The Cable Car Burger Battle of '09 in San Francisco: Joe's vs. Tony's
Tony's Cable Car Restaurant
2500 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco CA 94115 (map); 415-931-2416; tonyscablecar.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: It's a simple, straightforward, and satisfying burger at a great price.
Want Fries with That? A solid example of fast food, krinkle cuts that are surprisingly good (though not great).
Prices: 1/4 pound beef burger, $4.65 (add cheese for $.50)
Notes: Tony is almost always behind the counter; be sure to say hello and have a chat with one of the friendliest proprietors you could hope to meet.
Joe's Cable Car Restaurant
4320 Mission Street, San Francisco CA 94112 (map);415-334-6699; joescablecarrestaurant.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Despite a lot of hype about fresh ground beef, the burger lacks flavor and isn't worth a special trip or the price.
Want Fries with That? No thanks. Surprisingly limp and soggy.
Prices: The Cable Fresh Ground Beef Steak, $9.95 (add cheese for 99¢)
Notes: Over-hyped and over-priced means I'm hard-pressed to find a silver lining. If you like kitsch Americana this place might make it on your San Francisco itinerary.
A recent trip to San Francisco gave me a number of opportunities to sample some new burgers. I started off my journey with a lunch at Hubert Keller's Burger Bar and found myself a bigger fan of the chef (and his celebrity persona) than any of his burger creations. To some extent, this wasn't so surprising. Although my top five list has a few high-end burger entries, I tend to prefer burger excursions that aim low. That is to say, I have a preference for burger spots that are best described with word "haunt," not "haute."
Searching for places that fit the bill in a city like San Francisco is easy; finding one with a great burger is a bit harder. While searching for my Sunday (brunch) burger I found two places that piqued my interest. As it turned out, both call themselves cable cars restaurants. The first I identified in the usual manner: I followed the hype. Joe's Cable Car has turned its old-school credibility into a currency and is thus an easy find with a quick Google search. It's the kind of place you'd find Guy Fieri driving up, taking a sample, and pretending to like whatever food they throw in front of him (in this case, literally).
The second restaurant I happened upon while driving to Joe's. Tony's Cable Car isn't without kitsch, but clearly owes its success to a loyal local following rather than its TV appeal. Though housed in a gleaming facade, this place is an authentic and simple burger stop—of course, I stopped (and ate). Then it was on to Joe's for round two.
My simple brunch turned into a bit of a burger battle.
A Burger Bandit at Joe's
Joe's is certainly, as advertised, a freshly ground burger. You can take a gander at the impressive grinder that sits at the far end of the open kitchen. They fire the bad boy up to grind through their chuck and rib eye as a bit of burger-theater during some business hours, but at 11 a.m. on a Sunday it lay dormant.
I ordered my 1/4-pound burger medium rare and with a slice of American (it'll cost you $3.50 more to upgrade to six ounces). The standard lettuce, tomato, and red onion come on the side, but I opted to try this one as just a meat, cheese, and bun affair being that Joe brags about their fresh ground beef. The bun looked acceptable, but the texture was dry and bready and lacked any sponginess. The cheese was nicely melted, but the addition of a small glob of mayo wasn't as welcome. This was largely due to the fact that there was no crust to speak of in the patty. The ingredients felt like one slimy mass on a dry bun.
It seemed as though the patty hadn't been cooked with enough heat, but that seemed unlikely considering that this is such a burger institution. A quick check of the website reveals that Joe brags about how they "slowly cook" their burgers. You can slow cook my brisket, but when it comes to my burger, please turn up the heat. Joe also suggests that you taste a little of the meat on its own. I did and then didn't see why. My patty wasn't particularly flavorful and definitely could have used a little seasoning. And all of this for a mere $11. Oh, and a split fee if you share it with your dining companion. It's technically not stealing, but it certainly feels like Joe's prices would go down easier with a decent burger.
An Honest Burger Man to the Rescue
I tried Tony's 1/4-pound burger with lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayo and onions (all come standard). I also threw on a slice of American cheese. Tony doesn't grind his meat in-house, but he does get it delivered fresh every day from Golden Gate Meats. Like Joe's odd choice of slow cooking, Tony advertises his use of lean ground beef; a 92/8 chuck blend. Unlike Joe's, Tony's charges a very reasonable $5.15 for his cheeseburger.
Tony's is immediately recognizable as a traditional fast food style burger. The veggies, while fresh and good, were the standard commercial tomato, iceberg lettuce, and onion. The bun is a seeded commercial option from Orowheat. No one ingredient stands out as special, but together they made for a delicious and satisfying burger. Even the lean patty, which I thought might foil this operation, stepped forward with a pleasant, clean beefiness and a healthy crust. I was halfway through the burger before coming up for a breath.
After I wolfed down my burger and very good (if not great) crinkle-cut fries, I chatted with owner Tony Falloun. Born to a French father and Lebanese mother, Tony emigrated from Beirut in 1972 as an engineering student. Despite his international identity and professional aspirations, he decided his American dream would come in the shape of a hamburger. He purchased the cable car restaurant from the original owner and hasn't looked back.
Tony hasn't been selling his cable car burger for quite as long as Joe, but considering how much less fanfare he generates, it's surprising to learn that he's only a few years shy. These days he doesn't even consider retiring despite be well into—well, let's call it an age deserving of a break. He loves running his restaurant because he loves his customers. He takes pride in having regulars who first came as children and now bring in their kids. Even if he didn't make great burgers, I couldn't help but love this guy. Few restaurateurs have charmed me more.
A Cable Car Champion
Even though I called this a burger battle, I would have gladly judged it a draw and proclaimed two winners. I'm always rooting for authentic burger greatness and both restaurants are run by dedicated longtime owners (coincidentally, both immigrants who are the second owners). Alas, Joe's turned out to be a bit of fresh ground hype. On my scorecard, Tony's is the clear choice for a Cable Car burger in San Francisco.