Julian, 20-something, and Mark, 70-something, are on a journey to find the Mission’s best burger. If you have suggestions, write a comment — or, if you prefer, send an e-mail to Julian at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may remember Mark and Julian from their hunt for the best fried chicken sandwich.
The Red Cafe is a place I will always hold close to my heart. I may have shed a couple tears the first time I ordered their corned beef hash — yes, the stuff that comes out of a tin can — and it arrived covered in cheddar cheese, a grilled medley of veggies, and two poached eggs. I ordered it dozens and dozens of times afterward.
And then I tried the burger.
The burger at The Red Cafe is like every item at the Red Cafe: You may ask yourself after finishing a meal there: Did it really need to be that good? Do they really need to make the artful (in fact, morally astute) decision to use fresh jalapenos, dice them up and incorporate them into the cheese when one merely asks to “add jalapenos”?
No — but then again, The Red Cafe gets it.
And there’s been a gaping hole in my heart since the pandemic arrived and I’ve been unable to saunter over to the diner on 25th and Mission, park myself at the counter, and bury my face in a plate of hash or a burger. And, admittedly, it was a little sad on Sunday when I had to order over the phone, saunter into an empty restaurant, grab my food, and saunter back home.
The good news is, the burger is still amazing. Nothing pretentious here. The patty came fresh, juicy, and at the medium-well I ordered it at. The soft, fresh bun reminds us that a bun does not always need to be toasted — that a toasted bun can sometimes be elitist and get in the way. It came with mayo, shredded lettuce, and fat tomato slice. And, most special of all, the patty was covered in grilled, fresh, diced jalapenos that were integrated into the golden creaminess of a Kraft Single.
I didn’t want it to end.
Unfortunately, the fries — usually crispy, salty and thick — did not travel the best and arrived at my house a little soggy and cold.
But I really didn’t care. The Red Cafe has delivered so much, so many times. Even when it isn’t, it’s always that good.
“Julian, you can’t be serious.”
That’s what I first thought when you nominated Red Café for our burger wars. I remember going to the Café after all-nighters, doing whatever one does all night. Good coffee. Flour tortillas. Chilaquiles. Huevos rancheros.
But burgers? I had never made the connection between Red Café and burgers. Actually, I hadn’t heard much of the place for years. Except a few years ago, when they painted Red Café blue. I thought it might have signified a local gang rapprochement.
After I got your message, I wondered whether the paint job was meant to announce a metamorphosis from Mexican breakfast parlor to American burger joint.
I ordered the house burger, which is a burger and bacon. Generally, I frown on adding bacon to a burger. It’s excessive. Something Boris Johnson would like. But since the Café billed it as the “house burger,” how could I refuse? I ordered one medium-rare.
The first thing to note was that it came authentically medium-rare. Astonishing! After one bite, I could see plenty of pink, ground-up meat.
See, but not taste. From its looks, I expected the burger to explode with juice and flavor. Instead it just kind of sat there, on my palate, kind of bored and indifferent. As if I was just another mouth to feed. Some grease, yes, but no sparkle. Pleasantly pink, but it tasted . . . It tasted like nothing.
A moment’s panic: had I become a COVIDhead? Would an ambulance come and take me from Red Café to the ICU at SFGH?
(Sorry, Mark — ZSFG)
Rather than take a test, I took another bite, this time bringing in the bacon. Wow, what a revelation! The bacon was thick and crispy, without much fat, and it served as more than the perfect complement. It changed a boring old burger into a raging house burger! I patted myself on the back. Good choice.
The burger came adorned with a leaf of iceberg lettuce which was more iceberg than lettuce. And a “tomato slice” that could have easily been confused with a tomato.
The bun was soft and unimaginative, quickly melding into the meat.
Like you, I ordered a side of fries. As I walked briskly (not sauntered) up to Juri Common after picking up the food, my fries were not cold and soggy. They were thickish, still warm — but foggy. I mean, like the meat, they lacked a certain something: taste. Most burger joints over-salt the fries. Not this time. These potatoes pleaded for more and more salt. Or bacon. Or extra ketchup.
Next week: Mission Bowling Club
P.S. We would not be living in the current historical moment without acknowledging our own contradictions and recognizing there is more to a burger than meets the tongue.