“A burger doesn't have to be good for it to be good,” says Wes Rowe, the eponymous proprietor of WesBurger 'N' More and one of San Francisco's premier burger barons. We're driving to ABV on 16th Street, which is more than walkable from the kitchen in Rowe's two-week-old restaurant on Mission between 18th and 19th streets, but we've got a lot of ground beef ahead of us.
In the time it takes to park, he explains the contradiction behind his fundamental approach to the art of patties and buns.
“Sometimes, I eat a burger, and I don't care if it's a good burger, just because I like the space,” Rowe says. “It could be like, a frozen patty on Wonder Bread with just the right amount of cheese and mustard, some onions. Those are my criteria.”
WesBurger 'N' More, his new burger joint, grew out of a long-running Wednesday night pop-up at Café Mojo on Divisadero that Rowe, then a professional photographer, began after winning the 2013 San Francisco Burger Brawl. Even at this early juncture, the transition to a full-time brick-and-mortar has gone smoothly.
The place exudes a sort of good-time-Charlie vibe, from the neon burger sign to the checks that read “Burgers Are Fun.” (That's the house mantra, which Rowe wrote verbatim into his business plan.)
Beyond fun and being good-enough, his other criterion for burger excellence involves the mystical fifth taste.
“That reaction of meat browning and becoming umami is one of my favorite parts about burgers,” he says.
And he loves ketchup, believing in the need for some sort of high-fructose component to offset the salt in a burger.
“That's almost all that's in there,” he says. “It's some tomato and some sugar, but it's super-umami because of how rich tomatoes can be in ketchup form.”
Rowe is a native Texan whose dad grilled a lot of burgers with 99 percent lean beef — “It's like eating a meat loaf,” Rowe says — but for whom nostalgia plays an important role. Even those dry dad-burgers had a smoky quality that sounds almost Proustian in Rowe's telling. And classic Tex-Mex ingredients show up all over his menu. Take the canned jalapeños, for instance.
“You can't make a better pickled jalapeño than the one in the can,” he says.
Apart from dry meat, what doesn't he like? For one, burgers that are too big.
“I don't like burgers that you have to fork-and-knife,” he says. “Half-pound burgers are like the limit for me, especially if I want to eat the fries. I think six-ounce burgers are really fucking perfect. Quarter-pounders can be lunch, but it becomes difficult to get the crust you want on it as well as a little bit of pink in the middle.”
In his mind, there's a clear hierarchy of fast-food burgers. Jack in the Box is best, because “they get really weird,” Rowe says, while “the other ones play it super-safe.” McDonald's is good for hangovers or “for breakfast, then going back to bed and crying.”
He doesn't miss Whataburger, the Texas-based burger chain — “I feel like I was supposed to like Whataburger, so I did. I would always get a steak finger basket, or breakfast” — and in fact much prefers the non-burger-centric Taco Cabana. When I ask about a certain Southern California-based chain with Scripture verses written on the bottom of the cups, he pauses.
“In-N-Out's great,” he says. “I love it.” Then: “It's not great.”
Because of the fries, right?
“They're horrible! They're the worst. And they still keep doing it,” he says. “It's on principle, though, that they do their fries like that. They want to cut them in-house, and they don't have freezers. That's like their thing. Frying fries from frozen is really important.”
Suddenly, he's praising McDonald's method of blanching fries in relatively cool 200- to 300-degree oil, freezing them, and frying them at a much hotter temperature later.
“What that does is the inside is all really perfect and the outside gets crispy,” he says.
Praise for the golden arches notwithstanding, it's Jack in the Box from which Rowe derived the “Hot Wes.” His signature burger, the one that started it all, is a six-ounce patty topped with queso, onion rings, and pickled jalapeños.
“I went and ate it and went, 'This is really great, I can make it better,'” he says. “And I did, and won two burger competitions with that burger and people just love it.”
But to start our grand tour, we go classy. ABV's $10 pimento cheese burger is a little more high-end than the Hot Wes, and definitely on a pedestal compared to a Big Mac. It's got pickled onion and cucumber and a sweet potato bun. Rowe pronounces it very balanced, approving of the subtle way the cheese mingles with the beef fat — especially when paired with an off-menu sloe gin drink the bartender made for him. It is also the right size.
“You could eat that whole one or just chill and drink and not be like, 'Ugh, I just ate a big burger,'” he says. “It's perfect for sharing.”
Our second stop is The Tradesman, on Alabama Street near 20th, where the staff is waiting for us. It's only 4:30 p.m. and they open at five, so it's empty as we order two glasses of Commanderie de la Bargemone, a French rosé, while Rowe commiserates with the staff over the anxiety of running out of popular items. (In his case, it's tater tots, which only get delivered three days a week.) Stevie Wonder's “Part-Time Lover” is playing when our burger arrives, a beauty made with beef that's dry-aged for 60 days. To me, it's the opposite of ABV's restrained pimento cheese number, with an enormous Nike swoosh of lettuce sticking out and a pickle spear on top the size of a kayak (and it's certainly rich). But Rowe notices a through-line between the two as he bites into his half.
“The trick with this one is that they put peanut butter on it,” he says. “It reads similar to the pimento cheese. You could almost eat this not knowing it's there.”
We nod in sync as we chew. This one's definitely good. As we drive off, feeling quite full by this point, Rowe returns to the subject of high-end burgers and peanut butter.
“I like a greasy, shitty burger, you know?” he says. “I like them when they're done really well — but in essence, I want it to be a greasy, shitty burger. I don't want you to challenge me with it as much as soothe my soul. For example, peanut butter: That can come off as a challenge, but it's also just peanut butter. It's familiar, and familiar flavors in burgers are a really good thing.”
