Once upon a time before the words artisanal and gourmet were used to describe food there were burger joints. Not fast food places like we’re used to, but places where you could order a burger they way you wanted it and the person behind the counter wouldn’t have a meltdown because they didn’t have a button on the register to push for that.
Clown Alley was one of these places. It was opened up on Columbus Avenue sometime in the 40’s by Enrico Banducci who also opened the Hungry I and the Purple Onion [where Phyllis Diller and others got their careers started]. The place wasn’t anything gorgeous to look at and I think the clowns used in the decor were more to distract you from the fact that you just walked into a corner dump to get a burger.
The burgers where well, burgers. Nothing artisanal or gourmet about them, they where just made from ground beef thrown on a grill and served up with french fries. What set them apart was that they were big. Huge to be more exact. They make quarter pounders look like white castle sliders.
This was the type of place that you went to eat what people ate when they were hungry. They didn’t go there for the ambience or organic produce that was put on the burger [is there really such a thing as organic iceberg lettuce and if so why?] I always liked to take friends who had come from outside the US here who wanted to try real American food. The burgers were made by hand and not a machine. They were cooked on a greasy old grill and they never quite tasted the same twice. If you had a great burger today it could be awful tomorrow, but if you were hungry and didn’t have a lot of money, you wouldn’t be hungry for the rest of the day. Today’s equivalent would probably be the burrito.
The 80’s and the beginning of the foodie way of life started to change this. Burgers became déclassé even if they were made with meat from a farm to table place and rolled into patties on the thigh of a virgin. The burger, a symbol of American culture had just become uncool.
It turns out that while Clown Alley has closed it has re-opened under the name Pickles with a few changes to the decor and menu. It’s still not the same as Enrico’s, but at least it’s not cooked and frozen in some other part of the country. While they served burgers just like any fast food place in the US there was something about a quirky place like this that was just different. You’d see guys in suits sitting next to construction workers both connected by some ground up meat on a bun.
For me I grew up with the tradition of ham on Christmas Eve and Turkey Christmas Day. I ate it, but luckily I discovered my parents were putting the presents under the tree at an early age so we switched to turkey on Christmas Eve and leftovers Christmas Day. I was never very fond of turkey so after my Dad and Grandmother died I switched us over to prime rib. I mean it’s prime rib and 2-3 bones worth would feed us for a few days.
This year was different. We had decided after last Christmas that we’d do things quasi-Jewish style. Prime rib on Christmas Eve and Chinese food on Christmas Day. This came from the fact that Jews only had Chinese restaurants to go out to on Christmas Day for dinner instead of other restaurants. Why they just didn’t stay home and cook something was beyond me.
We had a couple of friends come over Christmas Eve during the day and when they left my wife informed me that she hadn’t taken out any food for dinner. So what were we going to do? Chinese food? The Pizza Place? El Burrito Express was probably closed to give the girls a day off so they could spend all day sitting at home cooking and not getting paid. My wife came up with In-n-Out Burger. At first I was a bit horrified. Burgers on Christmas Eve?!?!? There was something in that made that feel wrong, but we went.
I have to say for under $9 two burger, fries [make sure you ask for them well-done] and a coke wasn’t a bad idea. Now for me being on a low salt diet at first I thought it would kill be, but then I thought about how much salt I had that day and figured I could get below the 2000mg [1500mg was my total for the day]. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who thought of this as there were several people there. Not as many as usual, but still other people thought of it. The fact that it was the first hamburger I had in over a month made it taste even better. It actually was worth it, but I’m not sure if I’ll do it again.
Christmas Day we had a NY Strip Roast that I had never done before, but considering it’s a bunch of New York steaks all together in a roast made the idea even better. ours was 5.26 lbs which means we’ll be eating beef for the rest of the week. We would have gotten prime rib, but the cost was too much. This was boneless so it made it even easier to cut. I made the gravy and pulled out our gravy boat and made sure it was boiling hot because my wife like all her food to leave blisters in her mouth.
Christmas Day made me happy at least except half way through I forgot that I usually make some Yorkshire pudding to go with the roast. It didn’t really matter to me and I can whip some up for tomorrow. We both were satisfied by this as she got her burger and I got my roast. To top it all off we had all the dishes done afterwards so we didn’t have any clean up in the morning like we usually do.
It was a good Christmas for us even if it included burgers.
