The anonymous Mr. Bauer, hiding out behind a menu. [Photo: @michaelbauer1]
For Burger Week, we wanted to take the temperature of how burgers are faring in the local dining scene, and we knew just the man for the job: San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer. It's long been known that Bauer is a huge aficionado of hamburgers, even dedicating an entire weekly online column, Wimpy Wednesday, to sampling burgers around town. Now that Bauer's a few years in to the local burger beat, we got on the phone with him to discuss his favorites (and least favorites), why burgers have spread like wildfire in higher-end restaurants, and whether old-school burgers have been eclipsed by newer, chef-driven creations.
Note: This interview was conducted on Monday, and this morning, Bauer announced that he'll be retiring Wimpy Wednesday for the time being.
You've been writing about food for decades. When did you start to see burgers start to become so popular in fine dining? It's strange. It had been happening slowly, and then maybe three or four years ago, there was a huge explosion. The first "different" burger I had was Zuni Cafe's, which they've had for 20 years. It was the first time someone did something with the burger; Judy Rodgers used a teaspoon of salt for every pound of chuck, and then ground it with the salt in it, which people would tell you at the time leeches the juices out. When you taste the burger, though, it's not the case; what it does is really season it. Then, to serve it on foccacia with aioli?but they only offered it at lunch and after 10, which is still the case. That was the first upscale burger that I really remember in San Francisco, and it kind of took a while to catch on. But now, it is strange. Everyone's doing them.
Why do you think that is? Because people like them. And I think people like them, in part, because they're usually the cheapest thing on the menu.
Do you feel like that's an issue? That someone who goes to a place like Spruce or Zuni and just has a burger doesn't actually get to know the chef or the cuisine? I've never been one to subscribe to the idea that one dish, like a roast chicken, is the end-all of telling a chef's talent. You hear people say that—I even said that, in regard to the Corpse Reviver #2 cocktail, because of the balance—but really, that's only partial, because they can do other things really well. What I find fascinating about burgers is that you're talking about a slab of ground meat and a bun. That's really all a hamburger is. It's all about what chefs do with it, how they embellish and personalize it and make it their own, how the public reacts to it.
Is Marlowe's burger still your favorite? I still think my favorite probably is still the Marlowe burger, which is now also the Park Tavern burger. What's interesting about that is the little bit of lamb that's ground into it. It's about 20% lamb, and you can't really taste it—I'm not sure I could pick it out—but it gives it a little earthiness that it wouldn't otherwise have, and then of course the horseradish aioli and the bacon and everything else makes that, to me, a special burger. Boulevard's is also really good, and they grind in the seasonings. But then you look at places like Don Pisto's, that grind in crisp bacon, or Rickybobby doing bacon fat, or Wise Sons using their housemade pastrami, or Hog & Rocks using the end of the ham. And then you have a place like Bourbon Steak, which is probably the most expensive burger [in SF], because they use Wagyu and steak trimmings and baste it with a bordelaise butter. Or Hopscotch, that's an interesting one, where they put in braised beef tongue.
These experiments with using different meats and toppings?are they usually successful, or do you think it's just gilding the lily? Not really. I'm all for restraint, but for some reason it works in a burger, because if you just have a plain old slab of ground beef, it doesn't necessarily have that much flavor. So I think whatever they do to embellish often helps. Of course, sometimes they get ridiculous; they get so high that they're like the Empire State Building, but that's another issue.
In terms of toppings, what are some unusual toppings that you think worked, and some that you think haven't? When it comes to toppings, I love the Red Hawk cheese on the Prospect burger, which is really creamy and pungent.
Have you had the Heirloom Cafe burger, with the Epoisses cheese? I have, and I liked that. Another good topping I've had is E&O Asian Kitchen's Sriracha aioli; that's really good. I'm one who would never put ketchup on my burger, but I've had some that were done with a ketchup mixture that worked fine, so I guess it depends on what else is with it.
Any ambitious burgers that just didn't really work out? There are a lot that I've hated. The ones I've liked, I remember, but the ones I don't, I just kind of forget. Or all I remember is that I didn't like them, and I don't really analyze why. Let's see?I went to Chez Maman, and that one was really bad, it was poorly cooked and there was nothing interesting about it. It wasn't that they added anything odd, it just wasn't cooked very well. I thought Epic Roasthouse was really bad, and Liverpool Lil's. Maven was not good, Absinthe was not good. Well, I shouldn't say that. None of them were really bad, and if you just got off a plane and had Absinthe's burger or the Maven burger, you wouldn't be disappointed. But in Wimpy Wednesday, I only wanted to feature the ones that were really great, as opposed to just "not bad." Gott's is another one?people really like Gott's, and it's fine, but I wouldn't put it in the column because I don't think it's that good.
