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Report: Mike's in Petaluma - the perfect burger joint?


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Report: Mike's in Petaluma - the perfect burger joint?

Bryan Loofbourrow | May 8, 2003 11:11 PM

Burgers. Who cares? It can be like steak, you do it better at home, and how exciting can a burger be, anyway? Sure, plenty of people, including me, have affection for In-and-Out Burger. But, really, I suspect that 30% of the thrill is grooving to how much better they are than McDonald’s, and another 30% is that it’s real food, with uniformed youths turning whole potatoes into fries in front of your eyes. The final result is good and true, but, realistically, not THAT good.

Still, you have only to walk into the place, or look at the parking lot, to know that they’re onto something. It’s something like the perfect fast-food burger joint ought to be.

Now, throw away the fast-food part. What would the perfect burger joint look like? One candidate might be Bartley’s Burger Cottage in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA. Lots of little wooden tables, very close together. A bustling atmosphere, a cheerful red-faced host, and walls so cluttered with signs and clippings and random stuff that it would take 6 visits to assimilate it all. Big chalkboard menu on the wall, listing zillions of ways you can have your burger topped, extending to the outlandish. But in the final analysis, the burger is a too-thick, round, almost-ball thing, whose flavor comes mostly from the toppings. It’s still a great place, but for me it is the extras that make it so: excellent shakes, good lime rickeys, and archetypally perfect thin, greasy onion rings.

Now picture an entirely different scene: Mike’s Café. Open for lunch only, Mon-Sat. In a huge barn-like building on the grounds of a deserted-looking cattle auction lot is a small, narrow café. A formica counter with many stools, and a few small tables. A no-nonsense griddle behind the counter. A short menu. No fries, but a list of 11 reasons why they don’t have them, topped with “Mike’s Too Darn Lazy to Change The Grease.” If you order a soda, they put a can in front of you. You only get a paper cup with ice in it if you asked for it “with ice.” There are 12 ways to have your burger, and there’s a half-apology for the Nauvoo Blue Cheese burger: “it’s Fru-Fru, but it’s good.” If that’s “Fru-Fru,” I’d like to see what they’d say about some of what’s on offer at Bartley’s.

I loved the place. I loved the cut-down New Jersey diner ambience. I loved the no-nonsense feel of things. But most of all, I loved my burger. Sautéed red onions, fresh basil, and rosemary. The red onions were perfectly limp and softened, and they had the sense to add the basil very late in the process, to just warm it through and preserve its flavor. And the burger, a half-pound, 3/4" thick disk of Harris Ranch beef, was cooked just the way I asked for it – so perfectly medium-rare it could have appeared in a cookbook illustration of what medium-rare means. All burgers come with tomatoes, lettuce and cheese (Mike’s charges 5 cents extra for burgers *without* cheese), and the proportions of these, and of the thick-but-not-too-thick bun, were just as they should have been.

Most important, the flavor was all about the beef. You could taste this burger loud and clear through all the fixins, and it was GOOD. I wasn’t even tempted for a moment to add ketchup, which would have seemed a crime.

I think it’s the best burger I’ve tasted. Check it out.

Mike’s Café
84 Corona Rd (near Petaluma Blvd)
Open 11-3 Mon-Sat

-- Bryan

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