The 2009 Burger Bonanza: Zuni, The Square Peg


Welcome to the 2009 Burger Bonanza wherein two girls eat 20 of the city's best burgers, on the path to burger enlightenment. The 10 best will then be chosen to be featured—in ranking order—in 7x7's September magazine issue. Burgers must fit our "fancy burger" parameter: made with beef and available as part of the regular dinner menu at upscale restaurants in SF. Beyond that, we're open to suggestions, which we hope you will leave in the comment box below!

Zuni Cafe

Price: $15 (only available for dinner after 10 pm)
Beef: Six 1/2 ounces of Niman Ranch chuck, ground in-house
Bun: House-made rosemary focaccia   
Fixings: House made zucchini and red-onion pickles, red and greenleaf baby lettuces
Condiments: Housemade garlic aioli
Cooked over: Charcoal grill
Extras: Heirloom tomatoes (in season), grilled red onions, grilled portabello mushrooms; side of shoestring fries ($6)

If any burger in town has a reputation that proceeds it, it’s the Zuni burger. It’s become part of San Francisco’s food story and this is enforced regularly by people such as Michael Bauer, who just named it one of the best burger in America for Epicurious. Although this might have been one of the city’s best burgers when it was put on the menu years back, today’s high standards means that the Zuni burger does not stand alone anymore. It’s a classic that could use a little updating.

I think people’s absolute devotion to the Zuni burger isn’t really about the burger itself. It’s about the bigger picture:

Number-one factor: Zuni might be one of the best restaurants in the United States to eat pretty much anything. Thirty years-plus into it, eating at Zuni still feels very cool. I love the space, wedged between an alley and Market Street—the cement floors, the nooks and crannies, the wall of glass, the bar, even the (often) over-it, hipper-than-thou servers. I love what it represents. It makes me proud to be a San Franciscan. All of this definitely has the power to season a burger more than salt (which Zuni famously does the night before they grind the meat).

Add to this, the number-two factor: Yes, the Zuni burger is served for lunch—but more importantly, for dinner, it’s only served after 10 pm which has given it a cultish, mystical aura. It’s a burger with cachet; it makes you feel in-the-know. Late-night dining continues to provide a bit of a thrill for this early-to-bed town, and the post-opera crowd has long enjoyed rolling up their ball-gown sleeves for a moment to relax after a night of sitting up straight.

The problem is, if you really break down the Zuni burger, it’s a good one, but it’s by no means the best. When I dined on the Zuni burger a couple weeks ago, the patty was good and flavorful, but the finer grind (or the handling of the patty) made it just a little tough. The pickled onions (which were cut too thick and hard to eat on the burger) and zucchini have now been replicated to fine effect elsewhere (Spruce basically just plain ripped Zuni off and did a good job with it).

But the kicker—and this is big—is the bun. Focaccia just doesn’t have the right texture for a burger (it’s too soft, which means it's fallen apart by the time you finish the burger). And even more importantly, it’s a square while the patty is round, leaving focaccia with no meat to go with it. Maybe focaccia was novel back in the days of sun-dried tomatoes, but today it’s a strange choice that makes me want to use exclamation points.

I know these are fighting words. People are very loyal to the Zuni burger, but I think at this point it’s for what it represents more than its actual merit. Go ahead: Throw your shoe at me now.

Delicious factor: Deliciously cool to eat, but not perfectly delicious.

Next up! LarkCreekSteak’s burger.

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