San Francisco: Step Back in Time at Whiz Burger
700 S Van Ness Ave, San Francisco CA 94110 (map); 415-824-5888; Whiz Burger's menu
Cooking Method: Griddled on a flat top
Short Order: Classic, no-frills drive-in burger in the heart of the Mission
Want Fries with That? Fries and onion rings are generic and cooked from frozen, but totally fine for something crispy and salty
Price: Whiz Burger, $6.16, w/cheese, + 74¢, Junior Burger, $3.52; regular fries, $1.82; onion rings, $2.90; crosscut fries, $2.74
Whiz Burger on the corner of 18th and South Van Ness looks like an old, run-down drive-in. It's almost hard to believe it's managed to stay in business since 1955, as stated on its faded, old neon sign. Here you have no expectations of a grass fed burger with a perfectly pink center. What you get is good old-fashioned nostalgia, from the walk-up window and counter with bar stools to the prices that are only slightly higher than the big burger chains. During my visit, the customers consisted of blue collar workers and groups of middle school boys during their lunch breaks, along with pigeons chewing on leftover fries.
The Whiz ($6.16) is made of a 1/3-pound ground chuck burger served with two strips of bacon, avocado, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, mustard, and mayo on a French roll. The burger and bun combo is kind of incongruent—the roll's long shape forces them to fold the patty in half to make it fit. The bread also loses points for being excessive and throwing off the bread-to-meat ratio, and for being dry (a well toasted and buttered bun, this is not). Due to the sloppy patty folding and overall burger construction, I lost more toppings to the ground (to the delight of many pigeons) than I got in my mouth.
To the burger and burger-maker's credit, the meat was well salted and there were even hints of pink in the middle. The toppings were fresh, with crisp chopped iceberg lettuce, ripe avocado, and juicy tomato, and the chewy bacon added a rich and salty flavor to the burger. On the downside, the American cheese I added (+74¢) wasn't fully melted, and I wish it hadn't been separated from the patty by a layer of bacon.
You'd be much better off going with one of their standard burgers on regular sesame seed buns, like the Junior Burger ($3.52), a quarter-pound patty with all the same toppings as the Whiz minus bacon and avocado. It nailed my expectations for a place like this. The burger had a much better bun-to-meat ratio and each bite reminded me of childhood.
The fries were crisp and well salted, but were ultimately just boring Sysco fries. I preferred the crisp onion rings, even if they were generic rings made of minced up onion pressed into ring form. I also saw lots of folks eating equally generic waffle cut fries.
One of the best parts of the meal was the fresh banana shake ($3.37), which, like the name suggests, is made with real, fresh bananas. The blend of vanilla ice cream and bananas is so thick that the straw is almost useless. It was one of the best shakes I've had in a while. The sweet and creamy shake paired well with all the other salty components of the meal.
Aside from the banana shake, all of Whiz Burger's food was very familiar—the kind of familiar that keeps me from hating cheap, poorly cooked food. It's what I grew up on and associate with Little League baseball and carnivals. It's the same thing that will always make mom's cooking the best, even when it's not. Whiz will never win awards for "best of" anything, except for maybe nostalgia and banana shakes.
About the author:Wes Rowe is a photographer and eater based in San Francisco who believes there is no such thing as too many burgers, and when given the opportunity, likes to spend the whole day smoking brisket. Follow him on instagram @wesrowe