At the top of the Kronnerburger menu there's a pen-and-ink drawing of a hamburger emitting rays of light, as though it's a religious icon or a guiding star. For those who have made the pilgrimage to this burger pop-up in the Mission, it might as well be. In the four months since chef Chris Kronner (formerly of Bar Tartine) started serving out of club Bruno's, the Kronnerburger has become more than a burger; it's a must-stop on the Top Burgers of San Francisco tour. And whether you think it's best in show or overrated, if you're a serious burger person you have to try it and judge for yourself.
I am a Kronnerburger convert. I love that it has all the flavors of a great drive-in burger — the type of burger whose flavor is greater than the sum of its parts, and comes together in a kind of burgerly symphony. I love that it's served juicy and rare — cold-in-the-center rare, all the better to taste the beef, and when you bite into it some of the juice dribbles down your hand. I love that the savory cheddar-mayo sauce serves as both condiment and cheese, and I love that there's a bit of crisp iceberg and pickle, but not enough to get in the way of the meat. Altogether, it's infinitely more satisfying than a Double Double.
Most of this is due to the quality of the ingredients. Kronner uses 100% grass-fed, dry-aged beef from Lost Coast Farm up near Mount Shasta. The buttery buns are from Acme. The pickles are pickled in-house. Still, Kronner envisions a better Kronnerburger, a day when he can dry-age and grind his own beef and bake his own buns to achieve true perfection. "[The Kronnerburger] will be fully realized then," he says. "It's in constant evolution."
Kronner's obsessiveness aside, his creation is quite good now, and made all the better for the unlikeliness of its surroundings. One of the charms and frustrations of pop-up restaurants is that the ambience is often incongruous with the food being served. It's hard to know what Kronner would do with a space of his own — like most pop-up chefs, he's always keeping an eye out for a brick-and-mortar location. But it's probably safe to say that this hypothetical Kronnerspot wouldn't be a space that doubles as a Saturday night dancefloor, with padded leather walls, barely concealed DJ equipment on a stage, and hardly any lighting except candles.
Not that the surroundings aren't pleasant; it's just not for everyone. Kronnerburger isn't for dinner with kids or meals when your parents are in town, but it's perfect for a night out with food-minded friends. The cocktail list reflects this, developed by Gabriel Lowe of Locanda with a sage eye toward the Mission's drinking habits. Scotcholate milk is a novelty milkshake, and it turns out whiskey, chocolate, and milk pair quite nicely. We couldn't detect many bubbles in the "Carbonated Motherfucking Margarita," but after we'd shared a pitcher of them, we didn't especially care. And this being the Mission, you can order a "house dill brine pickleback" — a shot of Buffalo Trace bourbon with a chaser of salty pickle juice.
The rest of the menu skews toward burger-stand classics with an adventurous twist. Besides the burger, bone marrow is the highlight. You can order it on the Kronnerburger and marvel at how the marrow brings out new dimensions in the beef's primal flavor. Or you can order a plate of marrow and toast, which comes with a series of cracked bones sticking up on the plate like a Neanderthal's dinner. Marrow's a little hard to eat this way — the little wooden sticks that come for serving were largely ineffectual, and it was too easy to puncture the bottom and have all the marrow run out — but still worth it if you crave the fatty texture and offal taste.
One dish that doesn't need the addition of marrow is the poutine, which is rich enough on its own thanks to an intense beef-cheek gravy that tastes like the essence of the best beef stew. The extra-crispy french fries barely wilt under the onslaught of gravy, and once they were gone, we found ourselves scooping up the sauce with our fingers (not the most dignified dining moment, but it was dark enough in the room we hoped no one noticed).
Also on the menu are crisp onion rings, fried in a rice flour batter for a tempura-like lightness. Same with the chicken wings, which have been brined, smoked, deep-fried, and doused with a spicy pickled Serrano sauce. Wings are often all about the sauce, but here the chicken itself was the standout. And there's a worthy patty melt, made with Emmentaler cheese béchamel sauce and melted Emmentaler on both sides of the bread. It's rich and gooey, with a mustard and horseradish sauce to cut through the fat.
Vegetarians have few options: a zesty pimento grilled cheese on a buttered bun, a lightly fried crab burger topped with slaw that blew fast-food fish sandwiches out of the water, and a veggie burger made with beets, chickpeas, and grains.
If there is room for improvement, it's the saltiness factor. You will likely go through several glasses of water during the meal — but right under the godly burge r on the menu, two words appear: Rare — Salty. Kronnerburger knows what it is, and if you decide to deem it the city's best burger, it will be on the merits that are already there.
Will Kronner ever feel like he achieved the perfect hamburger? "Hopefully not," he says, "because then I won't have anything to do."