Joe’s Cable Car Restaurant

pile of onion rings

Stop the presses!

Although I think in this day and age of online publishing, what do we now say—stop the downloading? Somehow, that doesn’t have the same sense of urgency to it.

Still, this is important.

I know you’re going to find this hard to believe, but my search for the perfect burger was not to be resolved in Paris.


I found burger bliss in the heart of San Francisco.

joe's burger

Ok, the outer Mission district isn’t necessarily the heart of the city, but it’s well worth making the trip if you’re anywhere within driving distance (yes, San Diego counts…) to go to Joe’s Cable Car Restaurant, which makes one of the world’s truly great burgers.

The beef is fresh-ground daily in their glass-enclosed butcher area up front, then shaped into 4, 6 and 8 ounce patties. My first thought was, “I’m going for the 8 ounce!” until I saw an 8 ounce go by, put my eyeballs back in their sockets, and switched to the 6’er, which turned out to be p—lenty big.

You’re probably wondering why I chose to show you the onion rings first, at the top of the post: it’s because they deserve top-billing, as they were The Best Onions Rings I’ve Ever Had.

onion ring bite

When I picked up the first one and stuck it in my mouth, the millisecond my teeth were just about the shatter through the firm, brittle coating, I knew that the subsequent bite would be one of the highpoints of a life of eating.

fries

The fries were decent, although I wasn’t as excited about them as I thought I would be. Nicely-fried, whoever salted them was a wee-bit timid, and didn’t do it the moment they came out of the fryer, so the salt wasn’t glazed on and embedded into the crust. To those people who say food should be undersalted, to allow diners to do it themselves with the shaker on the table, I have one word for you—phooey!

Next time I’m getting a double order of the onion rings, which will likely be tomorrow, since I leave on Saturday, and I’m being hooded, kidnapped, and spirited away to a vegetarian restaurant on my last day in town.

mayo on burger

Aside from the so-so fries, I did witness one major atrocity: they automatically plop mayo on the burgers. I managed to scrape most of it off, but in a stunning feat of expertise, the chocolate malt I ordered was a textbook example of how a great milkshake should taste. The last shake I had a couple of years ago, was bland and insipid, which I still remember in it’s insipidness, and I wasn’t expecting much this time around. But at Joe’s, the chocolate malted had lots of chocolate flavor, wasn’t undrinkably thick, and flowed like manna.

thanks joe's

Joe’s Cable Car Restaurant is now on my permanent list of places to eat in San Francisco. Now if I could only get them to open a branch in Paris, I’d never have to come back.

But then I’d miss another chance at having another one of the incredible Rocky Road cupcakes I had this afternoon…

Joe’s Cable Car Restaurant
4320 Mission Street (Map)
(415) 334-6699

48 comments

  • Yay! I do love Joe’s Cable Car burgers and those onion rings, too!

  • OMG, does that burger (and the onion rings) look good!! and finally something I can try that doesn’t involve an 11 hr flight! Thank you David.

  • Can you believe in 17 years living in SF I have never been? This will need to be rectified. Soon. Maybe tonight.

  • I’m going to have to go experience this for myself. This. Looks. Amazing.

  • I am lucky enough to live in Berkeley, and I am LOVING all the Bay Area tips!!! Keep ‘em comin’!!! And you didn’t say where you got the cupcakes!?! Have you been to Kara’s Cupcakes (My favorite cupcake shop! The chocolate Fleur De Sel is the BEST!)?

  • I really need to find my way to Joe’s one day.

    Have you ever had the burgers at Chez Maman in Potrero Hill? Those are my favorite in SF.

  • If you think San Diego counts, you haven’t been to Hodad’s in Ocean Beach… of course they don’t grind their beef on premises, but they don’t add mayo either.

    BTW, when it comes to burgers & steaks, you can always make something at home better than any restaurant. I challenge you to prove me wrong.

  • Ubuntu, maybe? I am so bummed that I couldn’t be in SF this week or NYC next week, but maybe I’ll come to Paris someday, and then I can be another one of these chicks who always want to meet you! ;-)

    Automatic mayo is one of my pet peeves too – and I can vouch for Hodad’s. Delicious big sloppy burgers and great funky beachy atmosphere. The Chocolate Malts aren’t bad either, but I think the Beef n’Bun (no lie) has them beat in that department. Come on down sometime and I’ll take you there!

  • awesome! i’m going to san fran for new years and joe’s will definitely be on my list! although the idea of so-so fries kind of ruins my idea of a perfect burger! :-(

  • Now, THAT is what a burger should look like; lumpy, almost ready to crumble and oozy-juicy and just the right amount of char. Mayonaise? No…Well..not mayo, but I’ve been partial to a scoop of cole slaw on mine…but only after it’s been topped with onions (preferably caramelized), a pickle spear and ketchup. Hold the tomatoes. Thank you, but no. But, if they do it your way..they’ll do it mine, so we can all win Glad you found the right place before you leave!

