CIRCA Cows should be happy not mad. Victoria Renard
It's been a little more than a year since they found a mad cow out near Moses Lake. If you're like me, you still eat steak, pho with funky meat flotsam, and of course, hamburgers, but with the meat there's always a dash of malaise--a kind of a condiment I suppose. Sure, it's much more likely that I'll die from choking on the burger than it is that I'll get the human version of mad cow (which has yet to be caused by eating American beef), but the brain wasting-disease is so violent, its transmission so slow and irrevocable, that it casts a fleeting shadow on every beef meal.

So logically or not, I feel reassured when the burger I chomp into is made with "naturally" raised meat--that is, beef from cattle that, according to its farmers, have never scarfed down any feed or supplements made from animals. (Mad cow disease was spread when cattle ate feed boosted with bone meal and other animal byproducts. Since 1997, the USDA has banned the use of most mammalian protein in cattle feed, but not all.) Naturally raised beef is not necessarily organic meat, which is still rarely served in restaurants, but "natural" does mean that the cows aren't taking antibiotics either, in case you're inclined to worry about increasingly virulent bacteria, too. (Next week I'll take a look at a restaurant whose burgers, and every other crumb of food, are organic). So here's a sampling of restaurants that offer fine burgers made with naturally raised beef.

Barking Dog Alehouse (705 NW 70th St, 782-2974) has a breathtaking selection of beers on tap and cooks up burgers made with Misty Isle Farms' naturally raised beef ($8; $1.75 extra for cheese). Mine came with a magnificent brioche bun--high, soft, and golden--but it overwhelmed the shrunken burger inside. The pub has a policy of only cooking burgers medium to medium well, which, technically might be the safest way to serve burgers, but I, for one, am willing to play E. coli roulette for a nice pink burger. Fries: waffle.

At Palace Kitchen (2030 Fifth Ave, 448-2001) they are so proud of their burger ($11) they have a special little wrought-iron carrying device to hold the meat on one plate and its cold fixings, lettuce, red onions, heirloom tomato, on another. (It's the posh version of McDonald's old hot side hot/cold side cold McDLT). Made with Oregon Country Beef, my burger was fine, and sweetly smoky from the wood-burning grill, a cooking device that's peculiarly hard to find in Seattle. This patty was also considerably smaller than its bun, leaving a moat of naked bread to eat through before finally reaching the meat. But my ducky turnip soup ($8) was a major non-burger bonus. Fries: shoestring

Circa (2605 California Ave SW, 923-1102) is yet another neighborhood pub/cafe, filled to the gills with families at 5:30 p.m., in part, no doubt, because it puts out a mean burger ($8.25), made with Oregon's Painted Hills Natural Beef. My burger had a lush, particularly animal taste to it, just a little perverse for a nice wholesome restaurant like this. Another plus was the yielding bun that allowed me a firm grip on the juicy burger. Fries: shoestring.

The biggest burger I ate, and the only truly medium-rare one ($11.25), came at Flying Fish (2234 First Ave, 728-8595), where they sear up sexy Japanese-style Wagyu beef from mad-cow free New Zealand. Mine was a fattie, draped with caramelized onions instead of the usual raw ones. A firm, craftsman-style bun made the patty hard to handle--especially as my baby wriggled in my lap--but yum. Fries: shoestring

There are other places in town--often hotels or fancy seafood-oriented restaurants--offering burgers made with naturally raised beef, but you'll rarely find one for less than eight dollars. Why aren't more proletarian joints serving up natural burgers too? Restaurateurs argue that naturally raised meat is too expensive, or not consistent enough. So until Dicks, Kidd Valley, and Red Mill decide to change their minds, we can only hope that Oregon-based fast-food chain Burgerville, which offers Oregon Country Beef burgers at all 39 of its fast food restaurants, gets closer to town than Centralia.