San Francisco: Hamburgers with a French Accent at Chez Maman
1453 18th Street, San Francisco, CA 94107 (map); 415-824-7166; chezmamansf.com
Cooking Method: Grilled and then finished in the salamander
Short Order: The herb-flecked patty makes a tasty sandwich, especially with an egg on top, but may not satisfy those looking for a raucously meaty burger
Want Fries with That? Yes. Don't even consider the option to swap out your fries for a salad
Price: burger, $11; add cheese or an egg, $1.50
In order to properly set the mood for this review, I would ask that you queue up some French accordion music, or at least imagine me wearing a beret as I write. It seems the only way to properly capture the vibe of Potrero Hill's Chez Maman, the pint-sized bistro where the man behind the counter says hamburger with a French accent. The burger itself has been Frenchified—flecked with herbs and served with the option to add a nice Roquefort or Brie on top. It's a combination that, at least by Yelp standards, has made the Chez Maman burger one of the most beloved in San Francisco. Personally, I find it a really enjoyable sandwich, but as a burger I have my quibbles.
Chez Maman is one piece in a neighborhood mini-empire, with two other restaurants within a block that are owned by the same group. The tiny restaurant's stated goal is to serve simple French fare like mother used to cook, and it delivers a variety of crepes and mussels, which you can supplement with, say, a side of ratatouille. With only two tables outside, two inside, and a counter overlooking a kitchen so narrow that the staff has to shimmy around one another as they cook, a bit of a wait comes standard.
Not having eaten a burger in France, I can't truly say if the burger at Chez Maman represents the French way of doing such things. But the inclusion of shallots, parsley, and something akin to Herbs de Provence in the hand-formed beef patty certainly seems French. The final burger is quite tasty in a refined sort of way, but even though the herbs in the patty are not overwhelming, it doesn't have that raucously meaty burger flavor. A bit more salt might have helped, and the effect is likely exacerbated by the fact that the finely ground beef presents a fairly tightly packed—if still tender—mouthful.
Seduced by the French atmosphere, it's tempting to top your patty with some moldy Roquefort cheese, but avoid the urge, unless that's the only thing you want to taste. (The standard cheddar does quite well, and is always properly melted because Chez Maman finishes burgers in the salamander after they come off the grill.) Do, however, say yes to the option to add an egg, which works really well on this herbed burger, with the runny yolk coating the patty after the first bite. All burgers come with some aioli, and the flavor combination works, but during my visit it had been squirted on the bun in such a haphazard glob that I could only taste it in a few mouthfuls.
As for le pain, watching the cooks assemble my burger, I had prepared myself to hate the bun, which appeared to overwhelm the skinny patty. Surprisingly, the ciabatta-esque bread actually worked. It had been grilled on both side so that it achieved a crisp exterior, but still had enough give that it flattened out when eaten.
Rumor has it that the French have a talent for frying potatoes, and Chez Maman is no exception. The host seemed to know this, as he gently dissuaded my dining companion from choosing salad over the fries. I certainly appreciated his intervention—I undoubtedly would have had to donate at least half my portion of the crisp and salty potatoes had she opted for the leafy greens.
I'm certainly not blind to the charms of this herby patty, especially with the added bonus of a luscious coating of egg yolk. But when I next go out burgering, I do hope for the chance to wear, say, a cowboy hat, rather than a beret.
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. He does not actually own a beret.