My favorite scene in Pulp Fiction is when Vincent Vega, aghast that Mia Wallace orders a five-dollar milkshake, asks for a taste because he’s “gotta know what a five-dollar milkshake tastes like.” After a brief discussion about straws and cooties, he takes a sip, furrows his brow, takes another sip and declares “Goddamn! That’s a pretty fkin’ good milkshake.” That’s exactly how I felt when I first encountered a 15-dollar burger on a poolside menu at a nice Maui resort, many, many years ago. Fifteen dollars? For ground meat in a bun? The scales fell from my eyes soon enough when that thick, juicy, perfectly charred yet medium rare baby showed up in a basket that included not only piping hot golden shoestring fries but ethereal battered onion rings, too. Since then I’ve eaten many fancy-pants burgers, some scrumptious, some so-so and some downright ridiculous.
What makes a $15-plus burger worth your hard-earned money? Certainly not the kitchen-sink approach I’ve seen employed on occasion. I want good beef, lamb, or game meat freshly ground and hand-pattied in-house, well seasoned, and cooked to the doneness requested. Toppings can be simple or sophisticated, so long as they make sense together, and I always appreciate seeing a creative kiss — a good smear of zesty lemony aioli, a smoky-sweet bacon jam, or a spicy fruit compote.
741 W. Washington Street, Mission Hills
Long a proponent of using seasonal, local, ethically raised ingredients, the Red Door sources their grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free burger meat from Autonomy Farms. The half-pound beast of a burger ($18) is a thick, well-seasoned patty, always cooked perfectly to your liking and tucked into a toasted bun. In addition to your choice of melty American or aged cheddar cheese and caramelized onions, there’s a generous smear of zippy, addictive lemon aioli that sparkles on your taste buds. Ask for a little cup on the side for dipping the hot, crispy fries. I love pairing this burger with a Blue Smoke Martini, an inventive combination of icy cold Ketel One, a blue cheese olive, and Laphroaig float.
2202 Fourth Avenue, Bankers Hill
Freshly ground chuck at Bakers Hill Bar is the key ingredient in the BH Burger’s ($17) meaty, juicy, half-pound patty. Simply garnished, the burger’s thick slab of gooey aged white cheddar cheese adds sharpness, fresh heirloom tomato lends a sweet note, and tangy, neon-pink house-pickled onion adds a nice acidic bite, all nestled into a buttery brioche bun. Golden-brown parmesan-topped shoestring fries are a fine accompaniment, but I always spring for the yummy house-made lemon-pepper potato chips, too. Wash it down with my favorite, the Rose and Crown cocktail, a heady mix of gin, pistachio-infused syrup, rose water, and lemon.
16480 Paseo del Sur #105, Black Mountain Ranch
The Public Burger ($14.50) at Waypoint Public is the picture of simplicity, thick and meaty, draped in oozing aged white cheddar, crisp lettuce, juicy tomato, and sharp onion enlivened by roasted garlic aioli, all perched on a gourmet bun. If you must gild the lily, though, do go for the Waypoint Burger ($16.95), that same hearty burger, this time under a blanket of smoked tomatillo pulled pork, spicy house-pickled vegetables, and a sunny-side-up-egg. While you’re at it, try one of the ever-changing libations on draft or in bottles, perhaps a Boochcraft Grapefruit Hibiscus Heather kombucha (7% ABV), B. Nektar Zombie Killer Cherry Cyser or Golden Coast mead in sweet to dry versions. Extra points for the family-friendly enclosed kids’ play areas at both locations and monthly storytime and family movie nights in North Park.
2228 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
Inspired by In-N-Out’s Double Double, the In-N-Haute Burger ($17) at Juniper and Ivy is made from a custom blend of ground short rib, brisket, chuck, and dry-aged beef fat. The mustard is grilled right into the patties. Crowned with American cheese, grilled onions, bread-and-butter pickles, and a house-made animal-style sauce on a brioche bun, it captures the best elements of the Double Double and cranks them to 11. Thrice-cooked fries come alongside. Pro tip: The In-N-Haute is an off-menu item, and go early if you have your heart set on ordering it — a limited number are prepared daily.
2632 University Avenue, North Park
1004 North Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego
Better known for their pork-centric cuisine, the folks at Carnitas Snack Shack have an excellent burger game, too. The least expensive of my favorites at $9.25, the Centerpiece is a blend of coarsely ground chuck and brisket from Hamilton Meats, hand-pattied and sporting plenty of crusty speckles from the grill. Lush melted Cabot white cheddar, lettuce, tomato, Shack aioli, and a smoky-sweet bacon jam complete the flavor bomb. A side of sweet corn salad comes gratis, but try the fries ($3) as well — they’re lightly dusted with Baker Shake seasoning for another hit of spicy-sweet golden-brown goodness.
627 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Werewolf is the place to go for mild to wild burger indulgences, from the basic Kiss to the pork belly, fried egg, and blue cheese aioli-topped Triple Threat. I go for the Full Boar ($15.95), a 1/3-pound wild-boar patty, tasting a bit like a cross between beef and pork, a bit darker in color, succulent and juicy. Besides the usual toppings — jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, crispy onions — there’s a generous dollop of brilliant blackberry jalapeño compote, a tangy, spicy foil to the slight sweetness of the burger. If your dining budget is running low, happy hour runs Monday through Friday from 3–6, when you can get $4 draft beers, well drinks, and house wines and 50 percent off all appetizers. Plus, guests receive a free lotto ticket with the purchase of every drink.
1851 Bacon Street, Ocean Beach
Another good choice for the adventurous eater, Raglan Public House’s monster burgers are made with 10 percent grass-fed beef and feature eclectic topping combos, like the Sheilas Cracked, topped with fried egg, edam cheese, and beetroot. I love their lamb burgers, especially the Bare Lil Lamb ($14.90): house-ground leg of lamb, blue cheese, mint dressing, beetroot, lettuce, tomato, red onion, tomato chutney, and garlic aioli stuffed into an herb-flecked bun. Since it’s a messy, drippy sort of meal, go ahead and add an egg on top for an extra buck fifty, grab a handful of napkins, and dig in.