MARCH 10, 2009 | SAN FRANCISCO
The Quest for the Best Cloth Napkin Burger
There’s nothing like a good juicy hamburger, and in the middle of “damn, my wallet is empty” times, burgers are (usually) an inexpensive beacon on restaurant menus everywhere. And leave it to San Francisco chefs to up the burger ante, with everything from homemade buns to pickled onions to one-of-a-kind condiments.
Since people still want to go out, but not shell out the usual dough needed to do so, I was inspired to do a roundup of the best beef burgers in San Francisco. But here’s the catch: they had to be at places with cloth napkins. You know, fancy-ass burgers.
The City is full of them, as I painfully came to realize. Really now, what on earth was I thinking? In the end, I hit 15 places. In a little over a month’s time, mind you. I tried ‘em plain, with cheese, with truffles, with mustard, without, but always asked for a true medium rare. I didn’t get to make it to every place in the City, because I had to wave the flag at some point. Like, ow, enough already. It’s a miracle I don’t have gout.
Next up: the best salad! Kidding. But let’s just say I am off burgers for a while.
Below is the winner, plus the rest of the burgers I tried (in no particular order). If you'd like to see bigger pics of the burgers (some are much better than others), click here to go to the regular archive.
The Best Cloth Napkin Burger
Let’s cut to the chase: the winning burger is at ~BIX~. In fact, this burger is what inspired Fancy-Ass Burger Quest 2009. After two bites into that puppy during a Friday lunch, I asked to speak with chef Bruce Hill about the burgerstat. There was something different about it. It was special. I knew it.
Sure enough, there is even some technology behind it. It ends up Hill has invented his very own Plancha Press (yup, he trademarked the thing), a 410g stainless steel little number that helps weigh food down and makes it cook evenly, whether it’s a beef patty or some fish. It has a variety of groovy features and uses; restaurants around town like Coi, Quince, and COCO500 use Hill’s Plancha Press for all kinds of things, even pickling and sous vide (it helps keep items like pickles from floating up). Feel free talk to Hill if you’re interested.
So, the burger. It’s made with ground Creekstone Angus, and Hill and chef de cuisine Colin Dewey worked really hard on perfecting it over the past couple years. As Hill said to me, “A good burger is the hardest thing to cook.” At Bix, they sear it on one side, flip it, and then Plancha Press it and, here’s the crucial part: they time it! Let’s hear it for consistency. It was such a gorgeous medium rare that I wanted to hug the chef. The grind is supple and the patty is so juicy, with a satisfying beefy flavor that makes you look forward to the next bite until that thing is completely and utterly demolished. All you have left to show for it is your dirty cloth napkin.
Also at the party: delicious melted cheese, hot and crisp homemade fries (again, major thought went into mastering these friesand they’re not too thin, not too thick, not mushy, not oily, and not over-fried), a side of aioli and ketchup (you gotta request DijonI found out I am a minority in requesting mustard for my burger), a Panorama poppy seed bun that held up like a champ, crisp lettuce, classic sliced red onion, and while I passed over the out-of-season tomato, I can appreciate why it’s there: make the customer happy. I sure was.
The Bix Burger is $13.95 during Friday lunch service and is $16 on the dinner menu.
Side note: oh yeah, and if you really want to beef out, start with the steak tartare, also my favorite execution in the City. And it’s prepared tableside. When you graduate to the next burger level, there’s also a truffled pecorino cheeseburger on buttered rye for $27.50.
Full tablehopper restaurant review of Bix here.
I had heard good things about chef Nicolaus Balla’s burger at ~O IZAKAYA LOUNGE~, and I am here to report: they are all true. It’s a hefty half-pound Meyer beef burger ($13), with delicious shichimi-spiced French fries and house-made garlic aioli. I could only eat halfit’s that hefty. I loved the unusual add-ons ($2 each) like savory maitake mushrooms (yay, not watery!) and charred negi onion, while my friend swears by the combo of maitake mushrooms and can’t-believe-it addition of Point Reyes Blue for only $2. You can also throw on shishito peppers, crisp bacon, or a fried egg.
