Walter Mencken 6:15 p.m., Feb. 28
The Tacoburger: Part One
A trip to La Fuente and a brief primer on why anyone would want to dedicate serious time to the idea of taco shop cheeseburgers.
Surf the web a little. Read about burgers. It’s a bigger topic than you might think. Here in San Diego, the gold standard is obviously In-N-Out. Any chef trying to foist a $14 burger on the populace has to be prepared to answer the question, “Is this as good as four animal style double-doubles?”
It’s a serious concern.
But there is another standard. A humbler one. A standard not immortalized in the Big Lebowski. In fact, it’s more of a style than a standard, because they come in so many flavors.
They are taco shop cheeseburgers.
Here come the skeptics: “C’mon, Pike. Seriously? Tacoburgers?”
Yes. Heck yes. This whole taco shop cheeseburger topic is legit. There are few culinary metaphors that better exemplify cooking on the border: a Grito de Dolores on the Fourth of July. Despite the flak he’s received of late in the Reader, Jay Porter achieved one of his moments of inspired lucidity in a three-year-old blog post about taco shop burgers. He even invokes the “drugstore burger,” the legendary patty from Torrey Pines that has seduced many a chef and blogger over the years and represents a kind of Midwestern vision of the taco shop burger. Its perfection is in its simplicity, like a meaty zen koan.
If a burger sizzles on the plancha, but nobody is there to hear, does it make a sound?
The beginning of the answer lies, rather unfortunately, in mediocrity. La Fuente taco shop (1227 University Avenue, 619-295-6447) is as good a place as any to start, in part because it is unspectacular, known more for late-night fisticuffs than excellent food. Still, La Fuente has a Mexican burger on the menu, which is like $3, and represents the taco shop burger at its most regular.
You get, for your money, a single patty, lettuce, pico de gallo, cheese, and guacamole. The sesame seed bun is curiously Big Mac-ish. The burger lacks any real character on its own, but, fortunately, this is a taco shop burger, so there is a preponderance of hot carrots, grilled peppers, and multi-colored salsas. It’s amazing what the condiments at even the weakest taco shop can do to a mediocre burger. Score one for taco shop burgers as an entire class of food. Inferior fries neither help nor hinder things with La Fuente's burger.
So, why start with such a whimper? Because the sandwiches’ underperformance is precisely the point. The existence of a not-very-good burger allows an exceptional one to exist. Rest assured, things get much, much better.