Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Wes Rowe and the San Francisco Burger Rampage 

Wednesday, Apr 27 2016
Comments (5)

"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."

About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

Comments (5)

Showing 1-5 of 5


Comments are closed.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"