Side note: you can print off a deal on the restaurant.com site and save even more dough. The appetizer of braised pork dumplings was also delicious, but bummer, everything came out all at once. Hate that.
Full tablehopper restaurant review of O Izakaya Lounge here.
The burger at ~ABSINTHE BRASSERIE AND BAR~ is such a hooker. More of an escort, really, because it’s an Estancia grass-fed beef patty on an Acme brioche bun. And even though she is one of the cheapest (only $11.50), man does she dress up nice in Gruyère, spicy caramelized onions, and a fried egg ($1.50 each). Seriously, call the cops. (A tablehopper reader told me about that evil combo, so don’t blame it on me.)
The house-made pickles had good snap, the baby lettuces were super tender, and the aioli only made it all the more decadent. The cone of fries ($6) needs no introduction: j’adore them, with their trio of dipping options, including Dijon, thyme-infused malt vinegar, and rouille. Oh yeah, and a bottle of the Paul Janin et Fils, Clos du Tremblay, Moulin-A-Vent, Beaujolais ’05 ($39) made it all quite magic.
Side note: while the burger was a hooker with a heart of gold, it was actually the house-made hot dog that stole the show. Executive chef Jamie Lauren is obsessed with hot dogs (she even has a few hot dog necklace charms), so if she’s gonna put a hot dog on the menu, it’s gotta represent. It took some digging by our server, but we found out the dog is a combo of pork shoulder, American Kobe beef, house-made bacon, and some fatback, which adds the juicy factor. Mother of G-o-d, this d-o-g is a benchmark. Great hot doggy emulsified texture and de rigueur grill marks. Wait until you try the feisty Guinness mustard that soaks delightfully into the Acme bun, plus the chili ketchup, tangy sauerkraut, and yogurt-dill potato chips. A lot of work went into this thing, which is why it rings in at $12, .50¢ more than the burger. Hot dawg!
Both the burger and the dog are on the bar menu starting at 8pm, and SatSun from 3pm5pm.
Full tablehopper restaurant review of Absinthe here.
The Burger with a Million-Dollar View
Sitting upstairs for lunch in the Quiver Bar at ~EPIC ROASTHOUSE~ feels like a secret: table 301 in the corner afforded me and my burger compatriot one hell of a view of the water and the Bay Bridge. And I dug the loungey vibe, too. The Quiver Bar is where you can order the 3 Bs: a burger, beer, and a brownie for $20 (Monday through Friday from 11:30am5pm). You get a half-pound burger, a daily grind made from top-notch trimmings, ranging from porterhouse to rib-eye to tenderloin to short ribs. The burger is a juicy beast, nestled in a grilled Panorama buttery roll that was made to executive chef Jan Birnbaum’s specifications.
The pickles were good, but why the super-thick slices of them? Ditto on the thick rounds of grilled onionthey were a bit challenging to eat in the already towering burger. I also didn’t fully groove on the waffle chipsI prefer fries with my burger. Waffle chips are for sandwiches, because then I can tuck them inside, crunch crunch. Sadly gotta dock points for the brownie: it was a brick, and just crazy sweet. I like mine chewy and chocolatey. But after that burger, I was in no shape to eat a honking browniewell, for five hours or so.
Side note: kudos on the accompanying “salad bar” of condiments, which included corn relish, whole-grain mustard, bacon bits, aioli, and mushroomsno need to order a “special” burger, because it’s all there for ya! Bonus points for the savory house-made ketchupthey could sell bottles of it.
Full tablehopper restaurant review of EPIC here.
Let’s hear it for Patty Unterman’s ~HAYES STREET GRILL~. 30 years old, and rocking one heck of a burger. It’s made with Estancia grass-fed beef, which added a gamey flavor (in a good waynot too minerally). For a grass-fed burger, it was surprisingly juicy. It was cooked to a boo-ti-ful medium rare, and the Acme bun held up. The Grafton cheddar was my favorite cheese option that I encountered on the tour, nicely melted, and whoa, the legendary hand-cut fries were wickedly tasty, crispy, and irresistible. High marks for this one, all the way around. $14.50 at lunch, and $15.50 with the cheddah, don’t pass it up.
