Californians take their hamburgers seriously. Whenever a New Yorker sneers at our pizza, we sneer back at their listless, scrawny, unimaginative burgers. We are shamefaced at the thought that both In-N-Out and McDonald’s began and flourished here, but we’ve made amends with the innovations and variations we have crafted out of what is essentially fried ground beef served in a bun. Connoisseurs range up and down the state, comparing and contrasting the coarseness of the meat, the freshness of the tomatoes, and the selection of condiments at the likes of Cassell’s in LA, Nepenthe in Big Sur, Joe’s in Corte Madera, and Bistro Ralph in Healdsburg. There are the gourmet burger places, too, but we prefer our burgers California Cuisine-style, imaginative without getting all fussy about it.
Oakland’s Trueburger serves a fine example of the classic hamburger sandwich, elevated to a foodie’s state of grace yet casual in tone and unencumbered by truffles, shallots, lobster, or asparagus. It’s the brainchild of two born-and-bred East Bay boys, Greg Eng of Danville and Jason Low of Walnut Creek, who after years of toil in the high-toned kitchens of Bay Wolf, Absinthe, Delfina, and Jardiniere collaborated on a burger joint retro enough to predate the cookie-cutter fast-food mentality and postmodern enough to embrace freshly baked challah buns, transfat-free French fries, and hand-spun milkshakes. The place opened a year and a half ago on Grand Avenue a block west of Lake Merritt, and ever since it’s been a rollicking success among office workers on lunch break, nightcrawlers in search of a pre-show snack, and just plain burger-lovers craving cheese fries and carcinogens.
Different cuts of Angus beef are ground daily on the premises to form the basis of the standard Trueburger. This is non-grass-fed 20-percent-fat beef, so there’s plenty of rich flavor in these quarter-pound patties, and a cooking process called “smash griddling” creates a nicely charred crust that seals in the juices. They’re served on egg buns custom crafted at Berkeley’s artisan Bread Workshop, slathered with a garlicky aioli and layered with leafy greens and candy-sweet sliced tomatoes. Although the burger was a tad overdone for our taste, the result was a richly satisfying handheld meal. We also tried the Bacon Cheesy Trueburger, which benefitted from slices of fatty smoky bacon but could’ve done without the aerosol-flavored quasi-Velveeta melting on top. (Note: You might want to avoid the cheese fries for the same reason, but the thick-cut fries au naturel are perfectly tasty.) The mushroom burger, meanwhile, was much more than a pallid vegetarian imitation of a “real” burger. A large Portobello was stuffed with mozzarella and fried till crisp on the outside, rich, earthy, and molten within, and absolutely satisfying inside and out.
The minimal (or, if you will, “focused”) menu features a few non-burger items as well. The smoked chicken sausage was too mildly flavored to withstand the sharp, aggressive sauerkraut that blanketed it and its bun, but the spicy coleslaw dog was a delight: a smoky wiener perfectly balanced against a touch of chipotle, thick shards of bacon and the crisp, refreshing, sneakily spicy slaw. The chopped BLT salad sounded good — bacon, lettuce, and tomato plus hard-cooked eggs in an avocado dressing — but it turned out to be a big, surprisingly unexciting mess with no particular flavor to recommend it. The equally bountiful Caesar, on the other hand, dripped with garlicky parmesan flavor and was a welcome change from the light, healthy pseudo-Caesars commonly encountered over the past couple decades. There was nothing fancy or incendiary about the house chili, just a big steaming bowl of black beans, onions, and lots of ground beef: simple, elemental, and thoroughly satisfying. (It made the fries taste better, too.) There’s a locally brined dill pickle as well, crisp yet yielding with a brisk, sour bite, and big as a torpedo to boot.
The best thing about Trueburger, though, are those hand-spun milkshakes — tall, thick, creamy concoctions in chocolate and vanilla that would be delectable on their own but are even better with one or two (or nine) copacetic ingredients mixed in: bananas, chocolate sauce, caramel, strawberries …. We cooked up a vanilla-strawberry-orange cream shake that tasted like a rich, refreshing Creamsicle; a chocolate-coffee shake with a caffeinated zap nicely cushioned by dollops of toasted marshmallow; and (best of all) a chocolate-caramel-peanut butter shake as sweet and endorphic as a melted cryogenic peanut butter cup. (Berries and stone fruits enter the mix during the summer.) There’s an exceptional root beer float on the menu as well, in which thick, pillowy vanilla ice cream absorbs Sprecher’s premium Milwaukee brew until it becomes a frosty-creamy confabulation of sweet, snark, and crunch.
Although Trueburger is pretty well focused on ground beef and its consort, the hot dog, the two vegetarians in our party were delighted with their fried, stuffed Portobello; their cheese fries; their dill pickle; and their milkshakes. (The menu also features a chopped green salad with olives, cucumbers, and sun-dried tomatoes.) To wash it all down there’s soda pop, iced tea, lemonade, and a few different beers du jour (Sierra Nevada, Miller High Life, San Leandro’s own Drake’s Amber Ale, and Full Sail’s crisp, burger-friendly Sessions lager on the day we visited).
The place itself is low-slung, cramped, and minimally decorated with a ink-sketch-like mural of downtown Oakland covering one wall and a bop-prosody tribute to the establishment’s milkshakes on another. It offers seating for thirty at mismatched tables, a sky-lit window-side counter, and an al fresco nook out front. It’s all very trim and tidy, though, with tangerine-colored wainscoted walls, a big communal groaning board in the middle of the room, and shipshape dispensers of ketchup, mustard, sauerkraut, pickles, relish, and hot sauce. The crowd, of course, is prototypically Oaktown: young and old, threadbare and trendy, in all shapes, sizes, outlooks, and backgrounds, united in the here and now by a communal love for fried meat on a bun.