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Food Friendly May: Of Hamburgers and Hippos | Manolo for the Big Girl

Food Friendly May: Of Hamburgers and Hippos

Once upon a time in San Francisco, city of fog and whimsy, there was a restaurant – nay, a Mecca for burger lovers and fans of a now-obscure puppeteer and children’s book illustrator known as Wolo – that showed how a humble foodstuff, when done with love, care and a touch of ingenuity could be an amazing thing. That place was known as The Hippo.

The Hippopotamus Hamburger Restaurant awed me when I first walked through its doors at the tender age of ten. The walls were covered in glorious murals of cartoon hippos doing decidedly non-hippo-like things. The girl hippos wore polka-dotted hairbows. The ones viewed from the rear were seen to wear matching bows on their tails and little heart-shaped tattoos on their rumps. The boy hippos looked smitten at the girl hippos. Some of the boy hippos wore spotted neckerchiefs and tall chef’s toques. They looked proud of their work, and well they should have. What was done in the Hippo kitchen was positively magical.


Wolo provided the murals and frankly disturbing toilet art (With the lid down, you saw the top of a hippo head. When the lid was lifted…well, there was a gaping hippo maw. It never felt comfortable to use one for its intended purpose. I often found myself choosing mild discomfort for a while after we left rather than head for that bathroom.), but it was hamburger Merlin Jack Falvey who came up with the concept and developed the sixty or so specialty burgers on the menu.

There was my brother the alpaca rancher’s favorite, the Tahitianburger drizzled with pineapple-laced sweet and sour sauce and served with banana fritters, fragrant with cinnamon. There was the Gourmetburger, liberally doused in Bernaise sauce. My favorite was the tostada, piled nearly to the ceiling – or so it felt at the tme – and only available (according to the menu) when the guacamoles were in season. A guest we brought with us once nearly churned our stomachs by actually ordering the hamburger sundae. Yes, it’s precisely what it sounds like…ice cream and hot fudge on a hamburger served with pickle spears. I’m sure it was developed as a bad pregnancy cravings joke, but I watched a teenaged boy devour it. My guacamoles didn’t sit so well that night.

Still, with all the glorious reinventions of the humble burger on the menu, even the glitterati came to dine at The Hippo. From local celebs like legendary newspaper columnist Herb Caen to international superstars like Rudolph Nureyev, they came to celebrate ground beef taken to the nth degree of perfection.

Alas! All good things must come to an end, and so it was with The Hippo. I can’t remember precisely when it happened, but I was in my twenties when The Hippo closed its doors forever. To this day, I can’t pass that particular Gap store without glaring a little. So does Mr. Twistie, who was also a fan.

I do, however, have one tiny jewel to remind me of those days when banana fritters ruled my brother’s world and the guacamoles were always in season. I have the cookbook. Thanks to that, I can share one of the recipes with you now. And here it is:

CAPERBURGERS

6 1/3lb hamburger patties

2T butter

1/2C beef stock

2t prepared Dijon mustard

3T capers

1/4C water

3T all-purpose flour

1/2C sour cream (room temperature!)
salt and pepper to taste

1: undercook the patties in an iron skillet in butter. Remove patties to a warm spot.

2: Add stock, mustard, and capers to the skillet. Cover tightly and simmer for 5 minutes. Add water and flour and mix well. Cook, stirring constantly, until thickened. Stir in room temperature sour cream, heat through. Serve sauce over patties.

Trust me, this is great.

26 Responses to “Food Friendly May: Of Hamburgers and Hippos”

  1. Jennie May 10, 2008 at 5:49 pm #

    Is “T” Tablespoon or Teaspoon?

  2. Chaser May 10, 2008 at 7:39 pm #

    Gash…that’s going back awhile for me but I remember The Hippo. Sigh.

  3. Twistie May 10, 2008 at 7:54 pm #

    Jennie: the upper case T stands for Tablespoon, and the lower case t stands for teaspoon. Sorry for the confusion! I should have either noted that or used a less minimalist notation.

    Chaser, it’s nice to know someone else remembers.

  4. deja pseu May 11, 2008 at 10:41 am #

    Twistie,

    Just a nitpick, “guacamole” doesn’t come into season, but “avocados” do. ;-)

    I’m sorry to say I never made it to The Hippo when they were open, but always heard great things. There was one place in Noe Valley area in the early 80’s we used to go for great burgers, but the name has long since left me.