  • I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who suggested Joe’s to you, but I’m thrilled to see that the top of my burger list made the top of yours! Ironically, I mostly eat vegetarian; but, when the urge to “carnivorate” hits big time, rather than take out a few pedestrians, I go here. Conversely, I now have you to thank for destroying my current diet. After meeting you at Bi-Rite, I tried the Salted Caramel ice cream, and behaving like I’ve found a lover I’ve been waiting years to meet, I can’t stop thinking about him/her/it (sorry, I’m from S.F.—even my ice cream thoughts are genderqueer). Salud, and bon appetit during the rest of your adventure!

  • Oh man! Boy does that make me miss America and their fine rendition of the burger. We have some great Aussie style burgers with ‘the lot’ here (as they like to call them) packed high with fried egg, crispy bacon, beetroot and even, a ring of pineapple! But sadly they’re almost all but out of fashion… Luckily I can drool over yours and think of better days…

  • Stop it! You’re torturing us.

  • That all looks so good! It has been ages since I’ve had onion rings.

  • When you’re in New York you HAVE to try the Shake Shack (if you haven’t already). It’s WONDERFUL.
    (From a San Francisco burger-eater living in New York.)

  • Wow, that’s quite the recommendation! I’ll have to get myself down there next time I’m in SF.

  • Oh, this is agony. WHY do I live in France?

  • OH NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Stay away from Joe’s Cable Car! My friend A and A were the last two victims. They can’t quit talking about their $50 burger and fries. Although Joe’s is lit up like a Christmas tree and looks inviting. STAY AWAY FROM THE LIGHTS!!!

    P and I had a similiar experience as well (maybe even 2).

    I sent A and A to Bull’s Head in West Portal and they loved it! Andy even had the buffalo which I highly recommend.

    No Joe! We Won’t Go! No Joe! We Won’t Go! No Joe! We Won’t Go!

  • I read your plaudits for Joe’s Cable Car burgers and o.r.s and malts.

    I see your plaudits and raise you 1 Luka’s Taproom & Lounge burger and fries (no malts…well maybe they have them but I’ve never noticed) in downtown OAKLAND. Okay, okay (notice that most of these letters appear in “oakland”), I live in Oakland and love Oakland, BUT: This burger, with its red onion, juicy and deliciously seasoned patty, great bun and big, thick, crispyontheoutside tender on the inside fries makes my heart sing and will remain the best until I try Joe’s C.C. burger. At that time either it will remain the finest or will be supplanted by JCC.

    Okay, okay, I’ll also give you that, weirdly I must say, you fail to appreciate mayonnaise and that Luka’s serves aioli (the dread mayo) with its Belgian-type fries. They do also serve catsup.

    No need to thank me for this valuable info.

  • Michaela: Yes, it did add up (which surprised me a bit when I got the check for $48 for two!) but since it’s fresh-ground beef and they have superlative onion rings, I felt it wasn’t out-of-line. Well, not that much…

    oakjoan: Except I have to drive across the Bay Bridge. And I’ll do anything not to have to do that!

  • Joe’s Cable Car with its diner nostalgic atmosphere is ok but- the best burger I’ve had in SF was at Spruce complete with Bearnaise sauce.
    Joe’s Cable car is quite expensive for its price and but yes their onion rings are pretty good- the fries are just ok. Pearl’s Burger is pretty good and price is awesome!
    http://www.yelp.com/list_details?list_id=vYvXqSV8XNzrokq2NgmvxA

  • Is there nothing better than a crispy onion ring, I know what I’m making tonight!

  • Oh, David. I came *this close* to warning you about Joe’s practice of putting mayo on their burgers after your last post, but then I was distracted by something shiny. Mea Culpa. I’d make the trip just for those delectible RINGS, and stay for the burger. It’s amazing to me how infrequently restaurants get onion rings right…

  • David,
    I just wanted to say you looked great on Bizarre Foods this week. Your face was priceless when he said the true test was whether kids liked the ice cream!

  • Linda, et al…: Thanks! And glad you liked the segment on Bizarre Foods. We had a great time and I love Andrew (and he loves me, too!) I didn’t see it but they’re sending me a copy. I’m just glad he didn’t make me eat anything too trippy…

  • Hi, it is neat to read about places in S.F. I live in the outer Mission (all my life) and like the burgers at Joe’s (although they are expensive). How lucky you are to live in Paris. I have been there only once in 2005 and fell in love with the city and hope to return some day. I love reading about Paris and its characteristics. Have a good trip.

  • Taylors Refresher in S.F. and St. Helena has the absolute best patty melt around! I’ll try Joe’s, thanks!

  • Dean: I LOVE patty melt’s and the one at Joe’s looked more than respectable, but I thought the first time, it was best to go with the classic. Next time, I’m going to give it a try. See you there!

