Burgers. I love them. I’m a traditional sort. Acceptable toppings are lettuce, tomato, raw onion, American or cheddar cheese, and a smear of mayo. At least that’s what I told myself. Somewhere along the line, though, someone sneaked caramelized onions onto my sandwich. That was my gateway garnish into the dark world of alternative accompaniments. I became what I once ridiculed, a seeker of new flavors, a junkie for the latest embellishments. It was a wild ride, but fortunately I came to my senses before I actually ate a Krispy Kreme burger.
These days, I’ll order a basic cheeseburger more often than not, but every so often, the lure of a fried egg or a slice of pepper jack pulls me back. Not a bad way to relapse.
3786 Ingraham Street, Pacific Beach
Rocky’s Crown Pub
Rocky’s Crown Pub threw down the gauntlet in 1977 and has regularly appeared on “best burger” lists ever since. Despite small quarters and a parking-challenged location, this unpretentious bar serves hundreds of burgers daily. An 80/20 blend of chuck, supplied by the local Central Meat & Provision, is weighed and hand-pattied each morning. Your menu choices are a one-third or half-pound hamburger or cheeseburger, that’s it. Gooey melted American cheese, mayo, leaf lettuce, tomato, raw red onion (ask if you want them grilled) and pickle chips make this the burger you loved as a kid and still crave as an adult. Fries are a couple of bucks extra. Excellent weekday lunch special: one-third-pound burger, fries, and a draft beer or soda for $13. Cash only.
4445 Lamont Street, Pacific Beach
The Patio on Lamont
The Patio on Lamont’s Kobe burger is pretty much flawless as-is, but I love to gild the lily by adding a lacy-fringed sunny-side-up egg on top. The crackling edges add a great textural foil to the half-pound of gently pattied, perfectly seared Kobe beef and soft brioche bun, while the creamy yolk enriches the garlic aioli dressing. Cheddar, a little nest of arugula, sweet roasted tomato, and caramelized onion come standard; add the egg or other luxuries like house-smoked pork belly for a slight upcharge. Extra points for the sleek little stainless steel french fry cup — it keeps your fries hot longer.
2750 Dewey Road, Building 193, Liberty Station
Slater’s 50/50 is the place to go when you want to indulge your mildest to wildest burger fantasies, from the Backyard Basic Burger to the Peanut Butter and Jellousy Burger (exactly what it sounds like, but with bacon).
Traditionalists will appreciate the Old Timey, Black Canyon Angus beef, thick-cut bacon, grilled onion and American cheese under a light glaze of thousand-island dressing. I enjoy the Tex-Mex-inspired Bison Chipotle burger; Durham Ranch bison gets kicked up with spicy pepper jack, a big roasted green chili, tangy corn and black bean relish, fresh salsa, and smoky chipotle mustard. Over one hundred taps and, if you prefer wine, there’s no corkage fee for bringing your own.
830 25th Street, Golden Hill
I’ve always been a fan of Counterpoint’s innovative cocktail program, but lately it’s also my go-to place when I don’t want a lot of “stuff” on my burger. The thick, half-pound patty, well-seared and savory, is draped in a blanket of good quality American cheese, the spicy aioli has a surprising jolt, yummy house-made pickles provide piquancy and crunch, all housed in a deeply toasted bun. Simple, straightforward, and proof positive that less is often more. Excellent fries come alongside; try them dipped in the spicy aioli.
1959 Morena Boulevard, Bay Park
Luce Bar and Kitchen
I love the cozy, neighborhood feel at Luce Bar and Kitchen. Despite a rather unlikely location, it’s warm and friendly, ideal for after-work drinks and dinner, or even a casual date night. Chef Domenico Alioto has a way with meat, as evidenced by the carefully pattied, marvelously medium rare Luce Burger, simply adorned in excellent aged white cheddar, arugula, and caramelized onion. Sample the roasted garlic aioli, either on the sandwich, the fries, or both. Just be sure that if it’s date night, your guest has some, too — it’s potent.
1451 Washington Street, University Heights
I almost always associate Great Maple with breakfast/brunch foods, but it turns out that their burger game is on point, too. Montreal spices —black pepper, mustard, dill, and coriander seed, red pepper flakes — elevate the flavorful grass-fed beef burger, which needs no more garnish than lettuce, tomato and aioli, but a slice of sharp Vermont white cheddar is always welcome. Tangy tzatziki sauce and brightly flavored eggplant caponata are brilliant with the warm Moroccan spices in the Lamb Burger. A smear of fresh goat cheese on top is a no-brainer.
3175 India Street, Mission Hills
If I hadn’t already been seduced by the sophisticated, retro-chic dining room/lounge and the splendid, potent cocktails, I certainly was a goner after my first bite of Starlite’s renowned burger. It’s a half-pounder, corn-fed Brandt beef, sweeter and a bit softer than grass-fed, smothered in gruyere and caramelized onions, all in a buttery toasted sesame-seed brioche bun from my favorite bakery, Con Pane. The little cup of dijonaise is generous enough to spread on the burger and use as a dip for the excellent fries. Vegetarians aren’t an afterthought here, either. The Veggie Burger is a savory house-made red-lentil patty, topped by soft, mild goat cheese and house-pickled red onions.
4628 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Sometimes it’s the little things that take a good burger to great. In Small Bar’s case, it’s not the grilled, house-ground patty, or the mantle of nutty provolone, or that they mash up the avocado so it doesn’t shoot out onto my plate at the first bite. No, my favorite part of the Hamilton burger is the bun, that gorgeous, cheese-and-herb-cloaked Sadie Rose focaccia bun. Unlike brioche, the sturdy crumb of the focaccia soaks up the juices rather than dissolving, giving you plenty of time to sit back and enjoy a pint from the outstanding beer selection or a strong cocktail alongside.