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:
6 1/3lb hamburger patties
1/2C beef stock
2t prepared Dijon mustard
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.