My favorite burger of all time is still Starlite’s (see Mary Beth’s note about it) primarily for its classic perfection (Brandt beef, gruyere cheese, caramelized onions, brioche bun). But having a go-to doesn’t preclude me from breaking out of my comfort zone every once in awhile and discovering the big, juicy offerings that abound in San Diego. I’m talking combinations that make your eyes pop, your mouth water, and your taste buds sing. Here, I went in search of the ultimate umami, that deep, rich satisfaction. Look the other way for now, my vegetarian friends, because it’s about to get ridiculously meaty up in this piece.
4090 Adams Avenue, Kensington
The burger at this French restaurant is tough to locate on the menu, as it’s called the “Croque de Garçon.” Like most French food, this dish is extravagant and tools are required. The house-ground Angus beef patty is served open-face style on a thick slice of griddled brioche and smothered in brie, parma ham, caramelized onions, all topped with a fried egg ($22.50). For the staunch gourmand looking for the most over-the-top experience, add foie gras au torchon or black summer truffles for $12. Or both! I prefer to order it as it comes, an already borderline overwhelming but delicious combination of rich flavors, from the sweet onions and rich, silky egg to the savory meat and pungent brie.
3823 30th Street, North Park
(No longer in business.)
Warning: napkins required. This Niman Ranch Chuck Burger is a meat-juice bomb, made all the more delectable by the accompaniments of aged cheddar, Bibb lettuce, and smoked-tomato jam on an egg bun ($14.50). I rarely do add-ons, but here it’s hard to resist adding the savory sautéed mushrooms, bacon, and avocado, for $2 each or all three for $5, which is what I’d recommend. These burgers are huge, so if you’re getting fries (the sweet potato fries at Solace are fantastic), it’s possible to share the whole shebang and have a little room left over for dessert.
1851 Bacon Street, Ocean Beach
Raglan Public House
At this New Zealand–themed restaurant, the beer selection is ever-changing, but the grass-fed beef burgers have remained fairly consistent since the doors opened a handful of years ago, and when you sink your teeth into one, you’ll understand why. The must-order is the Sheila’s Cracked ($12.90), with a fried egg, Edam cheese (named for the Swedish town from which it hails), and beetroot. But if you want a unique experience, venture further down the menu, toward the Pepper M’ Pesto, a refreshing and rich caprese-like burger topped with mozzarella, roasted peppers, fresh spinach, tomato, and pesto aioli ($12.90).
4990 North Harbor Drive, Point Loma
The Cowboy Burger (bacon, onion rings, barbecue sauce, cheddar cheese) is a classic burger style, and Jimmy’s Famous serves up one of the best versions of it for $18. Here, instead of fried onion bits or a ring, you get what they call an onion “fritter,” which basically means there’s a bit more batter to it, adding more of that satisfying crunch to each bite. The beef is freshly ground Angus and all burgers are served on Jimmy’s signature Parker House buns, which are similar to brioche in texture and flavor. Plan to use utensils because unless you can unhinge your jaw like a cobra, there’s no way you can open your mouth wide enough for a normal bite.
4130 Park Boulevard, University Heights
(No longer in business.)
Sausage & Meat
Of all the burgers on my list, this one’s the most hot-doggy. That’s because the patty is 100 percent bratwurst, and some of the fixings (sauerkraut, dijon mustard, pretzel bun) are traditional bratwurst dog pairings. But add the swiss cheese, slabs of bacon, and the sweet and tart green apple, which is rendered into the sauerkraut, and it becomes a glorious brat/burger fusion ($13). The pretzel bun is as fresh and soft as the pretzel bites, which are perfect for sharing if you want to order from the list of unique sausages and make your own deconstructed version of this burger.
2943 Adams Avenue, North Park
2750 Dewey Road #104, Liberty Station
Soda & Swine
When you can’t decide between which burger to get and you don’t want to commit to one big flavor profile, sliders are there to help. These simple meatball sliders — just one meatball of your choosing and its accompaniments on a bun for $3.50 — ensure you can have your burgers and eat them, too. The Swine and Bovine are my favorites: the first is smoked pork served with chipotle barbecue and pepper jack cheese, and the other is beef with marinara and mozzarella, or the satisfying meatball sub of sliders. I also like the Hen, chicken with mushroom cream and provolone. Go with a friend whose cooties you don’t mind, get one of each, and go to town.