rambling answer to a short question I asked myself this week: From whence cometh the hamburger?

Grinding meat is nothing new. From meatballs to kibbe and the many luscious varieties of sausage that fill my dreams, grinding always has been a way to make tough or unusable cuts immediately palatable.

According to Hamburger Heaven by Jeffrey Tennyson, the hamburger's long, snaking path to an American icon started when German sailors shipping off from the port of Hamburg fell in love with the (raw) steak tartare they tasted in the Baltics. Once back in Germany, they began to add chopped onions and to cook the patty. Some of them moved to North America, and by the 1830s Delmonico's, the Manhattan temple of haute cuisine, included a "Hamburg-style steak" on its menu.

The transition from the white-tablecloth entrée to the sloppy sandwich is more problematic. Linda Stradley, author of I'll Have What They're Having: Legendary Local Cuisine, documents five competing claims from five different states, all around the turn of the 20th century, as to who first bunned the burger. The Connecticut contenders, descendants of Louis Lassen of New Haven, report that they have notarized, dated affidavits to back up their great-grandfather's claim. Was the burger in a bun a case of parallel evolution, or is someone not telling the truth?

Whatever its provenance, the hamburger probably wouldn't be the convenience food of today had it not been for another sacred institution, the diner. Richard Gutman and Elliott Kaufman, authors of American Diner, trace the diner back to Walter Scott (not the Sir), who set up a dining cart to sell food to late-night workers and boozehounds in the 1880s. He died relatively well-off, and his success encouraged thousands of entrepreneurs to build wheeled dining carts specializing in food that could be made "in short order."

Over the years, these carts became elaborate one-counter rolling restaurants. By the 1910s their owners began to brick up around the wheels, earning an address and a whiff of respectability. Somewhere in the days of jazz and Model Ts, the destiny of the hamburger merged with the destiny of the diner.

Believe it or not, White Castle, founded in Wichita, Kansas in 1916, is the progenitor of the burger chain, but the burger-joint phenomenon took off when A) returning World War II vets decided to invest their saved-up combat pay in small businesses; B) the burgeoning car-and-highway culture in the States brought about the need for roadside dining; and C) the brothers McDonald and Ray Kroc revolutionized the way Americans made, marketed, and even thought about fast food -- and spawned thousands of small-scale wannabe chains, only a few of which survive to this day.

Which finally brings me to the subject of this week's review: the remnants of the heady days when the Fast Food Nation was born -- the picturesque dead ends of the evolutionary process, the beta males that never led the pack but stuck around while others flourished and disappeared. (Remember Burger Chef? Hardee's?) I visited three of the East Bay's museum-quality burger stands: Red Onion, Sam's Super Burger, and Hambrick's Quarter Pound Giant Burger.

Your gourmet burger spots will gently form a thick, well-larded patty of USDA Choice chuck and grill it until it is fuchsia in the middle and oozes enough juice to stain the insides of the bun pink. But these three restaurants specialize in the skinny, quick-cooking, well-done burger. They're tastier than Whoppers and McAnythings, and often not much more expensive. The fries rock, too.

The Red Onion in El Sobrante can't be much bigger than my bedroom, and it's much pinker. Inside, you've got enough room for a griddle and a couple of deep-fat fryers, one sit-down counter with a clear view of your dinner in the making, and another stand-up counter facing out onto Appian Way. According to the waiter, the place was put up in 1963. It's had four owners in forty years, but the menu has remained pretty much the same: The malts have gone, the shakes have stayed, and that's pretty much it.

I watched the cook make everything to order. My onions sizzled away alongside the hamburger, and while my fries bubbled away in the fryer my bun grew crispy on the griddle. Everything came together nicely, the burger well-done but moist, the onions silky, the tomatoes summer-red. Normally I hate crinkle-cut fries, but Red Onion's stayed crunchy and the insides tasted like honest-to-goodness potatoes. My dining companion had a bowl of dense, meaty chili that started off ho-hum but improved on further acquaintance. Then we splurged on a couple pieces of pie, which the cook claimed he had made that day. The banana cream, with its crumbly crust and soft, glistening layers of custard and whipped cream, proved him honest.

The next week, I heeded the call of the neon sign announcing Hambrick's Quarter Pound Giant Burger in Hayward. The East Bay is dotted with Giant Burgers and Quarter Pound Giant Burgers, but the woman I spoke to later on the phone assured me that the two chains are not related. Like the others in this family-owned chain of six, the Mission Boulevard Hambrick's was built about 35 years ago, and its low, angular frame is walled up in the same uneven rock as my parents' 1960s-era prairie-style ranch house and all the Bob's Big Boys in Northern Indiana. There's a Formica counter and chairs inside, but we've arrived after 8 and the women who work the counter have locked up, so we order our burgers at the window and eat in our car just like everyone else in this packed parking lot.

Hambrick's burger is just about as good as the Red Onion's -- same size, same thickness, a little bit dryer. Just for something different, my friend and I order our burgers with the chili cheese fries. The fries held up pretty well under the onslaught of a bucket of chili and Cheez Whiz, but in the end they folded. You would, too, I suspect. The bits that stuck out from the gooey mass were delicately crusted and creamy inside. It was twenty kinds of wrong. Did we finish them? You bet. Sadly, I couldn't say the same of the banana cream pie, which tasted like fake banana and had a dense molded "whipped topping." I learned later that it was made by an outside vendor.

Sam's Super Burger in San Lorenzo is a funny-looking place, a bathroom-size grill encased in glass with two drive-up windows on either side. Blue and white spots cover the top of the building. The effect is both darling and faintly derelict, like walking into your grandfather's living room and inhaling that potent mix of must and air freshener that seems to come up from the carpet: Welcome home.

One of two Sam's in the East Bay, the doublet is owned by Sam Gazes, Jr., the founder's grandson. Sam's workers slap their burgers on the griddle the moment you order them, and they're quite decent, too, but the bun is a little mushy. The fries have definitely been double-dipped in the oil -- a lower-temp first dip to cook the potatoes, a higher-temp second bath to crisp up the outsides -- coming out golden and crusty and speckled with salt. I had to try one of Sam's tacos. It wasn't very different from the burgers -- a greasy, griddle-crisped corn tortilla filled with crumbled beef, American cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce. Two bites and I returned to my bacon cheeseburger, washing it down with my tub of soda.

These days the hamburger is no longer a sandwich but an icon, vilified as a symbol of all that is wrong with corporate America and our poor diets or venerated with prime beef and hickory-burning grills. Sitting at the counter of a place like the Red Onion, bending over your paper basket so that your sandwich won't drip all over your shirt, is enough to take you back to a time when a burger was just a burger.

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