  • My friend Michaela is right…..the burgers are good but not worth $50!!!!! I am often prone to exaggeration but seriously 2 burgers, an order of onion rings and 2 cokes came to fifty big ones. In this economy that is a ludicrous price to pay for a decent burger lunch. When I asked my husband what he thought of the place he said “I feel like I have just been done over” (he’s English). Anyhoo, Michaela recommended the Bulls Head in West Portal and I have to say that it was the BEST BURGER I HAVE EVER HAD!!! You can pay a buck more and get organic beef which is very cool. We had two burgers (1 w/ organic beef and 1 buffalo) an order of fries, an order of onion rings, 1 very large glass of wine and 2 beers all for the very affordable price of $33 – and that included tip!!! Can’t beat that with a stick…

  • Hmmmm…I’m beginning to think that next time I have a get-together in San Francisco, in addition to ice cream, maybe we should all go out for burgers. There seems to be quite a few good ones out there that I’ve missed!

  • Dear David,
    Yes, patty melt: that was what I had at Taylor’s last month that looked SO much better than the photo of what you had. Sorry you were disappointed, but Taylor’s in SF & wine country have usually come through for us as well as visitors.
    Still missing last Saturday’s event, but enjoying reading about your adventures here–we’ll meet up for your new book’s arrival, maybe even in Paris again IF our economy doesn’t get too mavericky for us………………
    A bientot,
    Lynn T.

  • David,

    All the photos look good enough to eat! Just wanted to say I watched your segment with Andrew Zimmern in Paris the other night. The bacon and eggs ice cream sound strange yet tempting (a good combo).

    I’m enjoying your Bay Area restaurant tips. Sacramento is a short drive away.

  • The burger looks super!!! The mayo looks gross!

  • Best burger in the Bay is on 23rd Street in Richmond. That’s right, Richmond. The name of the place is the Philadelphia Hoagie Station, but local kids call it “Phila Burger”. I agree the best onion rings EVER are at Joe’s, but the best burger/fry combo is Phila Burger. I still crave it, 6 months after moving to Kaua’i. :(

  • BEST.hamburgers.EVER. (worth the $10+ spend!) and yes, the milkshakes rock!

  • You’d better sneak a pork chop into the vegetarian place just in case:

    a) the food sucks

    b) the glare from their self-affixed halos gets too bright

  • Many years ago, at a place I can no longer remember, I had the tastiest burger I have ever had before or since. Lawdy, I wish I could remember where!

  • MAYO??!!!?? that is a metaphor for what’s wrong with america.

  • Looks good – nice menu – but a $15 minimum per person for a hamburger diner?

  • 50$ for two is a bit pricey, but your picture of those onion rings has so powerfull hypnotic consequences i could also pay the plane ticket just to go there :)

  • Where is this? WHERE IS THIS??????? I wanna try this resto. Soooo yummy!
    http://www.foodista.com

  • Check this link for the Holy Grail of burgers in the SF area. 27 burgers listed in order of preferance with PHOTOS and reviews. Joe’s shows up somewhere in the middle of the list. http://www.bunrab.com/dailyfeed/dailyfeed_november-05.html#112005

  • Love the blog. Love The Perfect Scoop (even bought a 2nd copy for the g/f).

    However. I must take exception.

    Onion rings… Must. Be. Beer. Battered. Always. Period. No exceptions. I think it’s a law. Maybe.

    Of course that won’t stop me from stopping in and trying them the next time I’m in the Bay Area. :-)

  • As a through and through California girl, I can say that the burger (when good) is one of man’s greatest inventions. This looks amazing and it is sooo hard to find good onion rings. I don’t know if my toddlers can handle this drive up north just for dinner. Hmmm…

  • Hmmm you are kidding right? I went there and wasn’t impressed at all (it is not even on my top-10 burgerbar list for SF area).
    That burger you got looks dull and boring to me. The bun looks like one of those factory-made, pumped-full-of-preservatives buns you can find in just about any supermarket around here. The beef looks home-made but kinda smallish for being the main ingredient i the burger. I agree with you regarding the mayo. I believe that it should be in a burger, but not as a main taste-adder. The combination of greens are average and nothing extraordinary.
    You should try to get a burger at Cafe Rouge, Slow Club, Yankee Pier or one of the other good burger joints in SF.

    The onion rings at Joes are, on the other hand, some of the best I have ever gotten in SF.

  • Living in Sydney I thought it unlikely that I’d do more than drool over the pictures of onion rings, but randomly, two days after this was posted, my husband announced he was going to SF for a week for work! I told him about the post and have just received this text “Joe’s cable car onion rings are the best I have ever had. Giddyup.”

    ’nuff said!

  • Huts Hamburger’s in Austin, TX has the best onion rings I’ve ever had!

  • Oh, the fond childhood memories. I have their salt and pepper shakers.
    Un point de d├ętail : Joe’s is in the Excelsior District of San Francisco. (The Outer Mission is a bit further, well, out Mission Street.) Some parts of the Excelsior may not be the heart of SF, but they sure are the soul.
    Thanks for the great blog in general!