Pal’s is all about experimentation. Owner and chef Jeff Mason is constantly tinkering with his recipes, regularly creating new sandwiches and serving up creative takes on old favorites. There’s no guarantee that any given sandwich will be on the menu from one day to the next so each visit requires a leap of faith, the reward for which is sheer delight. Here are a few of Jeff’s past creations (click here if you want to skip straight to the burger):
With daikon sprouts, spicy apples, and labneh
Roasted Turkey Breast
With bacon, pimento-cheddar spread, and arugula
Cold Poached Albacore
With cornichon, arugula, roasted cherry tomato relish, and potato chip (yes, in the sandwich)
Becker Lane Lao roast pork with Blue Herron baby scallion, cilantro, carrot, daikon, cucumber and jalapeño
Riverdog real free-range egg salad with asparagus
With cheddar ale sauce, pickled shallot, wild arugula, and mustard
Sonoma baby spring lamb porchetta with roasted eggplant yogurt dressing, pickled onions, greens, and Aleppo pepper
Becker Lane pork with choice of hoisin, ginger, lime, and black coffee BBQ sauces
Pal’s also sources some of the finest breads around. Here in the Bay Area we’re so spoiled on Acme Bread as a kind of everyday loaf that it’s hard to remember just how exceptional it is. Depending on the creation you may find your Pal’s sandwich between two slices of Acme, Josey Baker, or Fireband. Our burgers were served on a beautiful, sweet, fluffy bun from Marla Bakery.
Jeff developed his patty with Marin Sun Farms using a combination of sirloin, brisket, chuck, and dry-aged beef fat. It’s a fantastic, very juicy, five-ounce piece of meat which he smash grills until it forms a crisp crust. The inside is so rare that in any other establishment you’d probably send it back. But Jeff knows what he’s doing and we enjoyed ours without incident. Like his other sandwiches, the burger offering varies constantly. On our visit we were treated to toppings of arugula, roasted cherry tomatoes, and a house-made pimento cheese spread. Contrasted with the other ingredients, the spread seemed at first a peculiar addition. It was salty and a little spicy—like a dressed up Cheese Whiz. (Quick aside: Kraft's website is as awful as their foods. Someone please help them). Oddly, though, it worked, and after a few bites we came to appreciate it as an indulgence—both of taste and creation.
Pal’s burger is whimsical and fun. Though we gave it only three stars, it’s considerably better than any other three-star burger we’ve tasted so far. I certainly recommend giving it a try.
After our meal, I spoke with Jeff about his process. How does he constantly come up with new variations? Does he research different foods and combinations? Does he experiment, iterate, and refine? Does he have test subjects who try his concoctions and give him feedback? The answers were no, no and no. “Basically,” he says, “I just dream them up in my head. I know enough about food now that I have a pretty good idea what something will taste like just by imagining it. Then I make it. If it tastes as good as I imagined, I make some adjustments. If it tastes better than I imagined, I serve it.”
Jeff, in other words, is like any seasoned creative professional. Ideas come fast and freely and he has enough practice behind him that he can prototype in his head. He doesn’t rely on research or user feedback to validate his vision. Instead he brings the value of his own considerable experience to the table. He sets high conceptual expectations for himself, and doesn’t launch a new idea until the craft exceeds them.
The Creative Lesson
But design isn’t always about using what other people know to make things that other people want. Sometimes it’s about offering something new—something that comes from a place that no one but you can imagine. I’d argue that the best design always requires an element of intuition. And though most design is made better by collaboration, every once in a while it is the passionate work of a solitary genius.
Go have a Pal’s burger. You'll see what I mean.