San Francisco: NOPA's Burger Warrants the Crowds
560 Divisadero Street, San Francisco, CA 94117 (map); 415-864-8643; nopasf.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A beefy, funky patty of grass-fed beef that lives up to the hype
Want Fries with That? They come with the burger, and they're tasty
Price: Burger, $13; cheese, +$1.50
22,500. That's how many hamburgers NOPA reportedly sold last year. Not quite billions and billions served, but a fair bit of ground beef for a single restaurant that doesn't even offer weekday lunch. Given its popularity, it's not surprising that NOPA's burger has its share of breathless fans and an almost permanent spot on many of the local best-of lists.
When faced with this much hype, the contrarian side of my character always expects to be disappointed. But NOPA's burger delivers on the promise made by the buzz—and all those sales receipts.
I wish all my grass-fed burgers tasted like the chubby patty served at NOPA. They clearly leave enough fat in the grind to keep things juicy, and even burgers on the redder end of the spectrum develop some flavorful sear-marks from the grill. The magic, however, comes from the way a generous addition of salt brings out the grass-fed flavors of the meat. By the second bite, a beefy funk seems to issue from deep within the patty in a way that gets my primal pleasure receptors throbbing.
Beef this flavorful needs very little else. NOPA applies a few restrained frills but mostly leaves it well enough alone. Some thick rings of pickled red onion offer a nice counterpoint to the richness of the meat. Their toasted housemade brioche, which leans eggy rather than sweet, bears up to the assault of even the most enthusiastic eater. On my most recent visit, I topped my burger with a slice of cheddar, and it arrived properly melted, offering just a bit of bite.
The french fries that come alongside NOPA's burger at first appear to lack a bit of color, but I found mine crisp on the exterior, with fluffy potato on the inside. They come tossed with various herbs, but it's the crisp bits of rosemary sprinkled throughout that stand out. A ramekin of peppery harissa aioli made a nice dipping sauce for the fries, and occasionally for the burger as well.
NOPA shares a name with its neighborhood, the section of San Francisco that sits North of the Panhandle. The region was differentiated from somewhat more ill-reputed Western Addition a few years back when it experienced an uptick in cool factor. (I sometimes envision real estate agents dancing around the streets like the family from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, exclaiming, "Nopa! Nopa!")
Inside the bright, high-ceilinged restaurant, the waiters wear hipster plaid as they deliver burger after burger alongside serious-minded New American cuisine. The burger can be yours at brunch too, possibly supplemented by their lauded custard French toast, or maybe just a plate of doughnuts. Cocktails get mixed behind a wide sandstone bar.
It might not fit with their very hip vibe, but at the current rate, NOPA may just have to put a McDonald's-style sign out front that counts off the number of burgers they've served. With your help—and this is definitely a burger worth your effort—next year might top off at 22,501.
About the author: David Kover is one of the founders of Schmendricks, a brooklyn-style bagel company that plans to take San Francisco by storm. He also writes, and eats, and snaps photos, and eats. You can find him on Twitter as pizzakover.