The “Slow” Burger
I have been enjoying the burger at ~SLOW CLUB~ for years. For the price, it totally over-delivers: for $12.50, you get quality meat (Prather Ranch dry-aged ground beef), a slew of condiments (including aioli and tasty balsamic onions), your choice of cheese (although gorgonzola is an extra $1.50), and French fries. It was cooked a true medium rare, the cheese was nicely melted, and the greens were fresh. However, the Acme bun came out kind of spongy, and the fries were just okaynot very hot and too salty. Still, solid marks for this workhorse.
Side note: again, if you feel like a beef-tastic night, start with the grilled flatbread ($12.50) topped with sliced New York strip, Montasio cheese (yum, I want that on the burger!), gold chard, and caramelized onions. Meowza.
This one is gonna hurt. Chef Jonnatan Leiva’s burger at ~JACK FALSTAFF~ is so demented that they have to keep it hidden away from the regular menu. I mentioned this big daddy (try over two pounds) in a piece I wrote for San Francisco magazine about secret menu itemsyou have to ask for “that burger.” It’s a beef behemoth ($20) made up of Strawberry Hills Farm beef from Oregon, plus beef brisket tucked inside (that part can changeit depends what was braised that day), topped with a runny egg, Zoe’s bacon, and blue cheese.
Oh. My. God.
Kids, don’t eat this alone. Suffice to say, I split the tower of power three ways with a fireman and a friend of mine with stupidly good metabolism. While it was cooked unevenly here and there (I mean, really, how can this thing be cooked just right?), there was definitely something scarily satisfying about eating it. Purely animal. Reportedly there’s this tiny Asian chick who comes in and wolfs the whole thinggo sister.
Side note: the Caesar salad that came with the beast was crisp and delish, and desserts have really taken a step up herethey’re inventive, elegant, and wait until you taste the Marshall Farms honey-milk ice cream.
The “Throw in the Tea Towel” Burger
Let’s hear it for the City’s unofficial late-night burger. And check this out: ~NOPA~ sold 15,000 of ’em in 2008. That is, quite frankly, major. What I love about this burger ($13) is that it’s not too big: like the three bears, it’s just right. Yay, it was cooked that way too: a gorg medium rare, which can be tricky with grass-fed beef. Speaking of, it’s from Marin Sun Farms, and comes inside a house-made brioche-style bun (which is why it has such a lovely buttery texture), plus crisp and fresh little gem lettuce, and your choice of cheese for $1.50.
I appreciate the additional homemade touches of the aioli, house-cured bacon, pickled onions, and hand-cut fries. And about those Kennebec fries: Nopa goes through 1,200 pounds a week. Bonus: the rice bran oil that the fries are fried is converted into biofuel. And you gotta love the fact you can order a burger up until 12:59am here, each and every night. Much respect.
Full tablehopper restaurant review of Nopa here.
The $50 Burger
If you don’t watch it, that’s what can happen to your burger tab at ~SPRUCE~. The burger is $14, but then there’s the optional foie gras supplement of $13 (not this time, I am barely hanging on, but thanks), and if you’re at the bar ordering off the Burgundy and Burger menu, you have the choice of a $12, $25, or $50 glass of something something. My partner in crime and I were lucky to come during the very end of Perigord truffle season, which would have been an additional $20, but the kind server said we really only needed a half order of truffles for the burger. Very kind, thank you for that info.
Unfortunately, the kitchen misunderstood our order and ended up splitting the burger. It was disappointing to get half a burger when you wanted a whole one, ya know? I’ll chalk it up to fate intervening on my behalf. It was also medium well, and not my requested medium rare.
