439 Balboa Street, San Francisco, CA 94118 (map); 415-386-8332; namusf.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A tasty, beefy, Korean fusion burger
Want Fries with That? Skin-on, crisp, and salty
Price: Burger, $14; add kimchi relish, +$1; shitake dumplings, $9
After the fervor over Korean tacos of a few years ago, I expected that Koreanized burgers would be the next in line for fast fame. This hasn't quite happened, but that doesn't mean that a few joints haven't picked up the ball and run with it.
In the Bay Area, the place to turn for this fusion of Americana and Koreana is Namu—likely also our leading local source for those Korean tacos. They serve a thick beef patty with fixings like pickled daikon and soy-glazed onions, offering the option to add a kimchi relish if you're so inclined. Yet the magic of Namu's burger isn't simply that kimchi and beef taste really good together (they do), but that even as you enjoy the Korean-inspired touches, you're still biting into a really flavorful patty of beef.
Though Namu runs a stand on Thursdays and Saturdays at San Francisco's Ferry Building Farmer's Market, to get their hamburger, you need to visit the full-time restaurant in the Inner Richmond. The unobtrusively decorated restaurant features a wooden countertop overlooking the kitchen and slabs of slate lining the back wall of the dining room. Some modern Asian wall art and a few vases of flowers give off enough vibe to nod towards the restaurant's Japanese and Korean influences, and to let you know that you're eating at a nicer, if still casual spot.
As noted, Namu's burger comes with slivers of pickled daikon radish, a little bed of soy-glazed onions, and also kaiware sprouts. The burger has been dressed with dijon mustard and aioli, and though this already sounds like a lot, don't refrain from adding Namu's kimchi relish for a dollar more. All of these extras play a role—a little spice, a little sweet, a little tang—but none overwhelms. There will be no doubt that you can taste the patty of Marin Sun Farms beef at the center of the whole thing. Even a slice of cheese doesn't upset the balance (though I recommend a mild selection).
Namu grills its burgers over sumi charcoal, a Japanese charcoal that appears to get used for cosmetic purposes as often as for cooking. I couldn't taste how this specialized product had factored into the final flavor of my dinner, but it did come out perfectly medium rare and juicy.
Bread-wise, Namu serves their Koreanized burger on a pain de mie roll that has been marked up by the grill. Soft and slightly sweet, I always expect it to fall apart under the weight of the very thick patty, but it has always held up for me. (They cheat slightly, stabilizing the burger with a toothpick while it sits on the plate.)
You can get a salad alongside your burger, and I'm sure it's very good, but I've never made that choice. Namu's fries come skin-on, crisp, with plenty of salt. They remind me of the best bits of a plate of home fries.
Though I really like Namu's burger, I need to point out that their shiitake dumplings may just be one of my favorite dishes in the city. And not even for the dumplings, but for the dashi mushroom broth, which seems to coat your mouth with some of the richest, most concentrated umami flavors imaginable. Please order these alongside your burger.
Korean tacos. Kimchi burger. I'm not sure I can cast a vote in favor of kimchi pizza, but for now, consider me a huge fan of this whole Korean fusion thing.
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