True Laurel burger
The True Laurel burger with its Pain de Mie toast.

Julian, 30-something, and Mark, 70-something, are out to find the Mission’s best burger. Send suggestions to Check out their Fried Chicken Showdown series


What can you say about True Laurel? Ugh. 

For starters, it’s the brainchild of David Barzelay, the owner and chef of the Michelin-starred Lazy Bear. True Laurel even has its own little perch in the Michelin guide, which describes the bar on 20th and Alabama streets as “hipster-friendly,” “Mission-approved,” and an “instant hit.” 

In reality, it’s the place you go when Trick Dog (the hipster-friendly, “Mission-approved” cocktail bar around the corner) is too full and noisy. But on a recent Saturday, we went — not only because the cheese seems to have fallen off of Trick Dog’s cracker, but because E and I heard “TL” had a pretty good patty melt. 

We sat indoors. Before we were seated, we answered questions about whether we were covid-positive, and we had our temperatures taken. The restaurant was empty inside at around 4 p.m., with most customers opting to sit outside in a heated parklet. But inside, it was quiet and pristine, and also a tad eerie, because the last time I drank at True Laurel, members of the Fifteen-Dollar Cocktail Class were pressed shoulder-to-shoulder, laughing, sweating, transmitting benign droplets.

But it’s 2021. And, as we were seated, the handsome, mellow — if not totally stoned — receptionist said the menu could be called up via QR code, and when servers approached our tables, we needed to wear our masks. Drinks must be ordered with food, and our stay was limited to two hours max. 

I ordered the “Laurel Martini” — London Dry and Islay gins, “Vermouth Marriage,” and a “California Bay” tincture — a cocktail so precious that a bay leaf was clipped to the glass’s rim with a miniature clothespin. The drink was a perfect complement to the transcendent Crispy Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, whose batter was delightfully light and reminded me of tempura and salt-and-pepper pork chops. Yes, they were better than french fries. 

Then the patty melt came. One would expect the same level of care and detail, but it was simply not there. The sandwich — if you could call it that — was puny, wafer-thin, and dwarfed by the plate it came on. The first bite was fine, a short and slightly sweet burst of flavor that was soon overwhelmed by the pickles and the waterfall of grease that spewed out onto my plate. 

The patty melt also came with a little surprise: a small, thick, dark hair that coiled from the sandwich and rode down the grease waterfall as I bit into the sandwich. It could have been a nose hair, or a beard hair — or something else. 

Gotta say, for a restaurant listed in the Michelin guide, this was very unfortunate. How could a restaurant/bar that has everything so meticulously dialed in — from its kitschy website to the little clothespin on the martini glass — allow this to fall through the cracks? 

Along with the fried mushrooms, the other saving grace was the fried chicken sandwich, which was simply beyond. The chicken was towering and juicy, and covered in a smokey, cajun-seasoned batter that was all-consuming at first bite. Among the best fried chicken sandwiches I’ve had in the Mission, and the kind of food I’d gladly pay $16 for. 

But, sadly, this is a burger review. And TL gets an F. –J.M.

You surprise me, Julian. 

I get you don’t like hipsters, posers and members of the $15 Cocktail Class, but I’ve never known you to turn thumbs down on a greasy burger. Doesn’t this job require an affection, if not an honest enthusiasm, for melted beef fat?

Yes, the burger oozes delightful grease, but it’s hardly a waterfall. 

Delightful because it’s authentic. True Laurel’s fat resides in the body of real “aged,” “antique”, ground beef. Here, you don’t blow your 16 bucks on a frozen corpse ripped from a Costco freezer this morning and thrown onto a truck. 

Delightful because it’s not chemically induced, but occurs naturally when you grill a quarter pound of cow flesh to a medium-rare perfection, a state of grace often preached but rarely reached in local houses of burger worship. 

Delightful because grease is not greasy when it’s light and juicy, amping up the taste without dragging you down a couple hours later. 

Was it you or the burger who got overwhelmed by the pickles? No self-respecting burger would tolerate humiliation by a couple of pickle chips. The TL burger integrates the pickles in a harmony of an “aged,” “antique” cut of meat, “melty” cheese, “special” sauce, caramelized onions and, yes, beef fat. Nothing in excess. All working together to enhance the overall burger experience.

I wonder what makes a cut of beef “antique”? 

You call the burger “puny.” Maybe puny by Texas standards, but Missionaries pursue higher gastronomic pleasures than simply piling up pounds. Instead of indulging America’s obsession with size, the True Laurel burger interrogates the post-modern model of overconsumption without a trace of smug “plant-based” pretension. 

I really think you got too hung up on the hairball, or the martini, because you never say a word about the bread. 

Or have you become a burger dogmatist who dismisses an unbunned patty out of hand?

I won’t argue the point. The bread — Pain de Mie — comes toasted, or grilled, with its own coating of beef fat, which enables it to snuggle flavorfully in with the family of other ingredients, thereby distinguishing itself from an aloof, imperious bun. 

Sorry to say, I didn’t get the mushrooms or anything else. Without fries, I got lost in possibilities I’d never heard of or dreamed would exist.

It seems you couldn’t keep your eyes off E’s fried chicken sandwich. Too bad, because you missed one of the higher-quality burgers you will likely run into east of Mission Street. Take it as a learning experience: A seasoned burger journalist must keep all five senses attuned to the subject in hand.

Even if that hand is dripping grease. –M.R.

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

Mark Rabine has lived in the Mission for over 40 years. "What a long strange trip it's been." He has maintained our Covid tracker through most of the pandemic, taking some breaks with his search for the Mission's best fried-chicken sandwich and now its best noodles. When the Warriors make the playoffs, he writes up his take on the games.

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  1. Newest architectural burger at Luna. Try it without a napkin -so perfectly structured that the meat stays in the bun and every bite includes all the ingredients. Such pettiness amoung the warriors of Mission Street.This in an open domaine and does not belong to the few!

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  2. I prefer the Whopper. The quality s consistent, and no hairs to date.

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  3. Can these reviews start including where these establishments source their meat?

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  4. Back when they had their fried chicken (just chicken, not a sandwich), it was simply heavenly. Hands down the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.

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  5. Very interesting reviews of the burger – actually I think I would want to go there for the fried chicken sandwich – Julian made that sound very much worth trying!

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