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A Hamburger Today's Wes Rowe on Analyzing Burgers

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397403_499036370142222_387447013_n.jpgIn our continued quest to take the temperature of the SF burger scene for Burger Week, we met up with Wes Rowe, the lead San Francisco burger blogger for Serious Eats' A Hamburger Today blog. Trained as a photojournalist, Rowe is a master of finding hidden and unsung burgers, and he met up with us at the Box takeout window at Tempest Bar, which he was sampling for the first time. Over a burger and fries, we discussed what makes a good burger, how analyzing hamburgers can dampen their pleasure, and the appeal of the white-napkin burger.

So overall, how would you rank this burger? We usually do "recommended" or "not recommended." We don't actually say "not recommended," but we have a recommended status. Personally, if I was going to rank this, I would say that this is about par for a San Francisco burger. I think we have the bar set pretty high here.

What do you think is the most common mistake San Francisco chefs make with burgers? Too many fancy burgers—fancy for the sake of being fancy, as opposed to actually being good. "We're going to put truffled salt on it." That might not be the most common mistake, but it's one I see happen a lot.

Are there ever fancy burgers where the execution lives up to the hype? Oh yeah, totally. One of the more recent places I visited with a burger like that is called Zoe's. It's on 24th Street, it's a little bar. I'd walked by it a million times before, it's so easy to walk right past. Tiny kitchen. The burger is Wagyu beef, fancy bun, kind of a cross between a gastropub burger and a fancy burger. It really works; it's done with care. The chef eats the burger and is proud of it. She doesn't just, like, make it and give it keywords.

Where are some places you've been where the burgers are just perfunctory? Here. [Laughs.] I can't think of others?I have a horrible memory.

You've gotta name names. That's the whole point of this journalistic enterprise. Yeah, I know.

Let's start easy: your three favorite burgers in San Francisco. Well, the first one that comes to mind is a pop-up, but he's not doing it anymore.

Who was it? The guy's name is James LaLonde, he's a chef at Bocadillos. He just makes a really good, really simple burger. More often than not, he'll make his own bun, and it's really good. It's got nice, loose-ground meat with cheddar cheese, some sort of aioli, and tomato and pickle. It's a six-ounce burger, you can eat two of them easily. One of them goes down really fast, it's really good. And it's so delicious that it leaves you wanting a second one.

And out of places that are still open? Dear Mom makes a really good burger. It's a half-pound burger, he patties him there himself. He gets the meat from Golden Gate Meat Co., whatever burger blend they make, and his bun from down the street at the Panorama bakery. It's a white American, kind of Wonder bread bun, but a really good version of it. Soft, pillowy. Everything you want brioche to be, that it isn't.

What else? I like Monk's Kettle. It's not huge, it's a little on the smaller side. It's juicy, savory, simple, not a lot of stuff going on, like this one. [Gestures to his burger.] You don't put it down until you're done, you just keep eating and hold it in your hand the entire time. One that I had recently that I really liked was Garaje in SOMA.

They made our Burger Heatmap. It's really good. The bun initially appears really overwhelming, but it's soft and squishy and packs down. The burger's great and it's six bucks, tax included. A single burger is $6, a double is $8, flat, which is pretty cheap for a burger in San Francisco, I think. And it's great. Double American cheese on it, so it's super cheesy. It's like elevated In-N-Out Burger. But I would choose it over In-N-Out Burger nine out of ten times.

Do you like In-N-Out? Love it. Love it to death. It's not really a fast-food burger, it's more like a drive-in style of burger.

I interviewed Michael Bauer earlier, and his favorite burger is the Marlowe and Park Tavern burger. Have you tried that one? I haven't, I need to. Everybody just raves about it. I think Bauer and I are psychically connected, because I'll go to a place and be writing a review, and I'll go online and he'll have just posted his for the same place. And they're not places that have just opened, either. We just both happened to be in Sonoma for the weekend and went to the Fremont Diner. He gave that one a glowing review, but mine sucked.

