At its best, the hamburger is an affordable luxury, a piece of pleasure available to one and all. As important as Mexican food is to local culture, San Diego is still a burger town. The California dream promised by old Beach Boys songs is one of fast cars, wide-open spaces, long summers, and huge burgers.
Maybe that’s why, when the 2008 recession hit, many local restaurants started adding hamburgers to the menu. They are comforting, flavorful, and a sign that the good life is always only one all-beef away.
2477 Fletcher Parkway, La Mesa
Beef ’N’ Bun Whistle Stop
This is the type of place that you might pass by for years before giving it a try. You won’t be disappointed. Cheap juicy burgers, slightly crisp bun, combined with always hot fries make this a go-to for East County restaurants. You’re to be forgiven if you think you’ve walked into Arnold’s, the popular drive-through in the old Happy Days sitcom. That’s because Beef ’N’ Bun commonly hosts old cars in the parking lot on Saturday nights. Make sure to get a strawberry-banana shake — it’s like a circus for your mouth. Vegan options include tender-yet-crispy zucchini strips.
8393 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa
This unpretentious sports bar in downtown La Mesa serves thick burgers made with ⅓-pound patties. All burgers come with pickles, lettuce, and red onion, but the extras are the star here. The Hickory Bacon Burger with grilled onions, bbq sauce, and swiss cheese is a standout here. Not a spot for family burger night — no one under 21 is allowed. They keep a nice variety of beers on tap, and they mix cocktails. Be warned: fries and onion rings come separately but are big enough to share.
1801 Morena Boulevard, Bay Park
True to its name, the High Dive combines high-quality food with a pleasantly divey atmosphere. The flagship burger, the Kraken, is more than a burger, it’s a rite of passage. Seriously. The $25 burger combines 1 pound of beef with bacon, gorgonzola cheese, grilled onions, and is served between two toasted Sriracha-infused peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Surprisingly, the flavors meld together fairly well, but it’s a lot of food. Another highlight is the Spicy Reed 2.0, which comes with a half-pound beef patty, grilled onions and mushrooms, bacon, swiss cheese, and a patty-sized version of a jalapeño popper.
1047 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
(No longer in business.)
Saltbox takes its burgers to a new level by making the patties from a juicy combo of chuck and brisket and then puts it on a soft yet resilient brioche bun. Bacon, cheddar, and some housemade pickles and whole-grain mustard complete the picture. It’s simple, but not simple-minded. Although the burger comes with fries, the housemade potato chips are too good to pass up, especially when dipped into the Sriracha aioli. Ditto for the roasted brussels sprouts.
2202 Fourth Avenue, Bankers Hill
Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant
Sometimes when an upscale place does a burger, they feel they need to justify the price by adding too much. Not so at Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant, where the $17.95 BH Burger provides good value by focusing on what makes a good burger: the beef. The patty is meaty, juicy, and cooked to a perfect medium — enough to make it safe without killing the flavor. A slab of aged cheddar adds some sharpness that blends well with seasonal tomatoes, pickled red onions, and crispy fries. It’s worth the extra $3 for the truffle oil. Lots of beer and wine choices on the menu, but the Cobra Clutch cocktail (tequila, mezcal, pineapple, lime, cane sugar, and absinthe) is the perfectly fruity accompaniment.
370 Seventh Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Cat Eye Club
The Cat Eye Club is one of my favorite downtown hangouts, mainly because it looks like someone’s living room decorated with tiki souvenirs. The tropical vibe is a great place to try what I think is one of the best interpretations of the Teriyaki Burger I’ve ever had. The Tiki Burger is glazed with teriyaki sauce and is served with candied bacon, pineapple salsa, and field greens. It is served with plantain chips, a suitably tropical accompaniment. Yes, you could drink this with a beer, but the pineapple margarita is a suitably refreshing beverage that keeps the tiki vibe going strong.
702 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Once you get over the fact that Whiskey Girl is not a country bar (despite sharing a name with a Toby Keith song), you’re in for a tasty burger. The flagship Whiskey Burger features a big beefy patty basted with whiskey that is topped with cheddar cheese, bacon, Philly-style sirloin steak with sauteed onion, and some mozzarella cheese. Oh, and it’s served with a shot of Jack Daniels, all for $18.99. The smokiness of the Jack does pair well with the burger if you sip it, though if you’re like me, you’ll give up and just shoot it.