New Patties at Ninth and Gilman

New Patties at Ninth and Gilman

This Gilman Gateway outpost represents a happy marriage of Southern and cowboy cuisines.

It is late afternoon in circadian terms, not quite dinnertime but way past lunch. At Farm Burger, which opened in November and shares a block with Philz Coffee and Doughnut Dolly within sight of Whole Foods in Berkeley’s burgeoning Gilman Gateway (yes, this phrase was devised right here and now), amber sunbeams slant through tall windows onto mellow miniature tableaux.

A uniformed security guard tucks into a juicy burger oozing caramelized onions and white cheddar cheese. A Mandarin-speaking mother beckons her bodysuited baby toward the in-house kiddie fun zone. Swigging draft Trumer Pils atop tall metal stools the bold blue of spring mornings in Montana, bearded hipsters belly up to a salvaged-wood counter that’s as spic-and-span and rustically ranchy as the surrounding tables, walls, and floor.

A young family chortles at the arrival of milkshakes for the kids, a Golden Gate cider float, and a chocolate-stout float for the adults, all made with Three Twins organic ice cream. To another table comes a bowl of Southern-style boiled peanuts and two tall, abundant, fluffy-bunned burgers nestled—like messengers from mid-century childhoods—in paper-lined metal baskets.

A certain sensation pervades: almost forgotten yet faintly familiar, strange yet sweet. What is it? Ah, yes. Unpretentious comfort. And once you get some, like a starved person, you want more. Luckily, Farm Burger’s motto is “See you tomorrow.”

Founded in Decatur, Ga., and comprising, besides Berkeley, three Georgia restaurants and one North Carolina restaurant, Farm Burger is among several competing burger-based fast-casual groups with Bay Area outposts. Each of these groups has its signatures. Umami Burger uses Wagyu beef and fish-head sauce and charges luxury prices. Roam Artisan Burgers, now in Lafayette, offers pasture-bred bison, Lev’s Original Kombucha on tap, and Straus Family Creamery shakes. Eureka!uses only American ingredients and boasts a full bar. Smashburger, now in Emeryville, serves hand-spun Oreo and Butterfinger shakes. It’s as if God put McDonald’s and Burger King through a California Cuisine machine. We inhabit the era of burger battles and patty parlays. Rivalry drives quality: The fiercer the battles, the better the burgers. Lucky us.

Farm Burger hangs its cowboy hat on grass-fed, dry-aged, house-ground beef patties, locally sourced and affordably priced. The latter, of course, depends upon—and is sustained by—high volume. The Berkeley shop buys its beef from Niman Ranch. Other patty options include chicken, pastured pork, and vegan; the latter, based mainly on Chico-grown Llano Seco Rancho heirloom beans, is softer than most meatless patties but soothingly earthy-flavored and more filling.

A set of six signature “blackboard” burgers includes chicken-Gouda-barbecue-sauce (No. 4) and bacon-egg-beef (No. 6). Edgy No. 5 combines chickweed, sunchoke mayo, Sierra Nevada goat cheese, marinated Full Belly Farms delicata squash, and beef. It’s also possible to build a burger: Eleven free toppings include pickled jalapeños and smoked-paprika mayo. Fourteen further toppings, including beer-battered onion rings and apple-chicory slaw, cost $1 each. Nine more—ponder pork belly, Point Reyes blue cheese, and oxtail marmalade—cost $2. Stack a patty with roasted garlic, iceberg lettuce, grainy mustard, mayo, red onion, house pickles, fresh tomato, red-bean chili, feta, and cured lardo, and it still costs less than a single cocktail at Flora.

Ever-shifting daily-special burgers are based on what’s seasonal and what’s plentiful, and these are formulated by general manager Michael McGuan, in consultation with Atlanta-based Farm Burger chef Cameron Thompson.

“We talk every day,” McGuan confirms. “I tell him, ‘Here’s what we have and here’s what I’d like to do.’ For example, if I want to really showcase some new beets from Feral Heart” —a four-farmer collective comprising one acre of the Sunol Water Temple AgPark—”a daily special burger is a great way to achieve that.”

Farm Burger isn’t called Farm Burger just for fun. Pictures of actual purveyors adorn its walls, complete with written explanations of how, where, and why each such farmer farms.

“We vertically integrate many of our products and source-verify all of them,” McGuan asserts. “What makes us different from other fast-casual restaurants is that every employee, including the dishwashers, goes on farm tours so that we all know exactly where our products come from, and so that eating in each Farm Burger restaurant is reflective of where that restaurant is located.”

It’s a subtle, source-based reflection, because besides the daily burgers, all Farm Burgers serve mainly the same chef-driven soup-salad-sides-burgers menu. (A handy children’s menu includes fried-chicken lollipops, grilled-cheese sandwiches and mac-and-cheese.) Given the group’s Georgia roots, this menu is deeply, defiantly Dixie, offering regional standbys such as sweet-potato hushpuppies, chicken pot-pie fritters, and fried chicken livers that are far rarer in Berkeley than, say, injera or bibimbap. Brewed for six hours in a jalapeño- and cayenne-spiked solution that thickens as it cooks—”like ramen broth,” McGuan beams—the satisfying, plump boiled peanuts are as tasty and as tender as sharp cheese.

Other sides include creamy Gouda grits, topped with charred cherry-tomato salsa so sweet that one wishes for more than one small spoonful. Peppery, vinegary, velvety-soft, onion-dotted collard greens are excellent, because Southern cuisine has proven hands-down that long-cooked, luxuriantly melt-in-the-mouth produce is not solely baby food and that (hello, too many Bay Area chefs) vegetables need either be served raw nor jaw-bustingly nearly so to woo the civilized adult.

Well-flavored and dazzlingly fresh, Farm Burger’s kale slaw could, however, use a little work, albeit easy work, entailing just a mandoline or a big knife. Left whole, as they currently are, these curly-edged leaves flop and loll on the fork like full-sized sheets of writing paper. Each unwieldy leaf must be folded, twirled, and/or stuffed into the mouth.

Which brings us to another difficulty—not in flavor, texture, creativity or quality, all of which are irreproachably high here, but rather in verticality. This is a growing yet enigmatic trend, in which burgers, sandwiches, tacos, and other fare customarily eaten while held in the hands are now being constructed too toweringly tall to be bitten top-to-bottom, face-on. The hapless diner thus must nip off bits of bun and filling alternately, or squeeze the starchy holder so hard that stuff squirts out, or resort to knife and fork. The solution is simple geometry: For an easily edible sandwich of equal volume, use a slightly flatter, wider bun.

But everything thus far has been a mere preamble to Farm Burger’s golden, gotta-have-them glory: fries.

White or sweet potato, tossed with garlic, herbs and Parmesan; with pimento cheese and pickled jalapeños; with onion rings: These lengthy, languid, hand-cut carbohydrate fingers have the hyper-perfect density to which all fries, had they hearts, would aspire—crispy outside, not mushy inside but sumptuously supple, served in wrangler-pleasingly large piles.

Fast. Casual. These two words, at their best, with due respect, are a new American anthem. Sing it here.

Farm Burger

1313 Ninth St., Berkeley
Open daily 11:30am-10pm
Entrées $7.50-$14
Beer and wine
Accepts credit cards.

Faces of the East Bay