Julian, 30-something, and Mark, 70-something, are out to find the Mission’s best burger. This time, they head to Plain Jane. Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out their Fried Chicken Showdown series.
Gotta say, I had my doubts.
Plain Jane is a brunch spot on the corner of 22nd and Guerrero that brims with young people on the weekend and serves food that I always thought was made to be photographed rather than eaten; the Museum of Ice Cream of Mission brunch spots. Just look at its Instagram.
And each time I’ve gone, I’ve always been terribly underwhelmed by the food and totally overwhelmed by the check. The nonchalant “Another Club Sandwich” goes for $18. The lobster roll goes for $26! Oof.
So I was hesitant when you recommended Plain Jane. It figured to be just another upscale diner with an obligatory burger item.
I stand corrected.
I ordered the burger for lunch on a recent afternoon (Plain Jane is only open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.), and boy, a burger is what I got. The restaurant describes its “PJ Burger” as “Painted Hills natural beef, caramelized onion, bacon, aged cheddar, horseradish aioli, lettuce, and American bun.”
The patty does not have an official weight class but it was heavy, all but certainly weighing in at half a pound or more. This was, as it should be, the centerpiece of the burger experience — a delightful medium rare that was juicy but not greasy. (You’d be surprised how hard it has been for other spots to accomplish this.)
The first bite brought notes of char, quality beef, sweetness from the caramelized onion and tang from the cheddar. The bacon was crunchy and smoky. The bun, as is only natural, played the perfect supporting role. I did not sense much horseradish — but, hey, did I really want that?
As I continued eating, the magic slightly faded. The fibrous texture of the caramelized onion became overbearing, especially when paired with lackluster shredded lettuce. But the patty stood strong and the bacon remained crunchy, and in the end I feel like — finally — I got my money’s worth.
Not that anyone cares, but the salad I ordered wasn’t bad either. (I did have to eat this in the middle of a work day and fries would have buried me). The salad was fresh and crunchy, and I wondered why they just couldn’t place a few of the spinach leaves into the burger instead of the iceberg shreds.
Also, of note, the burger came with an odd, kebab-like item — an orange wedge, a cherry pepper, and four sliced jarred pickles, all on a skewer. It came in a small, humid, zip-locked bag. I had no idea what to do with this, so placed it in the office fridge, where it may stay forever and ever.
Back before you knew (or much cared) that the Mission District existed, the space now occupied by Plain Jane was the home of the Flying Saucer restaurant, which was one of the first cool Mission destinations for European tourists and day trippers from Berkeley and Palo Alto. It combined buzz and high prices with local grit to become an early ripple in the District’s most recent gentrification tsunami. As I remember, their food-speak was better than their food.
The difference between the Plain Jane and Flying Saucer is night and day. Literally. Flying Saucer was open until 2 a.m., and Plain Jane is open until 2 p.m.
By comparison, Plain Jane comes off as neighborhood chic, laid-back but expensive, cool but not in the way the Chronicle would notice.
I got a PJ burger. My plan had been to experience mindful eating. Instead of watching a game or political show, listening to Stephen Fry tell thrilling tales of Greek Gods and Goddesses, or chatting with the dog, I would pay undivided attention to what was right in front of me and what I was doing.
The first thing I saw, sticking out of the bun, like a God staring down at me from Olympus with curious contempt, was the meat.
Mars would be happy with this meat. It was as big a beef patty as I’ve seen during our entire exploration, enhanced by a pinkish medium-rare complexion and a prideful self-confidence.
My eyes immediately began watering, but not nearly as much as my mouth, the tastebuds waking up in tears even before the meat entered, seasoned with intelligence and restraint, relying mainly on a cow’s natural juices to provide an intense and compelling flavor.
Not that the meat was alone. Far from it. It was packed into an “American” bun, they claim, and I saw evidence of caramelized onion, bacon, aged cheddar, horseradish aioli, and shredded lettuce.
Let’s start with the bun. It was thick and bald, like many middle-aged American men, but I found nothing else unusually flag-waving about it, other than it stood up to the meat and the gooey onslaught of the other fixings.
As if thrown into a blender, the ingredients were smushed together. Except by touch, the onions could not be distinguished from the cheddar cheese; the soggy bacon shrugged in taste and style, the shredded lettuce looked lost and the radish seemed to be strangely missing from the horseradish aioli.
I don’t mean to imply the glop wasn’t tasty nor complimentary to the beef. It definitely had its moments.
And I want to put in a good word on the fries, which come with the burger. They had a crispiness which indicates double frying, and were well and carefully seasoned with just the right amount of salt. As if someone back in the kitchen actually cared about creating fries to savor. Obviously potatoes could not, and would not, upstage the meat, but they held their own.
The PJ burger is all about the beef. That’s the upside. And the downside.
The Painted Hills Beef used by Plain Jane not only comes from Oregon, but the company boasts that its cows get to hang out for 14 months in the Oregon hills, before being “carefully moved to a spacious feeding facility for finishing.”
I recommend you hold back on the mindfulness until after you finish your burger.