I was reminded of this place today when I was randomly wandering around the web. It was a hamburger joint like no other you ever or will see. It had an astounding selection of hamburgers and was at a corner of Pacific and Van Ness street. It was a place that the who’s who went to when in town which is probably why my Grandmother used to take me there.
Opening in the 50’s and closing down in 1987 it was the burgers themselves that made the place. Sure at a place like In-n-out you can get just a cheeseburger or hamburger, but what if your burger was soaked in teriyaki sauce [that’s what I used to get] or topped with bernaise sauce? They had a few odd ones like the streaker that was just a hamburger with it bun and toppings removed or the stroganoff burger which literally had beef stroganoff on top of the burger. The strangest was the hamburger sundae which was a burger with ice cream, hot fudge, nuts, cherry and pickle spears. They’re menu even said, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.
This was a hamburger restaurant [you’ll note on the menu they often refer to them as hamburger steaks if served without the bun] where you could get a little weird. These weren’t the average hamburgers people ate at the time. The Cantonese burger had sweet and sour sauce chopped onions and pineapple on top. Not too strange by today’s standards, but back in the 50’s that was probably weird. I managed to find a copy of their old menu so you could see all the types of burgers they sold. It’s really kind of funny. Since they had a streaker burger I’ll have to say this was probably from the early 70’s
The toilets in the bathroom also showed you a hippo head when closed, but when you lifted the lid you got to see a hippo with it’s mouth wide open ready to take a bite out of you. That probably scared a few customer’s away I’m sure.
People of all types were attracted to the place. You could see someone dressed up for a night on the town and a hippie, or priest sitting next to them. It was a time when people didn’t care about who you were, but how good the burgers were. Apparently they also attracted a lot of the local restauranteurs of the time to drop in. Vic Bergeron of Trader Vic’s was often seen there. Even Art Zimmerman of Zim’s Broiled Burgers would show up.
They were so popular that they even made a burger cookbook that had some silly recipes like the grass burger where you were supposed to mix in grass with the meat, cook it up and then watch the look on people’s faces when they ate it. Jack Falvey who started Hippo’s must have had a rather wicked sense of humor about it.I know because I was there around Christmas one year and he actually had a black Santa walking around passing out candy canes to all the kids. That took me awhile to understand and probably contributed to my dislike of candy canes, not because he was black, but I just never had seen a black Santa before.
I stopped working downtown too soon. It wasn’t my choice, but I missed the first rush of the new sensation that’s sweeping San Francisco and everyone’s smartphone — food trucks. I’m not talking the old beat up taco trucks that you used to see in Oakland, but these are upscale trucks serving upscale food and the best way to find out about where they are in on you smartphone.
Here’s how it works. You pull out your mobile phone and download a Twitter app. Then you find and follow all the trucks around San Francisco. They really are more SF and the peninsula than just SF, but they seem to be focused around San Francisco at least a couple of days a week.
If you want to be an über-cool techie hipster geek you’ll get Eat Street which gives you a map that’s based on their GPS so you can see where they are when you want to get food. I use both because I like to talk back to the people to try and get them out to the Sunset and Richmond on sunny weekends [WHICH WE DO HAVE!!!!]
You can find more than just tacos and burritos now. We’ve got BBQ places that are cooking up some smoky goodness. Curry Up Now that does burritos with an Indian twist [aweeesome!], Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches left and right. Pretty much if you can think of a food there’s someone out there in a truck that will sell it to you.
One of the best places to try and fill your food truck craving is Off The Grid that’s held in many places around San Francisco, but Fort Mason [5pm-10pm Fridays] seems to be what everyone is talking about because that hosts the most trucks [up to 30] and tents. I was down at Fort Mason one night and happened to see a huge amount of trucks out there with an even huger amount of people wandering around. The smell of all the different trucks wafting up through the open window just pulled me towards the trucks during a break. I think I ended up spending a little over $20 getting the small sampler plates as I call them from several of the trucks.
This was definitely some good food and I wish that we could get more of them to try coming out to Ocean Beach because on a sunny day there isn’t anything going on there to feed people. The biggest problem is that we usually know about a sunny day out here with about 15 minutes in advance. Most of the trucks have websites where you can check where they’re going to be that week if you don’t have a smartphone.
Food trucks are gaining more ground in San Francisco now that the city has made it easier for them to do business. Because they don’t have to pay rent it’s cheaper for them to operate which is bad for brick and mortar businesses, but good for you and me because they can produce the food cheaper. Check them out NOW!
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