East County tops nobody’s list of areas rich in exceptional dining experiences. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few quality places to grab a burger east of Highway 125. Some appeal to a sense of nostalgic Americana. Some thrive within the spirit of modern-day Americana. All speak in warm tones to that part of the soul that can only be soothed by ground beef on a bun.
10053 Maine Avenue, Lakeside
Eastbound was hopping at lunch time last time I was in. All of the 25 or so tables and most of the 20 bar stools were filled with a clientele ranging from blue- to white-collar. It feels like Anytown, Amerca, in here, in a good way. It’s in an old downtown setting (though for some reason it’s Maine Avenue, not Main Street) and it’s clearly a local crowd enjoying good food, a well-stocked bar, and a relaxed atmosphere in their own neighborhood. I like the Eastbounder burger ($9.95), a soft-ground half-pounder with just the right amount of lip-licking saltiness oozing from the center. Fresh lettuce, gourmet pickles, perfectly caramelized onions add to the goodness. The fries here are addictively crunchy. My veggie-hating son got the bacon grilled-cheese burger ($11.95), which is the kind of meaty, cheesy, bready thing of teenaged dreams. He appropriated my side of chili ($4.95) — surprisingly good — and made a chili cheese melt out of it. Wow!
8910 Troy Street, Spring Valley
The locale couldn’t be grittier — recycling centers, junkyards, used-tire shops with hand-painted signs. Cali Comfort is an oasis in this desert. It’s clean, spacious, well-appointed, well-staffed, and well-populated. Like at Eastbound, the locals seem to appreciate the place being in their neighborhood. On a recent afternoon about 1:00, a dozen patrons bellied up to the fully-stocked bar, where a couple of dozen beers — craft and domestic — are on tap. The barbecue here is award-winning. So I figured if they can perfectly barbecue a brisket, they can handle the grinding and frying of a burger patty. I figured right. My waiter recommended the Aztec ($13.99). Glad I asked. It features a thick spread of guacamole on one half of the bun and grilled jalapeño slices fused to the thick patty by means of melted provolone. Shredded lettuce, beefsteak tomato, purple onion, and two pieces of bacon complete the flavor party surrounding this patty.
9566 Murray Drive, La Mesa
Few of this species of the genus Restaurantus remain — the mostly windowless, low-ceilinged, low-lit, table-clothed restaurants that folks called “fine dining” in the mid-20th Century. It’s the kind of place where the well-stocked bar sits tastefully separated from the dining room. The Charcoal House survives because they do it well and unapologetically. Their burger ($8 lunch, $12 dinner) is a great example of this spirit. It is a throwback to the notion that a hamburger is an honest staple of the American diet, not a canvas for artistic expression. It stands on its own power, unlike so many gimmick burgers whose slippery layers prevent structural integrity. The meat, purple onion, shredded lettuce, and tomato stack soundly on the toasted bun. The patty is handformed to happy-medium thickness, and speaking of medium, when you ask for it cooked medium, by cracky, it’s medium — brown with a hint of pink, and juicy in a meaty way, not salty or greasy. Condiments are available but not needed.
2754 Alpine Boulevard, Alpine
The checkered interior and photos of hot rods hanging on the wall of Fred's harken to the 1950s and ’60s, as do the old-timey stamped-metal advertisements for motor oil and the like, and the lumpy fries. The burgers are gimmick-free — bun, meat, cheese, tomato, thick white onion — and if you want bigger, you ask for double or triple meat. Perhaps the traditional burger-joint motif serves to manage expectations, because the burgers exceed them. You can see it in the better-than-usual quality of the bun, freshness of the veggies, and juiciness of the meat. And you can really taste it. I like the half-pound bacon ($6.35), but I double like the patty melt ($5.05), because toasted sourdough and grilled onions.
2110 Birch Road, Chula Vista
Way down in South County, less than a mile east of Highway 125, at the corner of Eastlake Parkway and Birch Street lies — no surprise — a strip mall. Anchoring that strip mall, foodwise, is an In-N-Out. But if you want a good hamburger, skip it and walk 100 yards across the parking lot to Bubba’s. Thing is, hamburgers are made of meat, and barbecue people know meat. Instead of a goodish fast-food burger lubricated mostly by melted American cheese and Thousand Island dressing, you can have the Say Cheese Burger ($8.99), lubricated by the juice of the thick, hand-formed 100 percent Angus patty and cheddar cheese. If you want, you can add one of two house barbecue sauces (one sweet, one with a vinegary kick) available in dispensers, but I bet you won’t want to. This is a burger that need not hide behind sauce.
It looks like a bar, but Brody's is beer and wine only, which means it’s an all-ages venue and my nine-year-old son was able to sit at the bar with me. That surprised a couple of old day-drinkers nursing brews. But the little guy turned out to be a good bar buddy. He held forth on all his favorite topics from the French Revolution to how the American Indian got a raw deal from the white man (unusual kid). All I had to do was keep smiling and nodding while chowing down on the Western burger ($10.79) recommended by the bearded barkeep. It’s a Bread & Cie bun stuffed with a half-pound patty covered with spicy onions and barbecue sauce. Lettuce, tomato, and pickles come on the side. A half-pint pour (why don’t more places offer half-pint pours?) of Mammoth brown ale ($3.50), one of over 30 beers on tap, washed it all down nicely. The burger, the beer, and the bar buddy couldn’t have been better.