Oakland Burger Trail: Trueburger

the trueburger

I have a friend who wrote a book about the bible. Don, a computer scientist and mathematician, wondered what he would find by sampling the third chapter, 16th verse of every book.1 (The artist in Don also thought it would be interesting to find the best calligraphers in the world and ask them to illustrate these verses.) The book he produced was 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated. It’s a beautiful book that delivers on the promise in the title.

I enjoy remembering Don’s explanation of how he approached this study of the bible, and I’ve felt his sampling strategy would apply to other areas of research and study. For instance, one might compare and judge restaurants by eating the same dish as prepared by each restaurant one visits. What dish do most restaurants have in common? It should be no surprise that you can get a hamburger in many dining establishments.

I have long felt that a restaurant that is attentive to the burger on the menu will likely be attentive to other dishes. If a chef treats the burger with disdain and only offers it as a token concession to public taste, I’d prefer he or she not bother to serve it at all. (And frankly, such a chef should not expect me to visit for a second meal.) The chef, however, that recognizes the simple hamburger as a worthy meal, and a meal to be prepared with loving attention, will earn my respect and the opportunity to feed me again and again.

Bear with me, I’ll get to Trueburger, I promise.

The hamburger, in it’s conceptual simplicity, has infinite expressions. I have probably eaten a couple thousand burgers in my life. Many have been delicious and satisfying. Others have been marginally nutritious and unmemorable. I trace my fondness for burgers to my youth. I remember the burgers my dad cooked for us on the grill at home. The love that goes into a home-cooked meal conceals many culinary flaws, so topping my list of burger styles is the traditional homemade charcoal grilled burger. Served on a store-bought bun with a thin slice of onion, some crisp lettuce, a slice of tomato (garden grown is best, obviously), a dollop of ketchup, and a thin spread of mustard, that burger is a staple of a joyful family meal, often eaten al fresco. The other childhood burger memory that shapes my preference is the old Bob’s Big Boy burger chain. I can still recall the taste of their toasted, sesame studded buns. In fact I can hardly taste a toasted sesame seed without thinking about the Big Boy statue that used to stand in front of the restaurants. I believe those burgers were grilled on a smooth steel grill rather than over charcoal, but they were tasty to my 10 year old palette, and the experience cemented my love for the classic burger.

Over the years I have developed a more nuanced taste, and I enjoy burgers of varying styles. There are several excellent burgers within walking distance of our home, and as time allows I may share my impressions of these burgers. But today I want to talk about a new burger place that opened up a couple of weeks ago. It’s 6 and a half blocks from our domestic headquarters. It’s a straight up burger place. The owners are former sous chefs from some mighty respectable Bay Area restaurants, but like me, they have respect for the simple, classic burger. Trueburger delivers an incredibly tasty patty, perched on top of one of the tastiest hamburger buns I’ve ever chewed. Other burger aficionados will likely agree that, while the meat is clearly (and literally) the centerpiece of a burger, the chef who fails to match the meat with an appropriate piece of bread commits an error of the first degree. The Trueburger bun is a thing of beauty. (The buns are made to Trueburger’s specifications by the Bread Workshop”:http://thebreadworkshop.com/ in Berkeley.) Just enough elasticity and crumb to stand up to the juicy runoff from the perfectly cooked meat, but not so firm as to cause the burger and toppings to squirt out the side of the bun when one attempts to pierce the crust with one’s teeth. And the flavor of the bread compliments the juicy beef, crispy lettuce, ripe tomato, and garlic aioli perfectly. Trueburger slips the sandwich into a brown paper sleeve and serves it on a baking sheet lined with parchment. (Fans of New York City’s Shake Shack will recognize the look.) The topper? This burger is just $4.95. A bit more for a cheeseburger, and add $2.50 for a basket of fries. Anna and I each had a burger and shared a basket of fries and were very satisfied.

The place is as unpretentious as the burger. There’s a mural on one wall that depicts an idealized downtown Oakland skyline. The silhouette of the Tribune Tower bears the words TRUE BURGER. The folks behind the counter (which I’m guessing included the owners) were friendly and welcoming. It was clean and tidy and the kitchen is open to the room so you can watch your burger being cooked. This is a great place to eat a burger. Other hamburgers in Oakland will be compared to Trueburgers. Some will be as good. Very few, however, will be able to unseat this burger from near the top of my all time top ten burgers.

Since Trueburger is a burger place and not a fine dining establishment, we should expect their burger to be pretty friggin’ fantastic. While it’s tempting to be seduced into thinking that a fine dining establishment should not be in direct competition with a burger joint, such thinking is flawed reasoning. If a restaurant puts a burger on the menu, they should be able to match (allowing for stylistic differences) the tasty sandwich one can get from Trueburger. Most high-end places charge considerably more for their burgers than $4.95, so even accounting for the higher overhead in such an establishment, there should be room to make a burger that is at least as satisfying as a Trueburger.

1 For those literalists who are even now flipping through the pages of the Bible to verify that there is indeed a 16th verse in every chapter three of every book in the bible, relax. The actual system that Don devised called for examining the 16th verse, starting with the first verse of the third chapter. For those books that have fewer than 16 verses in the third chapter, Don continued counting into the fourth chapter until he reached a total of 16 verses.

muralTrueburger towerthe kitchen

Friday February 5, 2010 — Mark —