The first time I had the burger here, it was stellar: the juicy and perfectly-formed patty, the house-baked and buttery English-muffin-meets-focaccia bun (it’s one of my favoritesnice buns!), with pickled onions, thinly sliced zucchini, and remoulade, all conspiring to make a swoon-worthy burger. Even the fries were better (on my recent visit, they were rather sodden). So I’m gonna chalk it up to an off night. It happens to everyone. I considered a re-match for this piece, but couldn’t afford to return and do so. It was a $50 burger, ya know.
Side note: one of the best dishes in the City is here: the boudin blanc ($14). It’s on the bar menu, and is downright transcendent. The boudin is dreamily tender, which contrasts with the slight snap from the nice searingthis winter it was paired with three-month-old sauerkraut and Muscat-glazed apple.
Full tablehopper restaurant review of Spruce here.
The San Francisco Burger
I can’t believe in all my years in San Francisco, I’d never had a ~BALBOA CAFÉ~ burger. Well, actually I do believe it, because I know to stay away from the Triangle. Anyway, this place was great for lunch, and full of dudes doing business. And are you ready for this? The Balboa Café sells 50,000 burgers a year. Whoa.
So, the burger ($9.50 at lunch). Round bun from Acme, got it. Beefy, check. Organic beef from Preferred Meats, checkity check. House-made pickles, nice. Flavorful but weirdly light house-cut French fries, noted. Caramelized onions, bon. Bun not grilled, darn. Overall, I can understand the hypebut it wasn’t the perfect medium rare I asked for.
A friend who knows the place well told me the Balboa burger on the baguette ($10.50 at lunch) is the way to go, not the bun. Oh.
Side note: let’s hear it for the Balboa chopped salad ($10.50 at lunch), a combo of applewood-smoked bacon, sliced red onions, Roquefort cheese, red beets, sliced red onion, and a roasted tomato-sherry vinaigrette. Freaking delicious.
The Other Balboa Burger
It shocks me that there are still people who haven’t eaten at ~NAMU~. So I’m going to give you yet another reason to visit this gem on Balboa in the Inner Richmond: their burger ($12). It’s a thick Niman Ranch hand-formed beef patty, with kicky kaiware, sliced pickled daikon (inspired by traditional ssäm fillings), soy-glazed onions, and the additional options of Dijon mustard and aioli. I also asked for a side of their extra-spicy srirachahawt! Since it’s an Asian burger, I wanted to go all the way and add some kimchee toothey promised it’s coming soon. While the burger was more medium than medium rare, and I like the interior of my bun a little grilled, this thing still hit high marks, and the thin and crispy hand-cut fries were excellent.
Side note: the bloody mari ($7), made with their house Thai chile-infused soju, was not only fabulously spicy, but it was also a great deal. Same goes for the $5 mimosa, and $6 mango mimosa. For you homesick Hawaiians, there is also a loco moco dish for brunch made with the same beef as the burger ($11). Namu is also close to the DeYoung and Academy of Sciences, so keep it in mind the next time you’re looking for a meal before or after visiting Golden Gate Park.
Full tablehopper restaurant review of Namu here.
The Steak Burger
There’s something to be said for a really good grilled flavor, and ~LARKCREEKSTEAK’S~ burgers definitely have it (they’re grilled over fruitwood chips). They grind their meat daily in-house, using scraps of prime, choice, rib-eye, the works. While the full line-up of burgers is on the lunch menu, you can order them at dinner, too.
Wanna know when being a food writer is embarrassing? Example: when you and a friend have four enormous burgers in front of you while sitting at a counter. Even a sassy waiter was inspired to toss off, “If you finish four, the fifth is free!” (I’m gonna get you, sassy waiter.) Here’s what we had in front of us: the classic 8 oz. steakburger ($12.95); the mushroom steakburger with Swiss cheese and roasted button mushrooms ($14.95); the cowboy steakburger with bacon, cheddar, barbeque sauce, and crispy onions ($15.95); and the Perigord black truffle steakburger, with truffled brie cheese, frisee, truffle vinaigrette, and caramelized onion marmalade ($24.95), all served with hand-cut fries. Talk about four-play. Heh.