  5. Twistie May 11, 2008 at 11:01 am #

    Deja Pseu,

    The guacamoles being in season was a joke on the menu. For once I didn’t make a goof!

    If you ever remember the name of your favorite burger spot way back when, I’d love to hear about it.

  6. Scarlett May 11, 2008 at 11:59 am #

    I live in Cambridge, and we have something kind of similar – Mr Bartley’s, on Mass Ave. My favorite is the Mitt Romney (swiss cheese and onions), my best friend’s is the Viagra (blue cheese and bacon).

  7. Twistie May 12, 2008 at 12:15 pm #

    Scarlett, that sounds wonderful. And of course I’d have to order the Viagra. Not only do I salivate at the combination of bleu cheese and bacon, but it would be fun to do.

  8. Elizabeth May 13, 2008 at 2:48 am #

    I have been to the Hippo many, many times! First as a little girl and then later it was a great place to go after concerts.
    I loved the Wall Art, the burgers and yes when the Guacamoles were in season.

    We Miss You, Hippo! Thanks for bringing back the memories.

  9. Twistie May 13, 2008 at 2:35 pm #

    You’re welcome, Elizabeth. I miss that place like crazy.

  10. kalamari May 13, 2008 at 6:56 pm #

    I haven’t heard of The Hippo, but I do have the cookbook too! Found it at a public library book sale… M. Kalamari loves hippos and burgers.

  11. Carol Salsbury October 21, 2008 at 11:18 pm #

    Hi, I read the article about the Hippo Restaurant. I lived in San Francisco in 1971 and I ate there. I remember the Tahitian burger clearly!!! I was so thrilled to see this write up because I still remember that place and how much I loved the atmosphere and the food there! I really enjoyed the article!

    Thanks!

    Carol

  12. Riverside November 23, 2008 at 2:58 am #

    A Gap store now? Sigh… As a child living down the penisula in the 70s, On a visit to the city the Hippo was my favorite destination, although my brothers and sisters all were Chocolate Factory devotees, so I was often outvoted. So when visiting recently to see it gone was a cold slap in the face, just another something that was special and unique wiped away and replaced by a facelace corporate franchise, perhaps I shouldn’t take these things so hard, but I can’t help it. “My favorite was the tostada, piled nearly to the ceiling – or so it felt at the time” Is it just because things looked bigger when you yourself are smaller? but my memory of the ceiling itself was that it was way up there! like 50+ feet! could it have been? The other thing I remember was the “raw burger” on the menu, it made me a bit queasy to think about, and then when E. coli was in the headlines always came to mind. Anyway, thanks for the article, enjoyed it.

  13. Marina Jaime December 10, 2008 at 4:33 pm #

    I was born after the Hippo, however it was THE hangout for my dad & his friends when they were teens. They were all marina/cow hollow boys. As a small child I was allergic to chocolate (caffine) and when I outgrew my allergy, at 12, the DR instructed to start out slowly. My father made me a Hippo Kiss that night.
    Hippo Kiss: Fudgey chocolate brownie, chocolate Ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate sauce and I think there was a chocolate candy bar in there somewhere.

  14. Caroline December 21, 2008 at 10:34 pm #

    Aaaaaah…The Hippo was THE restaurant that my parents would take us on all of our birthdays, special occasions and whenever the hankering of burgers emerged! Thanks for renewing those special memories!

  15. Bay June 4, 2009 at 5:14 pm #

    I LOVED THE HIPPO! WE USED TO EAT THERE EVERY FRIDAY NIGHT, AND MY FAVORITE WAS THE FRENCH BURGER (EXACT NAME I’M NOT SURE) BUT IT HAD BACON AND ROQUEFORT CHEESE. I STILL HAVE A MENU, SO I CAN SEE THE INGREDIENTS, NOT THE EXACT RECIPES. THANKS FOR THE CAPER BURGER RECIPE. I SWEAR WE SHOULD TALK FOOD NETWORK INTO DOING A HIPPO SPECIAL, AND GIVE EACH CHEF A RECIPE.

