Our last exchange was during the Fried Chicken Apocalypse in December — a fitting conclusion to the “Fried Chicken Showdown” series. Sadly, an actual apocalypse has since taken hold.
No need to worry — a junk food renaissance is underway: Burgers. That is, where to find the best burger in the Mission, and perhaps beyond.
Burgers are of an entirely different taxonomy as fried chicken sandwiches: They can be found everywhere, in all grades, sizes, and prices. The definition of a “good burger” is perhaps more elusive than defining a “good life.” Plato didn’t even try.
What is the right grease-to-bun ratio? Is the burger about the beef or about the concerto of cheese, veggies, and the fries on the side? Should the jalapeños be fresh or pickled?
There was only one place in the Mission District to begin to figure it all out, and that was Whiz Burgers on 18th Street and South Van Ness Avenue. Never mind its half-century history or the “experiences” a slumming hipster in a burger costume can have there. The reality is, the neon Whiz sign seems to tower as high as — if not higher than — the church steeples in this neighborhood. It’s burger religion in the Mission, and that’s where our journey begins.
But I won’t mince words or beef or whatever: The burger at Whiz Burgers wasn’t … good. But it didn’t cross the threshold of bad, either.
I ordered the Whiz Burger, “a 1/3lb Ground Chuck patty with 2 strips of Bacon, Avocado, Lettuce, Tomato, Pickles, Onions, Mustard & Mayo served on a French Roll,” says its menu.
Judging by the miasma of grease that emits from the Whiz shack (and I’m convinced that’s what glues the structure together), the burger was dry, dry, dry. It reminded me of the hockey pucks my summer camp used to grill en masse. The patty could have been made out of beans — and who wants that?
The veggies were pro forma cheap produce — yet quite fresh and crunchy. The bun seemed to be recently baked but was dry and, well, bready. The bacon was of the Oscar Mayer grade — and really, the most delicious thing. That, and the avocado, which moistened the dry patty.
In short, I was expecting an overloaded greasy, messy, headache-inducing drive-in burger, and what I got was closer to what I’d find at a vegan restaurant. Not heavy, but not tasty. Whiz’s namesake burger is the kind of burger you eat when you don’t want to think about eating.
And sometimes, that’s what you want. I’ll definitely go back, but maybe for something else. —JM
The last time I ate at Whiz Burgers, you had not yet graced this planet.
Even back then we considered the place more of a nostalgia thing, a la American Graffiti, rather than a place to eat. We bought the burgers only to protect against overdosing on burritos.
Since then, I’ve walked by it many times and, like most places in the neighborhood, it’s undergone a series of changes. One year, waitresses on roller skates delivered your order. And then there was the year Whiz Burgers went upscale – offering such nouveau cuisine as grilled salmon and pulled pork. That didn’t last long.
Today, the menu is back to basics. Its cleanliness rating from the health department stands at an uninspiring 83 — a recent jump from 81. You have to give them points for displaying it proudly (or defiantly?) in the window.
Tourists like Whiz Burgers. Judging from reviews on Trip Advisor, tourists believe the Whiz Burgers sign and overall shabby appearance translates into “classic” or “authentic” burgers. They give it 4.5 stars out of 5.
Some tourists, like a “visual artist” writing in the Chronicle, imagine Whiz Burgers to be a sign of some imaginary Mission District.
“Honestly,” he writes, “the location, people watching, and overall neighborhood mojo drew me in and still brings me back.”
Honestly? “People watching” at 18th and South Van Ness?
He is especially drawn to a noir atmosphere of “deviant behavior” and “gnarly crimes.” Surely he was reading Eric Lyle’s classic essay about Hunt’s Donuts.
As I don’t have a car, my plan had been to eat at one of the two picnic tables in the parking lot behind the stand. A young couple was smoking weed at one of them, as Whiz Burgers customers have for decades (maybe this is the reason tourists like the joint).
There was another table free and more than six feet between us, but I would be eating downwind from them. And there was a lot of wind. They didn’t look pre-symptomatic, but they could have been asymptomatic. Would their droplets, their aerosols, vanish in the wind, or would they be blown onto my hands, face, burger and fries?
Death by Whiz Burgers, though arguably “classic” and “authentic,” would not be my preferred mode of transition. But I stayed to taste the fries before they cooled. Would a Whiz Burgers french fry, like Proust’s madeleine, transport me back to the ’80s?
Not much grease, a fair amount of salt, and yes, it did have the aftertaste of a potato that had been around since the ’80s. But no memories. So I sprayed myself with hand sanitizer, pulled up my mask, and fled back to the safety of home.
I didn’t expect much from the burger, and wasn’t disappointed. The mayo, avocado, and thick chewy French roll dominated. An overabundance of slathered mayo turned the lettuce into a kind of sad, wilted slaw, punctuated by a scrap of red here and there: a piece of tomato, onion, or “bacon.”
As I ate, my mind kept repeating Walter Mondale’s putdown of Gary Hart in 1984: “Where’s the beef?”
I am surprised you found the meal “not heavy.” After eating, my stomach felt like it was trying to digest an anvil. It stayed that way for hours. At 2 a.m. I woke up afraid I would need a ventilator.
Unlike you, I won’t be returning to Whiz Burgers. At least not for another 30 years.
See you next week at the Pork Store. —MR
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