So you only feature burgers that you like in Wimpy Wednesday? Yes. I try a lot more than I write about. All I can think of is burgers I like?like just about everyone else, I like the In-N-Out burger. I thought Roam's burger was good. As far as food trucks, I like Fiveten Burger?getting back to what we were talking about earlier, I think the reason why burgers are so popular is that it's really hard to screw up a burger. Even if you screw it up, it's still pretty good.
What's the most common mistake chefs make with their burgers? The number one thing is putting too much on it, so that it's impossible to eat. Or a poorly toasted bun, a stale bun. Some places want their buns to be a day or two old so they have more stiffness, but in that case, it has to be well-toasted. After that, I'd say overcooking or undercooking. Cooking time really depends on what they use; if they use bacon fat in it, you obviously don't want it to be rare, it needs to be more medium. And if they're using Wagyu, you may want it pretty rare. Again, it depends on the combination; I always ask what the chef recommends. It's interesting, because they sometimes will say, "Oh, we like it more medium." It depends on how much fat they put in. If they're putting in a lot of fat, then obviously, you want it cooked a little more, because you want that fat to render through.
Do you think that aging beef makes for a better burger, or certain grinds or fat percentages in the meat? Yes, I think it's better if it's aged a bit, and I personally like the fattier burgers as well.
I know you grew up in the Midwest. What kind of burgers do you remember from childhood? I actually used to grind the burgers, because my father owned a meat market. I would help with the grinding, and my first burger was probably a burger on the grill, with my dad's meat.
What kind of burgers do you like to make at home? If I were doing a burger from scratch, it would be chuck and brisket, with a 70-30 lean-to-fat ratio, in a cast-iron pan, so you get that really good char. I'd probably cook it to medium, with a buttered and toasted sesame bun. Then some in-season tomato, lettuce, aioli. And the cheese would probably be just American.
And with it? Fries, onion rings, milkshake? Definitely fries, cooked in rice-bran oil. As I've been doing this, I can tell when fries have been cooked in rice-bran oil.
What makes them distinctive? They have that very clean, potato-y flavor, and a thin, almost glass-like crust. For some reason, I've only seen that with rice-bran oil. When I call and ask chefs what they use in their fries, I've never gotten that one wrong. It makes so much of a difference.
Where are your favorite places for fries? Again, the first place I think of is Marlowe, because that's where I first really discovered fries cooked in rice-bran oil, and those really became the standard. I think that technique's proliferated because of them. Rice-bran oil is more expensive, which is why I think a lot of places still don't use it, but more and more, I see places using it. It has a higher heating point, so it lends a certain texture you can't get with anything else.
What's your preferred burger beverage? Well, it depends on the situation, but I love pinot noir or zinfandel with a burger. Generally, though, I'm also ordering other things when I'm out, so my choices tend toward a sangiovese or a pinot noir.
What are the standouts of the new crowd of burgers, ones you've tried in the past year or so? I really like Mission Bowling Club's burger. I don't like anything else there, but I do like that. Belcampo. I like Trick Dog a lot, the shape of it; it's a perfect bar burger. Let's see?
Have you had a Kronnerburger yet? No, I keep wanting to go! I've been so busy winding down on the Top 100. I need to go. Have you had it?
Yeah, it's excellent. Is that your favorite?
I don't know if it's my favorite, but it's really good. My favorite is probably Nopa's. Oh, I love Nopa's too. I just didn't mention it because it's not one of the new ones.
What about more old-school, iconic burger places? The problem with the old school is that they've all been eclipsed by the new school. That's because the whole idea of doctoring up burgers is relatively new, the idea of seasoning before you grind. I think it's brilliant, and it changed the way I looked at it. I love In-N-Out Burger?
That's the only old-school place that rings your bell? Yeah. I guess you could call Zuni old-school? Back in the late '80s, early '90s, I did a story on the best burgers and went to 50-odd places, Bill's Place, Phyllis' in Marin?but what you find is that they've just been eclipsed. Again, it's not that they're bad. I've been looking through my archives while we've been talking, and it's interesting to see how much burgers are mentioned now, as compared to ten years ago, in my reviews. It used to be that you never ordered a hamburger; they weren't on the menu.