Better Burgers

Marin Joe's and Phyllis' keep the classics alive

The couple sidles up to the counter at Marin Joe’s
and plops themselves down. We’re elbow to elbow, and the man won’t stop casting sideways glances my way—those neighborly glances that
aim to engage.

I’m sitting at a stool straight across from Marin Joe’s famous open-flame grill. It’s the hot seat, and the grill’s loaded down with grilling chops and fish steaks and searing hamburgers.

A mess of chefs work open-air stations at this Corte Madera spaghetti chop-shop, which today experiences the thrum of Sunday late-afternoon business. The place opens at 4pm on Sundays, and by 4:30, it’s practically a full house.

If the cool signage didn’t already give notice, Marin Joe’s is an institution, been around since forever and remains popular with the Marin locals—it’s a classic “joint” of the “old school,” where they prep your caesar salad tableside, like that.

You already know these people, this couple, and you know that they need to be someone’s guide to Marin Joe’s. They absolutely must talk to someone, because they sure aren’t talking much to each other (although that could be my own “couples envy” expressed as embittered observation, true).

The couple’s gotten the attention of a Marin Joe’s patron seated on the other side of them—he’s getting the earful about the brochettes. Yet everyone within earshot knows they’ve been coming here for years, 38 of them.

They’ve had everything on the menu—tonight it’s spaghetti and pork for him, and a dinner salad for her—and I dope out a familiar, quaintly familial patter between the couple and the waiter, who played his role with aplomb: crusty and attentive with the kind and haunted eyes of a poet.

I stare into the flame and feel the heat on my face. I’m here for the burger, nothing else.

I watch it cook. Medium-well for me, please, and would you just look at those thick slices of mild cheddar the grillmeister is dropping on the burger as it flames-up. Wow.

Grillmeister plates the burger with an insouciant flip of the wrist. He’s already jacked the plate with accompaniments: a couple pepperoncini, a bunch of pitted black olives, strictly from the can. Nice.

There’s a handful of decently de riguer fries, and the burger is planted between chewy triangles of sourdough. A pile of sautéed onions gets dumped on the plate, and a lonely leaf of lettuce wilts under the weight of it all.

Whoosh, the waiter drops the plate in front of me. “Mustard?” he asks. Oui.

The Grey Poupon arrives, is slathered on the moist, dense burger—and suddenly I’m lost in an anti-reverie from early in the Obama presidency, when Sean Hannity declared Obama unfit for office because he, too, put mustard on his burger—the soft socialism of the Euro condiment Commie-fag, whatever.

In burgers as in politics, the extremes will either kill you or they will irritate you. That’s why we need places like Marin Joe’s and its hoary under-$15 burger. It’s the reasonable middle ground, and it’s needed now more than ever.

Consider the Glamburger, available at a London restaurant with American-diner pretensions.

Pretension being the operative word. That’s a $1,770 hamburger. It features Kobe Wagyu beef, New Zealand venison, caviar, black truffle brie, lobster poached in Iranian saffron, a hickory smoked duck egg, Himalayan salt, etc. There’s grated white truffle, and bacon. And the burger is covered in gold leaf, well-matched to the silver spoon you’ll be needing to afford this mutha.

Me, I’ll go to Phyllis’ Giant Burgers instead. I was there just the other day, in fact, and ordered the junior cheeseburger with bacon. I was at first taken aback by the burger’s diminutive size, until I remembered that I’d ordered the junior.

Phyllis’ offers a well-turned exercise in balance: spot-on char-broiling, crispy shredded lettuce and unlimited pickle spears at the condiment station. If you want pretense, go talk to the woman at the table next to me about why she’s reading Joyce Carol Oates.

If you want high-concept pretense, look no further than a recent Wall Street Journal report that interviewed professor Patrick Brown from Stanford University. Brown had mastered the art of bioengineered fake cow blood—for use on the quintessential ersatz burger his company has conjured from plant matter.

Brown is taking soylent-food dorkery to previously unexplored depths of veg-obsession at his Redwood City laboratory, where extremist vegans in white lab coats scurry about, faking everything.

Here’s my take: You want a burger, go eat one. You want a vegetarian burger, get yourself a Sunshine Burger. You can’t fake the basic purity of a sunflower-seed patty, so forget the fake bacon, the fake blood and the fake cheese, and load it up with tahini, avocado and tomato slices—trimmings appropriate to the encounter. When you order the real deal, get it with trimmings appropriate to the unwholesome encounter: Of course I’ll have that with bacon.

Marin Joe’s, 1585 Casa Buena Drive, Corte Madera, 415.924.2081. Phyllis’ Giant Burger, various locations, including 4910 Sonoma Hwy., Santa Rosa, 707.538.4004.