Do you write about burgers that you don't love? Mostly, no. Unless it's a place that's gained a lot of notoriety or people really talk about it, and then I feel like I need to set the record straight.

How did you get the job of hamburger blogger? You eat a lot of hamburgers, and you let people know. I was already shooting photos for Serious Eats when they posted the job online. I wrote a 1,000-word e-mail about my undying love for hamburgers.

If you had to guess, how many burgers do you eat per year? A hundred? No. More.

More? I would say easily one a week, and sometimes two. Sometimes two in one sitting. When they're better than this one. [Laughs.] Poor Box, I'm trashing them. I should say, though, their fried chicken sandwich looks really good. We're working on a fried-chicken roundup, and that'll be in there.

What are some of the worst burgers you've ever had? I try to not dwell on the negative parts. Sometimes I really feel like I just got a bad burger that day, or from that chef, and the burger's usually OK. Ones that I've eaten and didn't write about? Grumpy's wasn't very good. I went to Quik Way in Oakland, because I found this song that was completely contagious, about hamburgers, in which the singer mentioned it. The place is completely beautiful, it's nostalgic, but the burgers weren't good. Dry bread, flavorless meat, not very well-salted. That Fremont Diner burger?it's kind of a smash burger, and it was cooked all the way through, dry, not juicy. Way too much lettuce, and I'm thinking they cooked the burger and brought it out five minutes later, because the lettuce was all steamy and wilted.

Burgers have always been an iconic American food, but white-napkin burgers are kind of a recent phenomenon. Why do you think people like them so much? Because they're good, for one! They're usually really good. It's hard to do a horrible burger. It's just that when you eat as many burgers as I do, and you think critically about all of them, it kind of ruins a lot of burger experiences that could have been just fine. I was supposed to write about a $5-or-less burger recently, and I went to Nickie's, on Haight, because between noon and 5, they offer their burger for $5. I got there, and my friends were like, "This is good, you should write about this." And I kind of shrugged, and they said, "Well, tell us what you don't like about it," and by the end, they were like, "Yeah, you're right." It didn't taste fresh, it had a couple-day-old bun. I don't think places should put lettuce, tomato or onion on a burger unless it's going to be good. If it's just kind of generic, mealy-tasting tomato that's out of season, just leave it off.

I also think they're always the most accessible thing on a menu for people that might be pickier eaters, and they're also a lot cheaper. Recently, I went out for a friend's birthday to 1300 on Fillmore; we were buying a lot of drinks, and the tab was starting to get pretty high. All they had were $30 entrees, but they had a $15 burger, and I ordered that because I was trying to keep the bill down. And it was delicious!

Are there any old-school burger joints that you like? In-N-Out. When I think of old-school burger, Garaje nailed it, that style.

But you don't like any places that are legitimately old? How about the Tuesday burger at Rosamunde? That's been around for a long time, it's a really good burger. You can taste the quality of the meat, it's hand-packed, it's super thick. Their buns are never old and dry because they do it once a week, so they get everything in fresh. The toppings are really good, too, but it's all about the meat and that onion kaiser roll they use.

Do you think things like aging meat or fat percentages matter? Amount of fat definitely matters, because fat is the vessel of the flavor. Without the fat liquefying, it's just kind of dry, the flavor doesn't dance across your mouth.

What's your preferred fat ratio in a burger? Is it wrong to say 50-50? [Laughs.] I would say 70-30, 80-20. A lot of them are handmade, so it's hard to say what they exactly are. I remember my dad making burgers, and he'd say, "I'm getting the best meat, it's this 97-3 stuff! It's like, no fat, this is good!"

