Saturday's San Francisco Street Food Festival was a much bigger and better organized event than previous years. With vendors that ranged from street tacos to vegan donut burgers to $8 garlic bread from the hottest table in town, there were plenty of dining options for any variation of taste and dietary restrictions at this artisanal open air food court. (Also: cocktails!) But the one item that was most desired by far, measured in terms of line length at least, was Nombe Izakaya's Ramen Burger.
The burger du jour exploded in popularity in New York recently due to internet hype and manufactured demand. People have been lining up at Smorgasburg, Brooklyn's noted weekly pop-up food event, as early as 6:45 a.m. for burgers that they won't be able to even order until lunch time.
Because we are reasonable and don't like to get up early for breakfast, much less lunch, we didn't arrive early enough to see how many people were camped out for ramen burgers, but by the prime hour of 1 p.m. the line was at least a hundred people deep. From the back of the line, the actual stall ramen burger seekers were queued up for was barely even visible in the distance. Still, Nombe's kitchen was efficient: a quick survey of diners with their burgers secured showed waits were about 20 to 30 minutes. We lucked out and got our burger in less than 10 minutes thanks to some friends who did all the waiting for us. (Pro-tip: offer to buy their burger.)
Ramen buns greasily in hand, we had some reactions to the gimmicky stuntburger:
The patty was a thin one, made with beef and pork belly, grilled all the way through for simplicity's sake, but not really seared to a crust on the outside. The sandwich was topped with lettuce, tomato, and homemade japanese pickled cucumbers that were really closer to cucumbers than pickles.
But no one is talking about the ramen burger for the toppings, we're here to talk about the "bun." Each bun was slightly less than half a block of your standard ramen, but with better quality noodles. The frayed edges of the bun had the right snap to them, but the seared noodles clumped together in the thickest part of the bun were a dense, starchy overload. (The next stuntburger should be latke sliders or a burger with fried mashed potatoes for buns.)
It would be mostly impossible to eat without the paper wrapping, which was translucent by the time we got to the other end of the sandwich and all that was left were stray noodles and errant vegetables. Like the remnants of a weird noodle salad with hamburger meat. Even with the smallish burger, we were left feeling full, but also wondering if maybe there was something better we could have done with all those ingredients.
Local chef Justin Navarro, who created the French Onion Sandwich at The Galley and is something of an expert in the field of turning soups into sandwiches, gave us this review: "The most underwhelming dish of the day. Sounded great, but the greatness stopped there."
Anyone at the festival who was hungry for a good hamburger could have avoided the fuss and stepped up to 4505's stall for their humbly named Best Damn Cheeseburger. (Disclosure: a really good burger!) But the sort of people who want to be able to say, "One time, I ate a hamburger with fried ramen noodles in place of the bun" at cocktail parties will wait in line and then pay 8 bucks for the privilege.
Nombe happily gave them the opportunity: by around 2:30 in the afternoon staff told us they had cranked out 450 ramen burgers. Employees back at their Mission street kitchen were making enough buns to put together another 150 more and would undoubtedly sell out. While this means plenty of customers get the burger (and cocktail party anecdote) they were looking for, it's not necessarily a burger that lends itself well to robot-like assembly. A little more care would have gone a long way to making it look more like a real food item and less like a cheap knockoff.
Here's to hoping the Ramen Burger fares better within the confines of Nombe's kitchen.