Merguez. Never quite knew what it was. A North African region? No. That’s the Maghreb. Some organization in a James Bond movie? Nuh-uh. It took me coming to the squirty fountain in the new Horton Plaza Park to discover it’s a sausage from, well, the Maghreb. Seems it’s been popular everywhere except my gullet since the 12th Century.
900 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
So tonight I was passing through the park, no intention of eating. Until I saw a neon sign flickering on:
Or, no. Not “burgers.” It said something else:
Whuh? Burgerim? So now I have to check it out. It’s shining above a brand-new glass box place on the Fourth Street side. No indoor seating, just a kitchen and a corralled-off patio to the side. You have to bend down to order through a little slide window. The girl, Alexandra, asks what I want.
“Actually, I just want to ask about the name. ‘Burgerim’?”
“It means ‘burgers,’ plural, or ‘many burgers,’ in Hebrew,” she says. “The owners are Israeli. We have only been open two weeks here.”
Huh. Maybe I should…just a snack.
She passes through a menu. “Uno,” it says. “One of our burgers, $6.95. Duo: Two of our burgers, $9.95. Trio: Three of our burgers, $12.95.”
The prices include fries and a soft drink. Good deal. Especially downtown. For 79 cents more, you can have one of the specialized burgers, like the “California” with swiss, avo, and mixed greens. Or “Cowboy,” with cheddar, bacon, onion rings, and “zesty bbq.” Or “Caliente,” with pepper jack cheese, Cajun seasoning, jalapeños, and habanero pepper mayo.
“Uh, how big are they?” I ask.
“Well,” says Alexandra, “not so big.” She circles her hands to leave a three-inch hole. “But the patty’s generous.”
I decide to get two, to be sure. The California and the Cowboy.
Now, Alexandra starts asking a lot of questions.
Flavor? She’s pointing to a list of 11 kinds of meat patties. Beef, turkey, lamb, chicken, “dry aged” (beef, I guess), salmon, veggie, “Spanish beef” (chorizo, turns out), wagyu beef (wow...but 55 cents on top), and, yes, merguez.
“Merguez is beef, but more nutty,” she says. I think she says “sweet,” but now she’s asking if I want all the free toppings (basically different onions, pickles, American cheese, romaine). Or any extras like pineapple, sautéed mushrooms, jalapeños, for 25 cents each. Or bacon, avo, fried egg added in for 55 cents each.
Man. I go for one lamb burger, because I figure Israelis must know a lot about lamb, like everybody in the Middle East. And the merguez burger, because this will be a first, and I like the “sweet” idea.
But the choices aren’t done yet. “Any sauce?” she says. “They’re free. She rattles off half a dozen. The two that stick are the BBQ and the garlic. I ask for those. Oh, and you get fries as a free side, too. The Burgerim Fries are round disks. Or, for 55 cents extra, they have sweet fries. I go for them.
So, yeah. Confusing but interesting. Result: I’ve got the merguez burger in the Cowboy configuration, with cheddar, bacon, onion ring, zesty BBQ sauce. Plus, the sweet fries and iced tea (part of the deal). And, beside it, the lamb burger, California configuration, bulging mainly with avo.
Lamb’s great, and savory, and garlicky. But the Cowboy merguez? Oh, man. Chomp that sucker with some sweet fries and the zesty BBQ sauce, and you’re close to heaven. It’s slightly peppery, slightly dense and nutty, but what a dream taste. I’d come back for this any day.
How come so small? Turns out small is the key to the plan that has turned what was a single restaurant in Tel Aviv into a worldwide chain with around 200 franchise outlets. In six years.
This place is their first in San Diego. But not the last. A store in La Jolla’s on the brink of opening. Mission Valley’s getting one, too.
Of course, chains ain’t my thing, normally. But these guys have thought of something original. Turns out this Israeli gal Donna Tuchner studied at culinary school in New York and had an idea: when everybody else was super-sizing their burgers, she thought: How come sliders are so popular in everybody’s happy hour? Why not go small? Result: Mini burgers. Larger than slider size — 2.8-ounce patties — but way smaller than the Frisbee-size burgers we usually wolf down. And then, she thought, go really big on add-ons so there are thousands of combos, and they’ll keep coming back. For sure, my sauces, are so-o garlic-interesting. Guess that’s the Israeli influence.
And, hey: some of the U.S. Burgerim franchisees are going halal, creating dishes that recognize Muslim rules for eating. Israelis reaching out to Muslim customers? A hopeful sign for the world, or a business opportunity recognized, or maybe both.
Also, they’re getting a beer-wine license for the rest of us.
So all these thoughts race through as I sit in their patio, chomping and watching the whole magnificence of the U.S. Grant Hotel lighting up across Broadway. (This is the spot for that!) Plus, even close to Broadway, it’s so quiet, you can hear the fountain water splotting. A bunch of parents have set their kids free in the dancing fountains. They’re squealing with delight. Little dogs run between the jets barking. And Eric Freeman, a busker I’ve met here before, is sitting on a seat singing that Billy Preston song, “Will It Go Round in Circles.”
“I got a song that ain’t no melody. I’m gonna sing it to my friends. Will it go round in circles, will it fly high like a bird in the sky?”
Until, natch, Westfield security come and move him off their bit of the plaza.
Well, can’t have everything.
900 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Prices: Single burger, $6.95; two burgers, $9.95; three burgers, $12.95 (California, Cowboy, Caliente burgers, 79 cents more each); 6 chicken wings; $6.95; crispy chicken strips, $5.95; grilled chicken sandwich, $8.95; grilled ribeye sandwich, $9.95; chicken, bacon, avocado wrap, $8.95; panzanella salad (with sautéed red onions, mushrooms), $8.95
Buses: All downtown
Nearest Bus Stops: Third and Broadway (3, 120 at Fourth and Broadway)