The good old American hamburger has elevated itself in society. Even high-end restaurants, perhaps feeling the effects of the economy, now serve hamburgers.

A hamburger tastes better, in my opinion, when served in places of character rather than at yet another repetitive-looking, fast-food bore.

I call it the funky burger. Funky, defined, is "unconventional, eccentric." Alameda County, I've discovered, has true funkiness in its offbeat burger sites.

I took a tour and came up with six names you'll want to write down, and then rush to try them yourself. I'm presenting them in alphabetical order because they all tasted great to me.

My original plan: To have a bacon burger with all the trimmings at each stop, but no cheese or french fries, and with a soft drink.

  • Burger Depot: This is the closest thing to a 1950s diner, with an attached ice cream parlor that offers 31 flavors and has gumball machines.

    Another plus about the Burger Depot, located at 1116 Solano Ave., across from the Albany Theatre: It's tucked in among cozy commercial shops -- "Our Town" with onions and relish.

    A great burger begins with lettuce -- plenty of lettuce to give it some crunch. A burger without lettuce is greasy spoon.

    The Burger Depot serves ample shaved iceberg lettuce with a novel twist: The burger comes sliced in half. Different, but still digestible.


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  • Hegenburger: The plumpest burger with fresh, unshaved lettuce is a must at Hegenburger, located at 280 Hegenberger Road. This is your first and last stop to get a burger while approaching or departing Oakland International Airport.

    Instead of paying $12 for a burger at a three-star restaurant, a Hegenburger and soda costs less than $8.50. In fact, that is true of all my funky burger places.

    Hegenburger looks like the front end of a strip mall, but it has outside umbrellas and Raiders photos inside. Only negatives: Closed at night and on Sundays.

  • Oscar's: This UC Berkeley hangout, opened in 1950, is at 1850 Shattuck Ave., at the corner of Hearst, and has its own parking lot.

    "No bacon," grumbled the fry cook when I ordered. But the resulting burger, with the sesame-seed bun and abundant shredded lettuce, was delicious.

    Oscar's funkiness? An ordinary corner store look. It is so devoid of charm, it's charming. Oscarphiles couldn't care less. The burgers are great, and that's all that matters.

  • Sam's Super Burger: The classic funky burger experience is Sam's, but you'll be seeing double, because there are two Sam's: Sam's No. 1 is at 18401 Hesperian Blvd. in San Lorenzo, and Sam's No. 2 at 501 E. 14th St. in San Leandro.

    Two Sam's hardly qualify as a chain, but 80 percent of its business is drive-through. Both eateries suggest a defunct Flying-A gas station on a desert highway -- as funky as it gets. Sam's No. 1 has blue-and-gold polka dots all around its front facade. Even funkier.

    Sam's does have two tables and benches outside. What makes Sam's burgers special? Ah, yes, the toasted buns.

  • Smokehouse: The perfect beach burger joint, though it's been another Cal hangout since 1951 at 3115 Telegraph Ave., at the corner of Woolsey.

    The Smokehouse has that surf city feel. A canopy surrounds it, but it's not enclosed. Wooden benches sit under the canopy, and picnic tables are on the lawn under huge umbrellas.

    No bacon available here either, but a juicy Smokehouse burger still is great with lemonade on a sunny day.

  • Val's: At this Hayward landmark, the emphasis is on the eater, not the cook, to build the hamburger the way you want. Sounds old-fashioned, but it works.

    My bacon baby burger came with two strips of bacon and two leafy pieces of lettuce on the plate, and a 1/3-pound burger sitting by itself between the warmed-up buns. One major flaw: Tomatoes cost extra.

    On each table are ketchup, mustard and three tumblers filled, separately, with sliced white onions, pickles and relish. I started building to my heart's content and got the burger just the way I wanted it. It was mighty tasty.

    Val's, at 2115 Kelly St., just off B Street, resembles a classic city diner that would fit in any city. It's made burger lovers happy since 1958, except on Sundays and Mondays, when it's closed.

    After eating some fantastic burgers six days out of eight, I'm happy, too.

    Burp!

    Dave Newhouse's columns appear Monday, Thursday and Sunday, usually on the Local page. Know any Good Neighbors? Call 510-208-6466 or email dnewhouse@bayareanewsgroup.com