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Hungry Palate

Buster’s in North Beach: The quintessential cheese steak joint

Buster’s hot dog photos: ernest beyl

I’m a patron of Buster’s, the North Beach cheese steak joint on Columbus and Vallejo. It’s my go-to place when I crave a cheese steak, a burger, or a hot dog. I’ve considered writing a Hungry Palate restaurant review of Buster’s for the Marina Times for a long time. What’s held me back? Well, it’s occurred to me that I might be looked upon as a lightweight if I did a full-on review of a cheese steak joint.

I queried my editor to see what she would think about this. My point was that to be reviewed by a responsible publication like the Marina Times (or the New York Times, for that matter) a restaurant doesn’t have to be a world-renowned establishment like the French Laundry in Yountville. It can be worthy of a thoughtful review simply if it’s a humble place that just serves good food. Buster’s qualifies. She told me to go for it. So here goes.

A SMOKING-HOT GRIDDLE

It’s almost an overstatement to say that Buster’s is unprepossessing. It carries unprepossessing as an art form. About 8 or 10 stools along a countertop. A few facing the action out on Columbus. Some rickety tables and chairs outside. Behind the counter there’s a deep fryer for those fries — plain fries, garlic fries, cheese fries, garlic-cheese fries, chili-cheese fries and, of course, chili-garlic-cheese fries. But the focal point behind Buster’s counter is the smoking-hot griddle.

No matter what you order at Buster’s — any of several cheese steak sandwiches, half-pound burgers, or one of the various hot dogs — everything is done on that smoking-hot griddle and having a vested interest, you watch closely. Buster’s griddle man is a wizard; his twin spatulas scraping together onions, peppers, mushrooms and using the square tip of one to chop the steak that will eventually become your very own cheese steak.

A few words about the cheese: On these cheese steaks there is a choice of provolone, pepper jack, white American, Swiss, cheddar or — and let’s have a drum roll — Cheese “Wiz.” Yes, Cheese Wiz (as Buster’s spells it). Cheese Whiz is a processed, yellow-orange cheese sauce devised by Kraft Foods and dates back to 1952. I like it.

And a few words about toppings: Your choice of bell peppers, sweet cherry peppers, black olives, sauerkraut (for the hot dogs), tomatoes, dill pickles, and jalapeno peppers (30 cents each); or guacamole, mushrooms, pepperoni, or bacon (75 cents each).

CONSIDER THE CHEESE STEAK

There are purists who insist you can’t get a good cheese steak anywhere but in Philadelphia. OK by me; let’s just call these San Francisco cheese steaks. A different breed. And here they are with prices for small or large: Phili (style) Cheese Steak ($6.45/$7.85), Whole Sub California Cheese Steak ($6.70/$8.60), Phillapeno Cheese Steak ($6.75/$8.55), Chiladelphia Cheese Steak ($6.95/$7.95), Mushroom Philly Cheese Steak ($6.75/$8.90), and my favorite, the inimitable North Beach Cheese Steak ($6.70/$8.60).

The makeup of most of these is apparent by their titles or you can drop by, read the menu and try one. So let’s jump directly into the North Beach Cheese Steak: chopped steak, grilled onions (naturally), spinach, zucchini, bell peppers, and all of this smothered with my choice, Cheese Wiz. And I like some jalapeno peppers in there. How do I describe the taste of this beauty? Juicy, a little salty, cheesy. It tastes like North Beach looks at midnight on a Saturday — stimulating, provocative and a bit edgy.

OUR BURGER SYMPOSIUM

What is it really about the hamburger? What a remarkable and completely satisfying thing it is. I’ve eaten my fair share. I suppose if I came right down to a decision on what to eat on a given day, hamburgers (make that, cheeseburgers) would rate near the top.

In the early ’60s, I discovered Clown Alley, the long-gone North Beach joint that had raised the hamburger to a new paradigm. And did you know that San Francisco’s hungry i legend Enrick Baldacci opened Clown Alley back in the ’50s? It finally closed in 2007.

These days the gold standard in burgers is Buster’s — Buster’s Burger ($5.60), Bacon Burger ($6.40), Mushroom Bacon Burger ($6.90), and Veggie Burger ($5.50). With your choice of cheese. I like my Buster’s cheeseburgers with all the goodies. One half pound, fresh-ground hamburger, medium rare; mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, sweet pickle relish, grilled onions, dill pickles, and a few jalapeno peppers thrown in for good order. All nestled between two halves of a toasted sesame seed bun. The quintessential burger.

HOMAGE TO THE HOT DOG

As a kid, I was devoted to the hot dog. One of my early recollections is of my father taking me into a butcher shop on Market Street. He apparently knew the butcher. After my father had paid for the brisket of beef, the pork chops, the lamb shanks, and the ham hocks, the butcher reached into the refrigerated display case, pulled out a frankfurter and handed it to me. Ritual called for me to instantly devour it just as it was, in a series of rapid gulps. Neat! That is, without mustard.

In those days, the most sublime example of the genus hot dog was to be found at Casper’s in Oakland. I attended high school there for a while. I hung out at Casper’s when school let out because there were pinball machines, which occupied me for hours. I was also occupied by the foot-long hot dogs. I called them garbage rolls. My zeal for hot dogs knows no bounds. At Buster’s you should try them all: the foot-long, all-beef hot dog ($3.25), or chili cheese dog ($4.75), or hot links ($3.75), or Italian sausage ($5.70), or a cheese dog ($4.25). The way I go is the all-beef, foot-longer, with sauerkraut, onions, sweet pickle relish, mustard, and ketchup — and a few of those jalapeno peppers.

The quintessential cheese steaks, burgers and hot dogs.

Buster’s: 366 Columbus Avenue (at Vallejo); Sunday–Thursday 11 a.m.–2:30 a.m., Friday– Saturday 11 a.m.–3 a.m.; 415-392-2800, busters-sf.com.

Rating: ◆◆◆

In case you’re prompted to utter a roar of protest over the three diamonds, consider our reviewing rules.

AMBIENCE
Who needs ambience when the food is so good?

SOUND LEVEL
Music: stuff like “Suzie Q” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and lots of hip-hop. But conversation is possible.

LIGHT LEVEL
Light enough to read the signboard menu at 10 paces.

NOT TO MISS DISHES
The North Beach Cheese Steak, a cheeseburger with all the trimmings, foot-long hot dogs, and garlic fries.

THE DIAMONDS
Ratings range from zero to four diamonds and reflect food and atmosphere and service, taking price range and type of restaurant into consideration.

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