  16. Bay June 4, 2009 at 5:43 pm #

    I WAS SO EXCITED TO FIND OUT THERE WAS A COOKBOOK FROM THE HIPPO AND FOUND ONE ON-LINE! EXCITED TO SEE IT! I CAN’T WAIT TO MAKE A FRENCH BURGER. TONIGHT! MY TWITTER SITE HAS SOME FUN RECIPES AND I’LL ADD THE CAPER BURGER, AND THE FRENCH WITH BACON & ROQUEFORT CHEESE RECIPE. TWIITER ME AT ABEECHARMER

    Oi, Screamy, lay off the caps lock, okay? — Plumcake

  17. sf baby August 11, 2009 at 9:52 pm #

    Darn I forgot about the cookbook when we sold my Mom’s house in SF, I think it got lost…or my brother snagged it, grrrr. Every time I go back to SF my heart aches seeing that GAP where the Hippo used to be. I was sad to see Clown Alley is closed as well.
    Jack Falvey lived in our neighborhood; his home was the most popular house on Halloween since in lieu of candy he gave certificates for a Hippo Burger. Even the teens who wanted to egg cars and have shaving cream fights pulled themselves together to ring that doorbell. His house was never vandalized needless to say.
    I now live in Maine and we have a pretty great burger joint as well “Wild Willy’s” not quite The Hippo, but pretty darn good. Until I find that cookbook I’ll go there.

  18. Geoff August 27, 2009 at 3:46 am #

    Baked Alaskan buger, was really great. I live in San Jose and when ever we went to San Fransisco as a kid we would eat lunch at The Hippo. That teen you saw eating the sundae buger might have been my brother, tasted really good believe it or not. I really miss the Hippo, and whenever I am in SF and see that building my stomach still growls.

  19. Deanna October 3, 2009 at 12:39 pm #

    I remember Hippos. My father took me there several times as a child. I LOVED the Tahitian burger. It was my favorite. I didn’t know there was a cookbook. I found one online and ordered it. Maybe I can make my kids burgers that I used to eat. Thanks for the memories.

  20. Karl November 15, 2009 at 4:26 am #

    The Hippo was a great place for kids and kids parties but for the best burgers in the neighborhood they were found up the block at Zim’s (Jackson/Van Ness) or over at The Smokehouse at Clay/Polk Sts.

    Thinking of the giant hippo that adorned the facade of the restaurant makes me smile.

  21. kawika November 27, 2009 at 7:48 pm #

    i was just telling a friend about a flash back of living in san jose back in the early 70’s and going up with room mates to the city and eating at this burger place called hippos. just out of curiosity i checked the internet and behold!!! a stroll down memory lane…. ahhhh… the tostada, french, tahitian….all great burgers. great friends, great food. what more can you ask for??? thanx for the memories……aloha and have a safe and happy holidays!!!

  22. Eileen January 9, 2010 at 12:20 am #

    I loved that place. In the early 60s I lived on Pacific Ave and Gough and went there at least once a week. Best burgers in town. I also had a cookbook but sorry to say it disappeared about 10 years ago.

  23. Doug January 18, 2010 at 2:53 pm #

    I grew up on the peninsula in the ’70s and very early ’80s. Dad and I would trek up to The City on Saturdays and just wander around our favorite hangouts. A trip to the Hippo was a special treat, and I remember the kitchen was right out there where everyone could see the flames coming off the grill as their burgers were cooked. I truly wish I could have experienced it as an adult so I would have more memories of it rather than just images.

    I still have my copy of the cookbook — it’s one of the things for which I will risk bodily injury to rescue in a disaster.

  24. Sal February 6, 2010 at 2:13 am #

    I remember the Hippo and thank God my uncle was the head chef there he still remembers all the recipes every time i see him he cooks the tahitian burger for me

  25. H L May 16, 2010 at 8:24 pm #

    Hi, i just got introduced to the Hippo, when my 85 yr old mother produced a cookbook from her basement. How it got into her basement I don’t know….WOW! How times have changed from using butter and charcoal to fry a burger.

  26. finley gibbs August 11, 2010 at 5:57 pm #

    I remember eating the Cannibal Burger with some teammates from the Cal soccer team at the Hippopotamus after games in the city. That would have been in 1960-62. The Cannibal Burger was raw hamburger. I was only 19 or 20 then. I wouldnt dare do that now, and I would guess laws would not allow raw burger any more.