Hippopotamus Hamburgers

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.

Joe’s of Westlake

Westlake Joe's
Westlake Joe's

Yesterday was me and my wife’s 12 year anniversary and my Mom gave us money to go out to lunch at Joe’s of Westlake. Now for those of you who don’t know about Joe’s there used to be several of them in the city but they’ve all gone except for the Joe’s at Westlake. This is an old school Italian restaurant. Think “The Soprano’s” who you go there. Last time I went there was probably 20 year’s ago and our waiter was a guy with grey hair who came up to us in his little waiter jacket and bowtie and I noticed his name was “Vinny”. That is how old school Italian this restaurant is.

I’m not sure who Joe was since as the photo reads, “Bruno Scatena’s Joe’s of Westlake.” Bruno, that name just adds to it. The restaurant is priced about on average with others of this caliber, maybe a little higher. Our meal came to about $57 with the tip for lunch.

So here’s what we had. Karen and I both ordered a Caesar salad to start and I had the Veal Parmigiana and she had the Roast Beef. The service was quick, but unfortunately, “Vinny” no longer works there and we got a very nice young girl who was quick to serve us. The salad came and was a bit overdressed and a little heavy on the anchovies, but if you’re going to a restaurant for the vegetables go to Green’s at Fort Mason. I thought it was pretty good and the croutons weren’t soggy which is always a plus. The main dishes came about 5 minutes after we finished the salads. I have to say I wasn’t expecting the veal portion to be so huge, but it was clearly 16oz of veal. I joked to Karen that maybe this was beef parmigiana instead of veal parmigiana. It had a huge slathering of bolognese sauce and and nice large chunk of parmesan cheese on top that was just starting to burn on the edges. It was moist and delicious, not tough like some veal gets from excess pounding. You get a choice of sides with your meal: spaghetti, rigatoni or ravioli. Again, more old school. I chose the ravioli and Karen chose the rigatoni. Karen’s roast beef was cut from a cross rib roast which I don’t usually like, but they managed to cook it like it was prime rib. The slab of meat was floating on a jus sauce that just helped everything along.

We didn’t try too hard to finish it all as we knew it was too much food and they packed it up for us to bring home and the leftovers fed three of us for dinner. While I wouldn’t give them a 10 overall, it was one of those San Francisco experiences you have to have at least once. The funniest part about Joe’s is their Joe’s Special. It is essentially ground beef, spinach, onions and mushrooms all cooked and mixed together and served on a big plate with absolutely nothing else. You of course get bread with your meal and that’s good for sopping up the stray juices from Joe’s Special, but still that mixture doesn’t sound as Italian as you’d think an Italian restaurant would have as it’s special. My Mom also raves about their big fat hamburgers. I’ll have to try one of those when I go back because they’re served on Italian sourdough bread not a bun. The couple next to us had the Joe’s Special and one of their burgers and I have to admit they both looked good even if the Joe’s Special looked kind of like something like you might be served in a Russian prison, but hey it’s a San Francisco tradition.

Oh, and lastly if you go ask for a table in the Cascade Room. The main room is a bit like Denny’s, but the Cascade Room has the white table clothes and nice booths and is generally more quiet. As you walk inside you might want to take a look at the bar. It’s got it’s own separate room where if you don’t want to be seen it’ll be easy as it’s very dark and the bartender is standing there whistling while he’s wiping down the glasses.

Check it out!