Latest post from my SF Burger Examiner column on NOPA!
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about NOPA, and if you have any good sense, you’ve set aside an evening for an epic Californian/ Mediterranean meal and one of the best burgers you can find in San Francisco.
A culinary gem with cultural flavor
Named for the surrounding neighborhood known as North of Panhandle, NOPA is a go-to for anyone in search of a lively scene with exceptional food, creative, well-executed cocktails and attentive service. Enter the large bi-level space, take a deep breath, and feast your eyes on the impressive scene that scoffs in the face of an economic recession. NOPA’s owners converted the former bank into a hub of social gathering with good food to boot. High ceilings with exposed wooden beams, a commissioned Brian Barneclo mural of San Francisco’s cityscape, and a long bar that will bring any libation lover to his knees, beckon you to come in and stay a while. The energetic explosion of conversation from a diverse crowd acts as your accompanying sonata for the evening; and a late evening that can be as NOPA’s kitchen is open until 1AM.
Good drinks and service = happy guests
A communal table invites you to snag a spot and join the party. Just be on your toes, these first-come, first-serve seats go quickly. Drop-in diners should expect to wait 45 minutes to an hour pretty much any night for a sit-down table, but can happily post up at the bar for a signature NOPA cocktail. The ever-popular Pisco Sour is served in a tumbler with frothy whipped egg white, quebranta pisco and a dash of bitters. Many cocktails showcase a grown-up, inspired feel, with ingredients like huckleberry shrub and ting mixed dexterously with less common alcohols like elderflower or absinthe. Try the Paloma Rosa (Spanish for “rose dove”) – a concoction of Mezcal, strawberries and lime juice – and your tongue will say “gracias” for the perfect blend of tart and sweet. The Kumquat Caipirinha is a strong drink that has the potential to knock you on your “you know what” with its sliced sour kumquats, rinds, lime juice and Weber Haus Cachaca.
Thanks to a wonderfully accommodating restaurant staff, we finagled an intimate two-top that boasted a perfect view of the kitchen hustle and bustle directly below. Smells of rotisserie chicken and exotic spices floated upwards, tempting our appetites to come forth and prepare for the affair. Yasuaki, the welcoming evening manager, dropped by to ensure everything was in order. NOPA has an impressive staff on hand, one that is attentive without being overwhelming, and more than knowledgeable about the menu’s innovative twists on classic favorites.
A few favorites
I’ve enjoyed meals at hundreds of restaurants in SF, yet NOPA is the one that continually lures me back with her offerings of high quality, seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients formed into masterful creations. Roasted calamari with pea tendrils and Meyer lemon combine for a bright dish. NOPA is known for her rustic wood-fired flatbread with a variety of cheeses, fresh herbs, and tantalizing meats like prosciutto or sausage. The brined, country pork chop will have any vegetarian reconsidering his mission, and don’t expect to stay on your diet if your eyes spot the sopaipillas – pockets of hot, doughy goodness surrounded in a blanket of sugar and cinnamon. Rip off a corner of dough, pop that pocket and liberally pour in a dose of warm honey butter and you will officially have entered heaven.
Awaken to a multi-course adventure
NOPA starts off any meal with an amuse bouche to tempt your palate out of the 9-5 coma and back to the land of the living. A crispy mini crostini topped with snap peas, fennel, garlic, feta cheese and a droplet of olive oil is a perfect reawakening. But the bites do not stop there. A runny poached egg over a bed of greens is happily married with smoky bacon, sweet caramelized red onions, toasted browned breadcrumbs and shaved thin asparagus. The result is a mouth-watering escape of unwavering complexity and texture, not to mention flavor.
For the main, you cannot go wrong if you select one of the many delectable meat dishes. Seared duck breast, executed to a perfect soft pink, is served with mushrooms, artichoke hearts, red onions and bitter greens. The barley, buttery sauce reminds you that dark meat is always a good choice for a hungry belly.
The NOPA burger – in all her glory
Last, but certainly not least – the famous NOPA burger – a steal of a deal at $13, guaranteed to challenge the Spruce burger title for “perfect burger.” NOPA’s grass-fed beef from TLC Ranch is ground in-house, evidence of the tender, loving, care employed by the kitchen staff to any burger’s construction. Part owner, Jeff Hanak, is proud of his restaurant’s burger, declaring it his favorite burger in SF without hesitation. You can taste the difference in the meat, more savory than many other burgers in the city. Talk about well-deserved confidence, Chef Laurence Jossel seasons the burger simply with salt only, a choice which allows the natural flavor of the beef to be your focus.
Complementing the burger is some of the tastiest bacon I’ve sampled. This is no regular bacon…It is made in-house from Becker Lane pork belly. NOPA’s staff realizes the value of patience, curing the bacon over 7-10 days and then smoking it over almond wood for 3-4 hours.
The bun is by far the best I’ve had in this burger-loving city. It is a toasted, buttered brioche made in-house, that offers a rich complement to the red meat patty. Gruyere cheese, lettuce, tomato, mustard aioli and crunchy pink pickled onions are the well-placed accessories for the evening. The burger is slightly smaller in size, almost comparable to a slider, but its depth and richness will satiate any hunger pains. Pair that handful of red meat with crisp, piping hot French fries and you’ve got a partnership that keeps SF locals coming back for more.