My parents did the same thing. Those burgers tasted like hockey pucks, and I didn't like burgers for years because I'd never had a good one. My dad's burgers were never dry, because he was good at not cooking them all the way through, he was good at slow-smoking his burgers on the BBQ. He was always putting wood chips in there and stuff. He does massive burgers, too. They're like half a pound, three-quarters of a pound, the bun looks like a crouton.

What method of cooking do you prefer? If you can do it on a grill without charcoal, wood-grilled, I'm a really big fan of that because it gets a great flavor in there, but you're still cooking it on a really hot flame as fast as you can, as hot as you can. Two minutes on each side, if you can. It's the same way I like my pizzas cooked. But second, and more common, is griddled flat-top, and I like that a lot. It helps you get a really nice crust on the burger, which I think is a good thing, especially if you're going to cook it medium-rare and use a really high fat content. If you don't have a nice crust to give structure to the burger, it can get really mushy and fall apart really fast.

So you're not crazy about this burger. Are you going to review it? No, but maybe I'll come back. Sometimes you go to places and the burger's not good, and you think, maybe this place deserves a second chance, to redeem themselves. I've definitely gone back to places where I really liked the burger, and it wasn't as good the next time. There's easy ways to tell sometimes, where you look at the place, look in the kitchen, and think, "That's not going to get any better than it was." But sometimes, the burger was just overcooked, maybe they're not always like that. Maybe when the guy at the counter here told me, "Come back in 13 minutes," I should have just said, "Make it eight." I never ask a place to cook my burger in a specific way, because I want to learn more about the place and the way they make burgers. Unless they ask me, and then I'll ask for medium rare, and I'll note how it came out.

What do you like to have with a burger? Fries. In an ideal world, a three-way combo between fries, tots, and onion rings.

And to drink? Something out of a glass bottle, like a Dr. Pepper in a glass bottle. Or just a beer, I'm not really picky about the kind of beer. I don't think there's many cocktails that go well with burgers.

What about wine? Eh. I'll drink it if it's all that's around. But you really need something that can wash things down better.

And milkshakes? Definitely, but I don't do five-dollar milkshakes. I typically stick to milkshakes with fast-food burgers or smaller burgers, because otherwise, a milkshake and a half-pound burger is just too much. I'm not a fan of being uncomfortably full.

Other meats in burgers? I'm not really a fan, I think it's beef or go home. The problem is when you put bacon inside a burger, you're limited to cooking it well-done. Places are scared to serve raw pork, and they end up overcooking it. Or if the bacon's already cooked and you add it in, it kind of negates the effect; you lose all the fat and juices. You might as well just put it on top. Lamb's the same. Every once in a while, I'll make lamb sliders myself, with little pita-bread buns and tzatziki, but otherwise, I'm not crazy about it. I've heard a lot about Bullhead in West Portal, and my friend's been trying to get me to go there—they have a buffalo burger that's supposed to be really good. But I'm just not really into novelty burgers. Beef is so good and so iconic to a burger. My one exception with bacon is the Broken Record burger, which is now the Rickybobby burger. They do those thin, fast-food style patties, with lots of melted cheese, so you're not expecting to see pink. It was really good, with all that American cheese in there, but I couldn't really taste the bacon flavor. It was just a good overall burger.

What's next on your list? Oh, I have a whole list of places I want to try. Every time I leave the house, I'm like, "Where am I going? Is it near somewhere where I've been wanting to get a burger?" And then I pull up the list, which I have divided up by neighborhood. I go through phases where I won't eat any burgers, and then I'll eat 10 burgers in a really short period of time.

Any other burger wisdom you want to share? I guess the one thing I've found is that the more personally invested a person is in the food that they're cooking, the better it turns out to be. When it's one person doing a pop-up and they're making every burger and it's their creation, there's a lot more soul to that burger, in a way that makes it really good. It's a tangible thing, it really makes it better. [Laughs.] I'm talking like some sort of burger priest, burger spirituality. But it's definitely a noticeable difference. The fewer hands that have touched it in between the brain that created it, the better it usually is.