San Francisco: Zuni Cafe Serves a Good Patty, But on an Ill-Suited Bun
1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 (map); 415-552-2522; zunicafe.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: The patty was good on my most recent visit (and has been even better in the past), but the focaccia bun is flawed.
Want Fries with That? Yes; the shoestring fries are addictive.
Price: Burger, $15; fixings, $1.25 to $2.25; fries, $6
Notes: The burger isn't available between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.
Zuni Cafe has been a local culinary star for some time now. The Zuni Cafe Cookbook was released in 2002; their whole roast chicken is on most must-eat lists for San Francisco; and when it comes to fancy-pants burgers in San Francisco, Zuni's is regarded one of the best. Over the course of several visits, I've found a lot to like in Zuni's patty—I just wish they'd stop serving it on that darned focaccia bun.
Yes, the burger at Zuni arrives on lightly grilled rosemary focaccia, and while this makes for an appealing first look ("Oh, it's square!"), it does not make for optimum eating. I've never had a Zuni bun fall apart on me, but it sure gets tattered by the end of the meal. The focaccia also upsets the burger-to-bun ratio—because it doesn't smoosh down as you eat, one ends up with just a bit too much bread around the patty. Unfortunately, the square bun has become something of a signature for the Zuni burger, and so it's likely here to stay.
The patty itself fares much better—though I say that with the caveat that it didn't quite live up to past experiences on my most recent visit. It's a plump patty of ground chuck that gets cooked on a mesquite grill. The restaurant buys fresh-ground beef—about 20 percent fat—that they regrind in-house to make it finer. The beef gets salted and peppered and is left to "cure" overnight, a technique meant to seal in the juices.
On past visits, my burger has been both beefy and plenty juicy. My most recent Zuni burger, although it was moist and hit the mark for taste, didn't quite leak liquid. According to Kenji's Burger Lab about salting ground beef, the lack of liquid may have been the result of that overnight salting. I also wonder if my burger wouldn't have worked out better if it had stayed a touch longer on the grill. It arrived just under my requested medium-rare. To be clear, my patty tasted good—it was just a bit disappointing to get a lesser version of something I've enjoyed even more in the past.
Besides the square bun, Zuni has found other ways to make their burger look pretty—and these don't come up short in the tasting. House-pickled zucchini strips are made with cinnamon, bay, and all-spice in a champagne vinaigrette. At first, it's a surprising flavor for a pickle, but it grows on you. The burger also comes with fat rounds of pickled red onions. For a little extra, you can add caramelized onions, portobello mushrooms, or blue cheese. I went with the Beecher Reserve on mine, a mild cheese that served to add some extra fattiness to the patty.
We also need to talk about Zuni's shoestring fries. They arrive as a tangled mountain of yellow potato wisps that you can't imagine finishing on your own—but then you do. These french fries are light, airy, and crisp. If I can muster a complaint, it might be that they're over-salted.
Zuni's burger has been around for a while, and in this competitive burger climate, it has been surpassed by newer "it" burger destinations. If what I ate this past visit was a moment of inconsistency and not a shift in quality, you're still getting an enviable round of meat at Zuni. But no matter the patty, that square of focaccia for a bun is destined to bring Zuni's burger up short of greatness in my book.
About the author: David Kover is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and food enthusiast. Though he's an equal opportunity eater, there's a special place in his heart for crispy slices of pizza and juicy hamburgers. You can check out his pizza reviews over at Slice.