Brad got a few recommendations for Val's Burgers on his last burger review of 900 Grayson. Now he's back with a review of Val's!—The Mgmt.

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[Photographs: Brad Japhe]

Val's Burgers

2115 Kelly Street, Hayward CA 94541 (map); 510-889-8257
Cooking Method: Gas-Grilled
Short Order: Half-pound bacon cheeseburger topped with grilled onions and relish is a lot to eat. Come hungry and leave happy.
Want Fries with That? Steak fries are available but are a little mushy. Go with the thick, crispy onion rings.
Prices: Half-pound mama burger with grilled onions, bacon, and Swiss; $7.50
Notes: Get the malted milkshake!

In my ongoing quest to find the best hamburger in the Bay, Val's Burgers in Hayward has been a constant recommendation. For years, legions of people have sworn by the huge slabs of beef that this old-school eatery dishes out in third (Baby burger), half (Mama burger), and full-pound (Papa burger) servings—each priced under ten bucks. Big and cheap is a great start, but does this hamburger haven deserve the hype or did I just drive 20 miles for nothing?

The first thing you notice when entering Val's is that they don't make places like this anymore. The diner-like interior is accentuated by a hightop counter giving you front row seats to all the action. Behind that counter is a massive gas grill that could easily cook more than two dozen papa burgers simultaneously, if need be. As soon as I take my seat I notice that large jars of condiments are all at my disposal: Hamburger relish, sliced raw onions, yellow mustard, and pickles are all within reach.

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I order a medium Mama with grilled onions, crispy bacon, and melted Swiss with a side of large onion rings. I see them take out a half-pound patty of raw, ground beef and marvel as they flop it down over the imposing grill. The cook smashes down on the patty with a heavy spade, forcing the beef into a thinner circle as it grills. He tosses two pieces of bacon directly onto the grill and then throws a thick slice of Swiss on the charring meat while lightly browning the white-bread bun in a specialized toaster.

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Served bare bones, Val's Burger is an ode to simplicity: Everything you want, nothing you don't. A perfectly charred half-pound patty dwarfs the miniscule bun underneath it. A large piece of lettuce hugs the side of the plate almost in jest. My grilled onions and fried rings are served separately on the side. I add them to the burger along with a dollop of relish and a few pickles before cutting this beautiful specimen in half for an autopsy. The cross section reveals the elements of a traditional classic: coarse ground chuck that is almost crumbly, sandwiched between a thin, grease-soaked bun.

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My first taste is met with an overload of flavor. Each component of this masterpiece plays an important part in every bite—the sweetness of the fresh relish and grilled onions, and the crisp smokiness of the bacon contrasting against the chewy heartiness of the ground beef that is moist, yet not overflowing with juiciness. The fullness of the meat is enough so that mustard and ketchup aren't necessary. The grilled onions could have been caramelized a little more to my liking, but the onion rings were a true winner—large and substantially crisp due to a heavily-breaded exterior. I'm sure the beef is neither free range nor organic, nor from a farm of even marginal notoriety, but a meal this enjoyable might make you wonder why you'd pay twice as much at a "gourmet" restaurant for a burger with half the flavor.

The simple goodness offered at Val's Hamburgers is an homage to a bygone era of Americana when local eateries served good, quick classics in a welcoming atmosphere. Thanks to the rise of our fast-food nation, those days are now gone. The low-quality, flavorless meals served at fast food joints inevitably gave way to the culinary backlash of gourmet hamburgers, and now countless high-end chefs around the globe offer their own expensive take on what was once a cheap staple.

Luxury and fast-food alike have found their market with the hamburger, but in so doing something was lost in the middle. For those that value such a thing, they just don't make 'em like they used to. After a visit to Val's you'll wish more of them did.

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