Yes, everyone was right: Val's has the best hamburgers in the Bay Area. Ok, ok, while that may be an exaggeration - we haven't, after all, tried all the burgers in the Area, Val's burgers leaves all the ones we've tried, including our favorites, such as Nation's and our local Pring's San Francisco burger, in the dust.
We went to Val's for the first time last Saturday night. We were looking for some place where we hadn't been before that was good and cheap - our internet searches suggested that Val's fit the bill perfectly.
Val's is a small diner in a working-class corner of northeast Hayward. It's been there since the 1950s and has a definite 1950s coffeeshop-look to it. On one side, behind a long counter, there is an ice cream-milk shake parlor and an open kitchen where you can see the burgers being grilled. The walls are decorated with pictures of the sport teams they sponsor. Because the restaurant is so small and so popular, it's pretty crowded. Diners may have to share a booth with others or sit at the counter. Even then, expect a long wait. When we went, we had to wait half an hour to be seated. There isn't much space to wait inside, so make sure you bring your jacket in case you have to wait outside.
Val's, at least at busy times, is not a place to relax. The pace is frantic, with waitresses rushing around and people waiting for tables. It's difficult not to feel the pressure to eat fast and get out of the way. Too bad, because I love lingering in diners. Service, at least that night, was also impaired by the pace. Our waitress was nice and friendly, but forgot to bring us the onion rings we ordered (turned out it didn't matter as we'd ordered too much food anyway), gave our shakes to another party, spilled them when she finally got them to us and brought me a rare steak rather than the medium-rare I had ordered. Still, incompetence (or just busyness) seemed to be part of the package so we didn't really resent it (although I'm noting it).
As previously mentioned, the food, and in particular the burgers, are the real stars at Val's. Why are they so good? We suspect it has to do with the fact that they are hand-packed and grilled on an open flame, giving them that "backyard bbq burger" flavor that we always anticipate when making them ourselves but never achieve. In any case, you have to try them to believe them. They are delicious but fairly simple. The thick patties come plain on a bun with some iceberg lettuce. Cheese, tomatoes and some other toppings are optional and extra. Each table has a tray with sliced onions, pickles, relish and condiments, however. Burgers come in three sizes, a 1/4 lb. "baby" version, a 1/2 lb. "mama" version, and a two patty 1 lb. "papa" version. On our visit Mike proved himself a mama's boy, when he was too chicken (or sensible) to order the pounder. Still, if you are very hungry you may want to give it a try.
I went for the burgers and had a Ranch steak sandwich instead. The thick, juicy steak came on a toasted french-bread bun accompanied by lettuce and a slice of tomato. As with the burger, it was flame-grilled and delicious. It was very tender, even though I imagine it had to be a cheap cut of meat (the 8-9 oz steak was only about $9) and extremely flavorful. Easily one of the best steaks I've had outside my own kitchen, and certainly the best one for the price. It's highly recommended.
We shared a side of fries (about $2.50 for a basket), these were cut very thickly and brought to the table very hot and golden. I thought they were fine though I tend to prefer the thinner variety. The basket was huge and we ate at most 2/3rds of it.
Val's is also famous for its milk shakes and both Mike and I ordered them. He had the "all-around" chocolate shake (made entirely with chocolate ice cream) and I had a butter-pecan shake. They were both pretty good and really huge - about three serving's worth. They are made with Berkeley Farms ice cream, which is not my favorite, but it keeps the prices low. They also have malts, and I think I'll try one next time around.
Val's has many other diner-type dishes on its menu: mostly sandwiches and breakfast items. Given how good the burgers and the steaks are, I'm not sure we'll ever try any of the other dishes that Val's offers. Dinner this time came to about $22 before taxes.
One final note: Val's is closed Sundays and Mondays, a fact we learned when we tried to return on a Monday night.
2115 Kelly St.