I just found a burger review I wrote on Yelp in 2010 for what remains one of my favorite all time burger joints. Al’s in Albany, CA. I’ve only written 3 Yelp reviews in my life, and each for a place that holds a very special place in my heart, this spot perhaps more so than any other. I thought I’d share it here:
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A couple of weeks ago I watched a special show on the Cooking Channel all about gastropubs. Much time was given to gastropub wunderkind April Bloomfield’s thick description of her restaurant The Breslin’s “thrice cooked chips,” aka, french fries. As Ms. Bloomfield laid out in delicious detail the reasons she puts such time, care, and effort into the preparation of her fries (the triple frying process ensures a crispy outside while getting the center to an almost whipped potato consistency), I couldn’t help but automatically think: “oh, you mean like the fries at Al’s?!”
That sentiment epitomizes Al’s for me; top chefs in the burger and fries game have spent countless hours perfecting their recipes for greasy rib-sticking staples like bacon cheeseburgers and french fries, but Al’s manages to put out some of the finest burgery in the world with little pretense and no kitchen humbuggery regarding ingredient sources, self-conscious nods to preparation in the naming of menu items (i.e., ‘thrice cooked chips’), or inflated pricing. Al’s has no illusions about handcutting their fries on site (they’re crinkle cut), hand shaping patties out of freshly ground Wagyu steak (as far as I can tell Al’s uses machine-shaped patties), or using only heritage Berkshire/Kurobuta pork belly for their bacon. At Al’s, trivialities like these would belie the sublime details that inhere in the naked flavors of the food.
To write that I’m a burger fanatic is to perform an overwhelming act of literary understatement. I have traveled great distances to sample the finest wares burger merchants the world over have to offer…I’ve soared like an eagle to the proverbial burger mountaintop, sinking my teeth into some of the most revered of the highfalutin burgers, and have descended, ant-like, down that same mountain and plumbed the lowest depths of greasy diner burgerdom…and have loved every second of the journey. Of all the thousands of burgers I’ve consumed in my life, Al’s surely rates in the top 5. Ever.
The project of describing what makes Al’s so delicious is an impossible one, and to attempt to do so would be a waste of time that could be spent, among other things, eating. The inherently limited nature of language itself undermines the possibility of translating transcendent experience into mere words. How does one describe sunshine? The sound of angels singing? The taste of polar bear tears? The feeling one gets when first laying eyes upon oneself rendered in paint via the masterstrokes of Sargent’s brush? One doesn’t describe these things; one cannot describe these things. One can only give oneself over completely to the absolute experience of these things. So it must be with Al’s.
I can say that their patty is juicy and flavorful—beefy and rich; that their buns are always perfectly toasted, ever so slightly browned, never hardened; that their iceberg lettuce always flies dangerously close to that existential precipice where it is so crispy it threatens to burst and transform from solid to liquid form, and yet never crosses that dangerous threshold; that their tomatoes are firm and never mealy; that their bacon is perpetually cooked to perfection, crispy, but not too much so, never grisly or kept together through the integuments that befoul lesser bacons; that the hand with which the mayonnaise is perfectly applied is attuned to the subtleties of touch known only by the likes of Giotto, Rodin, and Saint-Gaudens; that the cheese is perfectly melted to the exact point where it is bubbly and gooey, and becomes like a second skin to the patty; that the fryer that delivers the perfect french fry is attached to a timer calibrated not according to the dictates of secular earthly time, the time of clock and calendar, the time of linear temporal progression, but to the time of spirits, the sacral. I could say these things, but to do so would be to undersell Al’s. I can only beseech the reader to venture out on her or his own, and to experience for oneself the true burger sublime.