Just about every San Rafael restaurant that isn’t ethnic, serves hamburgers. At least three eateries between downtown and Terra Linda are devoted to producing patties of ground beef, turkey and more with a range of toppings —, and Weezie’s come to mind, and they’re all good. But for me, only one San Rafael hamburger hits my list of “to swoon for.” And that’s the $14 burger sandwich at the in Gerstle Park.
What makes it so special? Size, for one. Accompaniments. And atmosphere in which to eat it.
The Panama puts out a plump, glistening 10-ounce patty of Star Ranch natural Angus beef, with enough fat, salt and pepper to burst with beefy flavor without needing a hint of seasoning. The meat is loosely formed, so while chewy, it also melts on the tongue.
Burgers come on flavorful, tensile La Brea buns. Cheese is either a melt of Jack or Tillamook (go for the Tillamook cheddar – it’s tangier, a better contrast to the strong-flavored beef). There are strips of crisp Applewood-smoked bacon, a fan of avocado slices, unusually ripe-tasting tomato rounds for this time of year, lettuce, red onion and a pickle. Condiments include ketchup and the extra zip of a well-balanced chipotle/ancho aioli. Put this whole sandwich together with all the components and it is impossible to wrap your mouth around it unless you are a gorilla.
To complete the perfection of the plate, hand-cut skin-on French fries, dusted with just the right amount of salt and dusting of smoky sweet paprika, need nothing but your appetite to enjoy them.
I love the Panama’s atmosphere as well. You dine on white tablecloths, in a peach-toned room lined with historical kitsch, because the hotel dining room has served San Rafael for more than 70 years. You can also eat on a plant-lined, sunny enclosed patio with heat lamps, or the wide-open, verdant garden patio — ideal for burgering in the summertime.
The Panama Hotel is at 4 Bayview St., 457-3993, www.panamahotel.com. Lunch Mon. to Fri., 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner Tues.-Sat. 5:30 to 9:30; Sun. Brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Dinner 5 to 9 p.m. The hamburger is available day and night.
Contact Leslie Harlib at firstname.lastname@example.org.