The mushroom version was the surprise hitI normally don’t like how messy (and soggy) mushrooms can be on a burger, but this execution was on point. As for texture, the crispy onions in the cowboy version were like the childhood crunch of chips in a sandwich, loved it. Frankly, we thought the truffle flavor in the truffle burger was so subtle, almost nonexistent, and I found the onion marmalade too sweet. Yay, for once the most expensive thing isn’t my favorite.
None of the burgers came medium rare, but they were so juicy that I didn’t really mind. The thinly sliced half-sour pickles were exemplary, and the Bay Bread pan de mie brioche bun is what you’ll find here. Plus really good friessteak fries that tasted clean, crisp, and hot.
Side note: you cannot eat here without ordering the buttermilk biscuits with tomato jam and the andouille sausage, maple, and pecan butter. Sick. I also fell in love with the little gem wedge salad ($11.95), with bacon, chopped egg, and buttermilk-blue cheese dressing, served on a thoughtfully chilled plate. Check out the fab lunch special: you can get the steakburger, fries, and a root beer float for $17.50.
Full tablehopper restaurant review of LarkCreekSteak here.
The Hemp Burger
No, not really. ~MAGNOLIA PUB AND BREWERY~ has been moving away from that image since their remodel, but I still feel the Jerry Bear vibe. So, the burger ($13). It’s pretty well known and loved in these parts: Prather Ranch beef, served on a bun from Cake Box in Lafayette, with butter lettuce, house-cut fries, oven-roasted balsamic onions, a rowdy house-made beer mustard, and a pickle wedge. I appreciate the quality ingredients, and it was cooked just right, but the burger patty was way too dense for my likingthe grind was so smooth that it made it a bit rubbery, instead of the kind you really like to sink your teeth into.
Side note: I thoroughly enjoyed my Prescription Pale with my burger, but my friend’s house-made root beer is what really blew my mind. I wanna come back for a float the next time I’m hung over, sad, or both.
Full tablehopper restaurant review of Magnolia here.
Unfortunately the last two times I ate the burger ($15) at ~ORSON~, it just hasn’t been quite there yet. As Bruce Hill said, it’s the hardest thing to make. I know Elizabeth Falkner and team have been working on perfecting it, so I’m gonna believe the third time will be a charm. The burger is made with quality beef: house-ground Hereford chuck from Vande Rose Farms in Iowa. Orson definitely puts in a strong showing for creative toppings: foie gras mayonnaise (you should try dipping the duck fat fries [$7] in it, mamma mia), house-made steak sauce, and the bacon-blue cheese Cobb relish.
Full tablehopper restaurant review of Orson here.
Honorary Mention: A Paper Napkin Burger
Now, I know the primary criterion for this burger tour was restaurants with cloth napkins. For some reason, I thought ~CHEZ MAMAN~ on Potrero Hill had cloth napkins. They don’t. But to their credit, I ordered the damned burger ($10.50) anyway because it really is that good. Frenchie waiter of course strongly recommended the Brie ($1.50) on top (whoaincroyable with the caramelized onions). And the soft roll from Crepe and Brioche is just the bombit’s a love-worthy bun that is almost like a squishy ciabatta loaf. Inside is a thin patty with juicy meat from Golden Gate Meats, and it’s cooked just right, bordering on a little rare. Sloppy and scrumptious, with either crisp fries or a fresh salad on the side.
Places I Am Not Writing Up, and Why:
The last two times I ate there I had the most atrocious servicelike, I wanted to stick my fork in the server’s neck. It’s a shame, because I used to like the burger there.
Yay on the shoestring fries, but that focaccia bun is a wreckfalls apart all over the place. I don’t want to have to fork and knife my burger.
There’s also Serpentine, Bar Jules, Nettie's, Café Majestic, Fog City Diner, Acme Chophouse, One Market, Foreign Cinema, and many more on my list, let alone all the lamb burgers out there. And venison burgers. And yes, vegetarian burgers. I just couldn’t bear to do the burger tour to my body anymore.