We've got one more fancy burger to go, however: The Hux Deluxe at Huxley, in the Tenderloin. It's a four-ounce, $15 creation that comes with MSG aioli, pickles, frisee, fried onion, a bacon wheel, and “'Merican cheese.”
With all those ingredients stacked, it's tall — and there's a knife sticking out of it to lend stability (and a whiff of danger). I joke about needing to unhinge my jaw. Both Rowe and chef Manfred Wrembel say, “Squeeze it down!” at the same time, with the same degree of impatience. So I do, and it's layer upon layer of umami, knitted together with delicious monosodium glutamate. Rowe initially mistakes the bacon wheel for more onion until quickly realizing its true nature as the fountainhead of that salty goodness. The Kinks' “All Day and All of the Night” is playing as our chatter melts into a companionable silence — until we order chicharrones, to get the most out of the aioli.
“I can taste the MSG on my fingers now!” Rowe says as we leave. We're three for three.
Then it was on to the greasy-spoon half of the burger tour. Had we the time, there are near-infinite places where this adventure could take us, not all of them expressly burger-related. Rowe loves the mashed potatoes and gravy at Frisco Fried on Third Street in the Bayview (“I'm pretty sure they make it out of turkey necks, but he wouldn't tell me. I asked his daughter and she said, 'He wouldn't even tell me!'”) and I love the extraordinary weirdness of the Silver Crest Diner, on Bayshore.
“I've never had their burger,” Rowe says. “I've only been at the bar in the back, for ouzo.”
We don't see eye-to-eye on everything. Rowe likes Popson's more than I do, and I like Super Duper more than he does. But by the time we get to Sam's on Broadway — a North Beach hole-in-the-wall if there ever was one — we're in total agreement: This place is a revelation. The walls are paneled in wood, everything's served on paper plates, you can get fried shrimp for $8.50, and you pay when you're finished in spite of it being counter service. On T-shirts, there's a favorable blurb from Anthony Bourdain saying, “That's a good motherfuckin' burger! Top 3 in the world!” (which sounds to me like the words of an intoxicated person who's been put on the spot). And the burger: It's got a ton of ketchup and mayo on it, and Rowe and I have enough of a buzz going that if we hadn't already chowed down three that day already, we could probably order one more. In other words: This is the perfect drunk food.
Rowe is a little jealous. Not so much of the burgers as of the open, diner-style kitchen, with the grill in the very front — and the fact that Sam's is licensed to sell cigarettes, and WesBurger isn't.
A few days later, we meet up and drive to the 54-year-old Beep's Burgers in Ingleside, which elicits another favorable McDonald's comparison right off the bat.
“I don't know the difference,” Rowe says. “McDonald's is really fucking processed, and I don't know to what degree less this place is, but the proof is in the pudding.”
Beep's is just across Ocean Avenue from City College, where Rowe studied for a few years. He's delighted to find Dublin Dr. Pepper — the bottled kind, also from Texas — and speculates on Beep's profit margin, selling it at $2.25 a pop. We order two. It tastes more like berries than ordinary Dr. Pepper, and Rowe misses the carbonation.
“I didn't get that first sip of watery eyes and a runny nose,” he says.
It's windy, and we almost want to eat in the car instead of at the lone picnic table in the parking lot — as Beep's has no indoor seating — but other than that, we both give it high marks.
“The bun has a really nice, squishy feeling,” Rowe says. “Way better than a place that's doing frozen Restaurant Depot or Sysco buns. And Beep's sauce is just like mustard and mayo, I think. I could eat these forever and be happy.”
Burger rampages notwithstanding, how many burgers does Rowe eat in a week? Not that many, it turns out.
“I have one, and it's the special I test every week,” he says. “I take bites here and there.”
OK, but what about eating other people's burgers?
“Maybe one more than that,” he says. “I have to be careful, I can't burn out on burgers. I don't know too many people who eat more than two burgers a week on average who are creative and healthy people.”
The risk of this burnout foremost in our minds, we make our sixth and final stop: Hamburger Haven in the Richmond. Although he's afraid it's “against the rules,” in the end, we share a patty melt on rye with onion rings and two cups of coffee. Hamburger Haven is even older than Beep's, and in spite of closing fairly early (8:30 p.m.) it has an Edward Hopper vibe, with yellow windowpanes filling the rear with strange light.
“I've been going here probably the longest of any place in San Francisco,” Rowe says. “I used to live in the Presidio, and it's one of the closest places I could go to. The couple who owns and runs it probably own the building, and if they ever sell it, maybe I'll have WesBurger location no. 2.”
I have definitely not had a patty melt in at least 20 years, and in spite of being burgered-out, I love it. We agree on the appealing quality to how the creamy Swiss cheese sauce on the patty melt sticks in our teeth.
“At Beep's, the burger is better than this, but this atmosphere makes it way better,” he says, over the sound of an antique cash register. “The yellow light in that room, it's nice.”
He admires the custom-built deep-fryer, the open layout, the San Francisco memorabilia mixed with Asian vases. The woman behind the counter dumps the afternoon's decaf into a bucket. It occurs to me that Wes Rowe is not exaggerating. This is his dream: a real, mid-century burger joint that allows him to thread the needle between haute burgers and comfort food, with an abundance of cred and room enough in the freezer for a trillion tater tots. And WesBurger 'N' More has only just begun to age in that direction.
“Somebody's already etched our mirrors in the bathroom,” he says. “One of them is really small, in the corner, and the other one says, 'I love your food.' I was like, 'I'm mad, I'm not mad!' It's the best Yelp review I ever got.”