My tongue-wagging chicken burger
  • My tongue-wagging chicken burger
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You can hear his laugh from all the way out in the corridor. It sounds like he’s having some rip-roaring conversation with Jimmy Kimmel and a live audience.

Chef Ernest

This is Ernest. He’s the chef here at the Cove, Thornton Hospital’s cafeteria. UCSD.

Hospital cafeterias have some of the best food deals going. Also, you can trust them to make pretty healthy meals, right? And most are open to the public. 

I mean, okay, hospital food. No great expectations. But my wallet says stay. Prices are all in the $2, $3, $4 range. I look around and see they’re really trying here. It’s all new, with glossy frosted glass swooping around, jazzy food stations — like, “Chef’s Choice,” “Pizza,” “Hot Entrée.” I guess it’s all to make it more like some healthy food chain and less like a meat’n-two-veg hospital servery.

But actually here where I am is the naughty end of the eatery. Sin city. To get here you have to navigate through dangerously healthy salad bars and veggieland, also guaranteed-full-of-beans soupland. Make it this far and you’re where the thrill is, where the grill is, where Ernest holds court and, seems like, where most of the doctors and nurses hang around, too. They’re ordering snacks like sweet-potato fries ($2) and breaded zucchini ($2). I bet they slip outside for a cigarette as soon as they’re done here.

Folks around me are asking shamelessly for burgers, hot dogs, quesadillas, onion rings, fries. The good thing is that the most expensive item on the entire grill list is the quesadilla. It goes for $4.70. Then the sirloin cheeseburger, what I’m looking at, costs $4.60. They do give you the calorie hit (this is 550), so no surprises. The grilled chicken and cheese (520 calories) is the same price, $4.60 (or, without the cheese, $4.38 and only 400 calories). Turkey burger’s $4.26, veggie burger’s $3.48, piece of fried chicken goes for $3.36. They have a hot dog for $2.58.

So, yes, Sr. Wallet says go for it. Even though the question keeps niggling me: UCSD’s mission is health, saving lives, right? And yet these guys are selling me burgers and fries for lunch? This is like Walgreens selling cigarettes.

Of course, UCSD does make a big deal about how their hamburger patties are now sourced only from grass-fed, antibiotic-free cows. Most standard cows are pumped full of unnecessary antibiotics, which they pass on to us. And it seems antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” are responsible for around 23,000 deaths a year across the country, causing 8 million hospital stays and $55 billion in healthcare costs and lost productivity. UCSD’s publicity says this all on their website, citing the San Diego Childhood Obesity Initiative.

In the same blurb, they say UC San Diego Health pledged to reduce the amount of meat it buys for its hospital food services by 20 percent between 2014 and now, 2017. And it claims they purchase 50 percent of their veggies locally.

So, does all this make their burger actually healthy to eat?

“They do their best,” says a technician who’s waiting to order one. “And, hey, basically, burgers aren’t all bad.”

I know. Good protein, all those vitamins. On the other hand, what about killer fillers, all that fat, all that salt?

On the third hand: these calories here, 550. That’s about half of what you might get in one of the fancy burgers at, say, TGI Fridays. Then again, how about preservatives, texturizers, by-products? Like with sausages, best not to ask what’s gone into that patty. And we haven’t even started on the cholesterol from extras such as bacon, avo, mayo.

Dustin and Ernest assemble my chicken burger

Am I thinking this thing too much? Just in case, I go for the chicken. It’s one slab of breast. Ernest promises me the chicken had a happy life as he and the other chef, Dustin, don their white rubber gloves. Dustin throws the breast on the grill. He plops a slice of swiss cheese on top. It sits stiffly for a moment, then folds over in the heat. Dustin toasts two halves of a bun. Ernest tongs the fixin’s onto a plate: lettuce, tomatoes, a huge dill pickle slice, and onion.

So I head off to the center island, squirt some mayo on the buns — I know, I know, calories — and have to ladle myself a 16-ounce pot of a veggie soup. Collard greens and cauliflower and maybe cheese mix, I’m thinking. Then I head off to fix me a coffee.

All totaled, it costs $9.93: $1.45 for the 12-ounce coffee, $3.14 for the soup, $4.60 for the chicken burger, plus tax.

And, really, that soup is a total meal. Delish, and chock-full of thick goodness, filling as can be. And the chicken? The meat’s nice and moist, and it has a good herby taste, and it chews lush with all that mayo I squirted. And that great tongue of pickle tops the taste with a twang.

And all for under ten buckeroos. Hard not to love the value. Hospital eateries might be one of the last bastions of fair prices.

Marco recommends the cinnamon rolls

And here’s the other thing: you’re surrounded by people who have worries. It makes for a kinda warm zeitgeist you can almost touch. Get talking to Marco, this guy with a ’50s movie-star face. He comes every day to be with his wife. She’s in the hospital. Plus, he’s still dealing with the after-effects of an accident he had in 1995, when a Ford Bronco hit him and put him in a coma for weeks. “Getting through that, as far as I have come, is another chance at life,” he says. “These doctors, they’re something else.”

Then he’s recommending the cinnamon rolls here. “These are the best,” he says. “Cream cheese, and you warm them in the microwave. So-o moist. I have one every day.”

The Place: The Cove Café, in UCSD Thornton Pavilion, 9300 Campus Point Drive, La Jolla, 858-657-7000,

or 858-657-6470

Prices: Hot dog, $2.58; sirloin cheeseburger, $4.60; grilled chicken and cheese, $4.60; grilled chicken breast, $4.38; turkey burger, $4.26; veggie burger, $3.48; fried chicken, $3.36; quesadilla, $4.70; veggie soup, $3.14; 12 oz coffee, $1.45

Bus: 202

Nearest bus stop: Medical Center Drive and Health Sciences Drive

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