Rough trade

Hamburger Patties

1630 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 441-4340

I’m not normally one to eat at chain restaurants if I can help it. But I’ll admit that I was predisposed to have the teensiest of soft spots for Hamburger Mary’s. Now a franchise with an outpost on J Street, the original restaurant by that name was on Folsom Street in San Francisco, around the corner from my great-grandfather’s place. I doubt he ever went, but my grandparents took me when I was a kid, and boy was it ever different from the restaurants in my small hometown. It was the kind of place that my grandmother described as “fun” and that I never realized was actually a gay hangout until much, much later.

Alas, the kitschy original Hamburger Mary’s has gone the way of all flesh, but franchise operations have risen up like heads on a Hydra to replace it in locations from Cincinnati to Palm Springs. What, those don’t sound like the home of the next Castro district? One of the consequences of Hamburger Mary’s franchising is that it’s become quite a bit tamer. The corporate Web site may coyly say that it’s not your Aunt Edna’s restaurant, but my sense was that it’s exactly the kind of place a great-aunt might enjoy, what with the colorfully over-the-top décor, cute young waiters and absolutely safe menu that runs, not surprisingly, to burgers and fries.

The appetizer menu offered prefab bar food along the lines of fried mozzarella sticks, chicken strips and quesadilla rolls that sounded agreeably cheesy. We ordered the latter because they were one of the few starters that sounded slightly different from the offerings on countless other menus. They looked a bit like taquitos, but they were made from flour rather than corn tortillas and were cut on a steep angle to reveal the filling. The rolls had a pleasant hint of smoky spice but were oddly pasty; there was no hint of the gooey lusciousness that melted cheese usually brings with it. And the accompanying salsa for dipping was straight from a jar.

A lack of freshness seemed to be a problem all around. The Caesar salad tasted like it had been assembled out of a salad-in-a-bag from the grocery store. The lettuce was crisp enough, but the croutons tasted stale, and the Parmesan was pre-shredded and plasticky. The dressing was tangy but undistinguished.

Still, burgers and fries, not salads, are the real lure here. The menu perks up when it turns to describing them, and the offerings are many. One thing I liked was that the burgers don’t come loaded up with a lot of extra goo. As a picky eater, I’ve always hated the litany of special requests that I have to go through when I order a burger. At Hamburger Mary’s, the burgers come with lettuce, tomato and the fixings specified on the menu; for other toppings, you have to ask.

Indeed, the restaurant offers a flexible range of options. If your pangs of conscience at ordering a barbecue bacon cheeseburger are, like mine, assuaged by putting the carnivorama on a whole-wheat bun, Mary’s your girl. You can substitute a veggie burger in any preparation for 95 cents extra—just 5 cents less, curiously, than the surcharge for making any burger a double. Meat really should not be that cheap relative to a vegetarian product, given that the true environmental and health cost of meat production is so outrageously high. Still, burgers taste good, and those at Hamburger Mary’s were no exception. Mine had bacon spilling out of either side, and, to my relief, it wasn’t drowning in barbecue sauce; the extra napkins that the menu promised weren’t necessary.

My friend’s Dip ‘N Burger was similarly tasty, with a pile of sweet, soft grilled onions and a side of the barbecue sauce for dipping. If I had it to do over again, I might go for this option, because the sauce was yummy with the spicy fries. The fries were good ones: medium thick, pale golden and properly crisp outside while softly mealy inside.

Even though we were sitting in the bar, we never saw a drink menu. On the other hand, I could look over and check out the beers on tap. The bar had Newcastle Brown Ale, one of my favorites, so I ordered a pint—whereupon the waiter won my heart by carding me, something that hasn’t happened too often since I hit 30 a couple of years ago. I’m afraid I responded by giggling foolishly. As my friend remarked, the waiter had exactly the kind of bad-boy good looks we would have wasted way too much time pining over when we were actually under 21.

Sadly, Hamburger Mary’s own bad-boy side seems to have vanished along with my youth. Though the burgers are decent, most of the food has that chain-restaurant sameness that always leaves a literal and figurative bad taste in my mouth. The atmosphere works hard for a sense of fun, but in becoming a franchise operation, Hamburger Mary’s has traded in its walk-on-the-wild-side roots for a blandness that’s all too average.