Photo by Lydia Chávez

Dear Mark, 

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


Julian,

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

It’s not the most dangerous reporting, but then again, maybe it is. Support Mission Local today. 

Mark Rabine

Mark Rabine has lived in the Mission for over 40 years. "What a long strange trip it's been."

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31 Comments

  1. This article is about 80% nonsense. And you’re just trying too damn hard.

    For example “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.“

    Why would you judge the dryness of the burger by the miasma of grease emissions from the Whiz shack? Does that make any sense at all in any world? Do better.

    1. You’re so right Mitch! I tell Julian all the time: “people come to Mission Local to read a sandwich review, not the Divine Comedy.” Check out his fried chicken sandwich reviews! He swooned over Los Picudos milanesa (which is, I admit, excellent, but is it a fried chicken sandwich?). You know what’s really unsettling? Julian’s not alone. This is the way kids write today. Who else would compare the relative greasiness of a burger and the kitchen (shack) it comes from? Rest easy Mitch, the Great Burger Desk is on the case. Thanks for your help. Like Whiz Burgers burgers, he can definitely use more seasoning.

  2. The key to Whiz Burger is to not get the burger – go for the Philly Cheesesteak with Cross-Cut Fries and a Banana Shake. That’s the recipe for success!

  3. Zeitgeist used to make the best burger in town, but I haven’t gone since the hipster take over, who knows what they’re charging now, or if they make it the same way.

  4. Oooh so bourgeoisie of you.

    Such provincial snottiness really ought to stay in Walnut Creek.

  5. Seriously, what is the point of this series? To kick a local institution right in one of the worst times ever for small businesses?

    Bravo. Really mean spirited and wholly unnecessary. Snots.

    1. Thanks Ken. I never thought about the connection between Walnut Creek, the bourgeoisie and general snottiness, but you’re definitely on to something. I sent your comment to a friend who lives in Walnut Creek to see if she can flesh it out. Do you write novels? Anyway, Whiz Burgers has been around since 1955. It’s survived the HUAC hearings, the Zebra Killer, Joe Alioto, the Loma Prieta earthquake, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the passing of La Rondalla, hyper-gentrification and Quentin Kopp. So I’m fairly sure it will keep slinging its “classic” burgers into the future despite phlegmatic reviews and economic catastrophes. Though, I really can’t imagine that place lasting another 30 years. Can you? That would be an authentic miracle (which loads of Walnut Creek burghers would drive down to sniff at).

      1. Wasn’t there a commercial with Steve Young? Does anyone remember BEEPS BY City College? Both SF Landmark. Never forget La Rondalla, and the Jitneys

  6. I worked at a Whiz Burger in Seattle in the 60s. Their Frenchie hamburger was the best. Not sure if same company.

  7. Hmmm…from reading both reviews, I’ll skip that place. I’m not the mediocre type that eats without thinking about eating. That’s what those tastaless morons that eat at McDonald’s and fill their kid’s bodies w/chemical junk food do. Personally the best burgers I’ve here in the city isn’t here in the mission though. It’s Beep’s burgers out on Ocean Ave., across from City College(or Shitty Knowledge, as I call them). They use real Neiman pasture fed beef and their rolls are made locally by the Acme bakery. The patties come in 1/4 or 1/2 lb. selection.. Their staff are always friendly and u can see ur order being made. Aside from their burgers which are extremely delicious because they are of the Neiman beef company, their Fish & Chips dish is huge hearty and served nice n hot. If ur a moron who eats without thinking cuz ur too crass to appreciate food, then bother make the trip out there and go kill urself with a good dose of hydrogenated oils and processed sugar. This place is only for those that HAVE taste and won’t tolerate consuming shit.

  8. I have been eating at WhizBurger since I went to St Charles across the street 60 years ago . My wife and I still GO there and pick up whiz burger, fries and a couple of malts. We use to like Jets but they are long gone. We still live in the neighborhood. May be all you people who are complaining are to fancy for the place and you need to stay in your cool hamburger places and leave the neighborhood joints to the locals who still live here.

  9. I am alway surprised that Whiz is still open… I used to go there for the banana shake. That never failed.

  10. Whiz is solid — turkey burger and waffle fries are a great self-deluded it’s-not-that-unhealthy kind of meal. I also feel they should get bonus points for their — way ahead of its time — social distancing in their mini Biodome.

    I love the Mission burger wars idea and lord knows we need some levity right now, but kind of agree with one of the prior posters re: negative reviews during this time. Full economy? Fair game. But right now we should *all* be eating whiz burgers, even if you’re not hungry… You vegans can order some fries.

    1. Fewer. As in “You could stand to use even fewer words in your comments.”

      Best,

      JE

      1. Maybe you guys could write fewer snarky reviews of struggling businesses and concentrate on giving props to businesses you recommend.

        1. Please try reading the site.

          We run plenty of positive reviews of restaurants, bars, and other businesses. I’m not going to tell my writers to enjoy food they did not enjoy.

          JE

          1. Oh come on. Out of all times, one where local businesses are desperate for business, you’re going to do a Michael Bauer on a long-standing local institution?

            This doesnt look right. It’s snarky and mean, right when we need to band together. Locals for locals.

  11. Come on give it another chance! Agree the philly cheese steak, waffle fries and the FRESH BANANA SHAKE – try and find a better shake in the city I dare you!

  12. sorry, but the only aspect speaking for whizz burger is the neon sign (is it actually working?) and the kiosk itself. Although the kiosk looks quite run down and is in need of a clean up and maybe renovation.
    and the food? no, thank you! i tried it several times but it’s an old school grease burger which for some people is what they come for and for others it’s rather a turn-off.

  13. It’s late but I’m still laughing in my sleep. Thanks Mark Rabine for your comment responses, and for this:

    “I am surprised you found the meal “not heavy.” After eating, my stomach felt like it was trying to digest an anvil.“

  14. Mark Rabine. Very well-written and interesting article, but I still love Whiz Burgers!

  15. Seriously loving this series. Especially the bit about people watching on 18th and Van Neas 🙂 amazing writing and keep it up!!

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