Burger-hunting is like looking at stars. First glance, they’re all the same. But as you get closer, catch a visual of green herbs or red peppers being sprinkled onto a flat patty, or just get a nostril-full of that barbecuing meat, you start to realize that burgers can be way different from one another. And even if the burger isn’t that different, if it’s just a good deal, I’m as happy as if it was some exotic wagyu beef burger sizzling in yak butter. (Hey, brand that idea!) I’m always looking for original takes. Because burgers are like UFOs: discs of disc-covery that can really take you places. The cooks are our pilots. Or, hey, our gastronauts?
1551 Shelter Island Drive, Shelter Island
Vessel is a classy place. It’s part of the yachter-haven Kona Kai Resort. You’re sitting at a circular bar, expecting to be dinged a thousand bucks for a glass of water, but hit happy hour and score these amazing, four-buck sliders that look too arty to eat. My fave: the luscious Kona beef slider — a tippy tower of lettuce, tomato, guac, smoked bacon, cheddar, crispy onion, and that slab of melt-in-your-mouth Kona beef. Chomp, sit back, listen to all the Cap’n Ahabs’ tall tales.
969 Ninth Avenue, East Village
Maybe it’s the egg yolk. Maybe it’s the chili. Maybe it’s just ’cause Dog Haus calls this the Hangover Burger ($7.49). Whatever, I swear (from a late-morning experience) these burgers — even if they’re from a hot dog joint — help with the morning after. They have white American cheese, smoked bacon, Haus chili, that fried egg, and mayo. And, maybe the best thing when you’re in a, well, delicate state, it all comes in the nice, gentle package of a sweet King’s Hawaiian split roll. Also, they have a full bar, just in case you need the hair of the (hot) dog.
2204 Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, Ocean Beach
Okay, everything at Plant Power is vegan. That aside, burgers taste meaty-real, and you don’t have to wait while they grow your “meat,” “mayo,” “cheese,” or “bacon.” But for total smug healthiness, go for the Rawburger ($7.95). It comes wrapped in a big veiny cabbage leaf. Looks straight out of Jurassic Park but is actually tasty as anything. Patty is basically walnuts and sunflower seeds, topped with cashew hummus, lettuce, tomato, and onion. Also good: the Rambler burger ($7.95), with crispy onion rings. Bonus: absolutely no cholesterol in any food here. Extra bonus: no creature suffered in the making of your meal. Except the cabbage.
The Cove Café (Thorton Pavilion) 9300 Campus Point Drive, UCSD
Hospital food? Don’t go ’way! This staff and patient café has two things going for it. One, it cares about calories, happy cows, cheerful chickens, healthy customers. Two, it delivers salads, sandwiches, and, yes, burgers, for a song. And their burgers keep folks coming back: The sirloin cheeseburger’s lush and a steal at $4.38 ($4.60 with cheese), and their chicken-breast burger ($4.38, $4.60 with cheese) must be a half-pounder. Calories: 550 for the sirloin beef with cheese, about half what you’d be downing at, say, TGIF’s. And the chicken burger’s 520 with cheese, 400 without. Heck, that’s almost healthy.
795 Carlsbad Village Drive, Carlsbad
Think Al’s Cafe in the Village, think Hawaii. The guy spent 25 years there, so you know pineapple is going to figure big in his burgers. And the Hula Burger ($8) is one sweet-savory deal, with swiss cheese, spicy mayo, and grilled pineapple on the patty. Also for the price you get soup, fries, fruit, or salad thrown in. And Al’s stories of life in the islands. Most Hawaiian burger(ish) dish? Loco Moco ($9), the “Hawaiian beach boys’ breakfast.” It’s a beautiful mess of hamburger patty, eggs, rice, and beef gravy. “Sumo-style” gets two patties. Goes great with their Kona coffee. Be early. He closes at three.
715 J Street, East Village
When it’s midnight and downtown’s closing its kitchens, Bub’s at the Ballpark stays open, welcoming. Their kitchen doesn’t close till 1 a.m. You could really impress your date with a Schm’Animal burger ($15.62), basically two burgers piled high with all the fixin’s. But their Woody Ballpark Sliders ($12.93) are maybe even more delicious, a tasty concentration of ground brisket, sirloin and short rib. Somehow, at this time of night, they all taste delicious. That three-slider combo is just enough to get you home.
1495 Poinsettia Avenue #152, Vista
Braise: fry lightly, then stew in meat’s own juices in a closed container. The French perfected this slow steaming method to transform cheap, tough cuts into tender meats. So we’re talking flavor, and these guys at California Braise have hung their shingle out on braising meats to deliciousness. It totally works on their braised pork sandwich ($8.95). Comes in an Amish burger bun, with house-made pickles, grilled onions, and chipotle aioli. It is so rich in flavor. Ditto, the beef sandwich ($8.95). Best way to eat these: leaning forward beside their food truck, letting drips hit tarmac, or your nice white T-shirt.
Highway 67 at 12381 Mapleview Street, Lakeside
Find this dusty li’l ol’ house in the madness of Lakeside’s rodeo grounds traffic, and you’ll understand why Cafe 67 calls their hit burger the Gambler ($10.35). It’s a combo of ham and bacon, with avocado, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, plus jack and American cheeses, and it’s country-big. So is the excellent Ranger’s Texas Burger ($9.95), stuffed with sautéed onions, green chilies, jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, and — the kicker — it’s on grilled egg bread. Also pretty wicked: Clark’s Frisco Burger ($9.95), with standard fillings but on grilled sourdough and sprinkled with parmesan cheese. Just remember: everybody knows everybody, so be prepared to talk.
1501 E Street, East Village
Okay, we know 10 Barrel is part of Budweiser and gang, but they make good beers right here in East Village, have a great view from their new building, and grill up a pretty good burger: the 10 Barrel Burger ($12). Best thing about it is the grilling. The meat’s Wagyu and chuck, and they grill the edge of the meat patty to a great crunchiness. Also, Sadie Rose buns (ask for the barley soup, the perfect accompaniment).