Note: You may remember Brad Japhe's email from last week in which he called us out on our lack of reviews in the San Francisco area. To help us build our repertoire, he contributed this review of Flame Gourmet Burgers in Berkeley. Thanks, Brad!
Flame Gourmet Burgers
2985 College Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94705 (map); 510-666-8500
The San Francisco Bay Area—renowned for its access to splendor—long ago established itself as a culinary utopia. In 1971 Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, introducing the country to "California Cuisine" and revolutionizing the concept of gourmet dining to incorporate fresh, local ingredients, and bold new fusions of flavor. It should come as little surprise then that the same city of Berkeley, California—home to this world famous restaurant—also lays claim to places where you could find thin crust pizza topped with peaches, arugula and pine nuts, or even a burger with brie on a French baguette with a little French flag toothpick holding it all together. Although the recent national phenomenon known as the "gourmet hamburger" was not originally cooked up in the Bay Area, it's certainly one that we can sink our teeth into.
Riding this wave is newcomer Flame Gourmet Burgers, located in the Elmwood section of Berkeley. I admire the steps that the owner has taken to mark the setting as a shrine to hamburgers. Alternating bottles of ketchup and mustard line the walls and are at once aesthetically pleasing and nearly Pavlovian in their suggestiveness. Framed low-resolution pictures of assorted styles of hamburgers dot the walls.
When it comes to their ground beef Flame satisfies the burger purists out there. They sandwich a hearty serving (around 1/3-pound) of char-grilled ground organic Niman Ranch grass-fed beef between an adequately sized, toasted sesame-seed bun. The result is a tasty, well-balanced burger that has that wholesome beefy flavor although perhaps with a little less-than-ample juiciness. I appreciate the double sided toasting of their bun;it helps the bun better hold the burger and gives each bite added crunch.
What really stands out for me is the variety of specialty burgers featured on their menu. Ranging between $7 and $8, their many inventive offerings include a Tropical Burger with grilled pineapple and applewood smoked bacon, an Ortega Burger with chilies and avocado, or a burger with teriyaki sauce, red onions, and sautéed red peppers. I went with the Fried Onion Burger, which comes with swiss cheese, sautéed red pepper, and enough fried onions on top to jam a paper shredder. I ordered it medium and the result was an initially crunchy, yet enduringly chewy bite of burger. The overall flavor was enhanced by the addition of ingredients rather than overpowered by them. I tasted the crisp saltiness of the fried onions, the lingering sweetness of the sautéed red peppers, and the savory meatiness of the lightly charred patty with each bite.
The extensive menu items are also highlighted by an array of sides. Shoestring, steak cut, curly, and garlic fries are all available as well as onion rings. There are also sliders that come in four- and six-packs. I didn't order them, but I saw someone at the next table enjoying the heck out of theirs and became appetizingly intrigued.
This place receives bonus points for its inventiveness and the reverence with which it honors its subject matter. To many burger enthusiasts reading this there can be no cuisine more Californian than In-N-Out. In Berkeley, however, local ingredients and fresh fusions of flavor are the hallmarks of the more textbook variety "California Cuisine" invented therein. Consequently, the originality of a place like Flame is what people from around here have come to expect from their food, even something as seemingly traditional as the hamburger. Always striving to create a political utopia, Berkeley residents should never fail to appreciate the gastronomic paradise it has already succeeded in making: a place where all of one's culinary dreams can take flight.