We all know that there are at least 100 places in San Francisco that claim to make the city's best burger. Despite the fact that this is mathematically impossible, the most troubling part of this is that there are some truly BAD burgers out there who's creators make this claim.
When someone proudly and confidently says they have the best burger in town when I'm ordering, I see it as a dare. "Miss out if you want, but...", and thus it's my responsibility as a burger connoisseur to test these out. This is fine, and all part of the game of marketing your business, so long as the burger at least hits "pretty good" status. But when it's clear that only a miscreant could love said burger, now that offends me.
Obviously the value of a certain burger is highly subjective, and there are quite a few styles out there that all produce a fine product. Personally, I need VERY savory meat, very fresh produce, bread that doesn't get in the way, and a general consistency that doesn't fall apart. By fall apart, I mean those burgers that you're forced to keep eating once you pick it up because you're scared as to what might happen once you put it down. I'm not into that.
That said, here are three places that make burgers that I love:
Street: I'm convinced that this is the most impressive classic burger in town. The meat is superior to just about anything you'll find anywhere. The mix of ingredients is perfect - not too much of anything and great housemade pickles (a HUGE plus). The bread holds everything together yet doesn't become at all a focus of the burger - this is a very tough balance to achieve. I get it with the pepper jack cheese and bacon, which adds a little extra oomph to the flavor obviously. I'm getting a burger anyway, right?
(Although sometimes when you're ordering something terribly unhealthy, it occasionally feels good to forgo one particularly unhealthy ingredient just to make yourself feel a bit better about it. It's like a sacrifice to the health gods. Something like ordering a huge pastrami reuben and then asking them to toast the bread with light butter. It makes no sense, but if you're like this, I understand. It's okay.)
Street definitely deserves its own conversation. John the chef is a world-class grillman. But I will stop here for purposes of the continuity of this post.
Balboa Cafe: As with above, I'm not going to get into all the side issues and discussion on Balboa. The fact is, if you're going to go the baguette-burger route, Balboa should be your model for excellence. Baguette burgers are typically made with poor baguette bread, the bread far overpowers the meat, the insides slide out, etc, etc. Balboa manages to sidestep all the regular pitfalls (and they have housemade pickles... yes, it's a soft-spot), and the resulting burger is a strong piece of work.
Like Street, Balboa is very consistent visit-to-visit. Also like Street, it deserves its own column because of its aforementioned side issues.
Olympic Club Starter Shack: This is a weird one, both because it's a weird burger and also because not everyone has had the opportunity to eat here. This is the shack that sits next to the driving range at the Olympic Club out on Great Highway. For the record, I'm not a member. The burger itself is in a hot dog bun, and the meat is shaped long and flat to fit it. The produce is very standard. The meat is very good but not spectacular. But somehow this strange approach and simple ingredients meld to form a truly incredible burger. When I'm invited to play one of the courses there, my first thought is not about the course or the golf, but about this burger, and I'm not alone. If you get the chance, don't miss out. For members and people who go there often, this post isn't for you because you already well know about this gem.
Others: I have to say, though these are my choices, you wouldn't be wrong if you said that one of these places had SF's best burger.
Bill's Place - The place in the Richmond grinds their own meat, and it's an impressive burger
Houston's - Don't scoff, this place delivers... especially if you're okay with overpaying by 40%
Taylor's Refresher - See Houston's above
Burger Meister - A few locations here, this place makes a solid but unspectacular (IMO) burger
Home (Castro or Union) - Just kidding, you'd be wrong if you said this
You would definitely be wrong if you said Barney's on Steiner. In fact, you'd lose all burger credibility at that point. I refuse to link to them.
Anyway, that's my take on SF burgers. Enjoy and don't forget the pickles.