San Diego Bay is the reason San Diego exists. Juan Rodrigo Cabrillo must have been thrilled to find such a fine natural harbor back in 1542 after a long stretch of forbidding Baja California coastline. It’s still a fine harbor, though one that’s a little neglected by us who live along its shores. Maybe it’s the horrible Convention Center walling off the Bay from downtown, maybe it’s the corny-ness of Seaport Village, maybe it’s fear of airport traffic keeping people away from the Big Bay, as the Port of San Diego wants us to call it. It’s probably all three.
But I feel the winds of change blowing along our waterfront. The Embarcadero is looking good. Harbor and Shelter Islands seem more vibrant. Seaport Village will be replaced by something better. The Convention Center remains a monstrosity and an obstruction, but we can work around that in our quest to eat burgers and drink beer alongside the Bay.
200 Marina Park Way, Downtown San Diego
Speaking of working around the Convention Center, you have to drive around the south end of that giant eyesore and park at the Marina Park South lot to find Burgers, Bait, and Beer. It comprises a kiosk (where you order and grab a beer) and a mobile kitchen/grill parked nearby (where they cook the hamburgers). The chorizo-laden Baja Burger is the star here. The half-pound patty is wide rather than thick, it spreads to the edges of a brioche bun guaranteeing a meaty bite every time. The chorizo provides a luxurious juiciness while cotija cheese adds its tangy and distinctively Mexican flavor. It’s fitting, because from this outdoor eating spot a burger scarfer can see Mexico off in the haze to the south beyond the curve of the Coronado Bridge. Coronado glistens across this most narrow point in the bay. Sailboats, power yachts, jet skis, Navy ships, and craft of all kinds glide by on the water. Walkers and runners move along the boardwalk. It’s the kind of spot folks dream about, or spend thousands of dollars to see. I can’t think of a better spot to enjoy a burger and a Ballast Point Amber.
1004 North Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego
The porcine name of Carnitas disguises the fact that you can eat a terrific burger here. But the real star is San Diego. Comfortable year-round weather means an outdoor bar on the Embarcadero is more than possible, it’s an idea that should have come to fruition ages ago. One can sit here at any time of day and watch streams of people pad up and down the Embarcadero, and plenty more bellied up to the 20-by-20 foot square bar, while chowing down on an inch-thick patty complemented by leafy romaine and tomato on a flaky brioche bun. I have to give a demerit for the sweet pickle spear. Hamburger’s need dill, not sweet pickles. Alpine Brewing’s Duet paired well with the burger and the scene. As I chomped and sipped, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the lemmings jumping off the financial cliff at the high-priced steakhouses across the street.
550 Marina Parkway, Chula Vista
The nautical decor inside is high-end and fun to look at, as are the lady bartenders judging by the 15 guys crowded around the bar at any given time. The outdoor patio of Galley at the Marina is the place to be. Here a glass wall fifty feet long and ten high combines with the canvas roof to let the view in and keep the seagulls out. I find it fun to look out over the forest of masts in the marina, as I dine on the mushroom burger. At other places I usually hesitate to order mushroom burgers, because the ‘shrooms are so often cooked into mush. Not here. Softened a bit, but still smokey and delicious. I often hesitate to say medium when asked how I want my burger cooked. Again, not here. A perfect caramelized brown and hint of crunch on the outside, hot and pink on the inside. The half-pounder is served in a paper-lined basket with skins-on fries. With a belly full of burger goodness, I sip my Karl Strauss Red Trolley Ale and daydream that I’m captaining the Lahaina Lady — moored just across a narrow channel — up and down South San Diego Bay powered by the perpetual westerlies blowing in over the Strand.
2044 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
I know, it’s not on the Bay, but it’s near it and used to be even nearer. (In the Waterfront’s youth, the bay came up to Pacific Highway.) Regardless, no discussion of San Diego Bay, burgers, and beer would be complete or credible without this venerable tavern — which claims to be the oldest in San Diego — receiving its due. The burger is a third pound of medium cooked ground beef, squelching a slightly salty juice which combines with the pickle, shredded lettuce, slippery grilled onion, and tomato to make this a three-napkin affair. Caddy of condiments definitely not needed. The nautical photos, most from San Diego’s glory days as the tuna fishing capital of the world, covering every inch of the walls keep the eyes busy while the mouth is working. And a Ballast Point Cali Kolsch provides a nice light accompaniment.
2230 Shelter Island Drive, Shelter Island
It harkens back to a moment in local histories during which bigwigs were promoting the idea that you could have Polynesia right here in arid San Diego. Pretty silly. On the other hand, one can appreciate the workmanship of Bali Hai. The exposed pine posts and heavy beams inspire the imagination, and the downtown views are second only to Tom Ham’s just across the channel there. One demerit for not having beer on tap, but they carry quality locals in bottles. Karl Strauss’s Mosaic Session IPA makes for a lunchable drink, and it couldn’t taste better than it does with the cheeseburger here. It comes with truffle-black pepper mayo. I like it with the nutty sweetness of fontina cheese. (Hold the bacon and the egg.) Occasional Reader foodie Ambrose Martin is fond of burgers which taste of meat — not salt or grease. He’d be happy here. A side salad of greens, cucumber, ripe cherry tomatoes, and ginger plum vinaigrette make a refreshing alternative to fries. It’s nice to eat off a heavy plate at a white-clothed table overlooking the bay and leave full and lightly glowing for under 25 bucks after tax and tip.
2150 Harbor Island Drive, Harbor Island
What a view! If it’s not the best downtown skyline view in San Diego, Tom Ham's is in the top three. What a burger! The waitress said medium would mean hot pink in the middle, browned on the outside, and that’s exactly what it was. The balsamic braised onions add the good-to-great touch. They supply a sweetness that makes ketchup unthinkable, maybe sacrilegious. The tartness of feta and the garlic aioli provide balance. And I swear that’s an heirloom tomato slice peaking from beneath green leafy lettuce. The brioche bun couldn’t be improved upon. Ten gold stars to Tom Ham for offering its impressive local beer list in 4-, 8-, and 16-ounce pours. Acoustic Ale’s ShakeYour Money Maker brown ale on nitro perfectly complements the caramelized meat and onions. Four bucks for an eight-ounce pour. Perfect for lunch. And for an extra two bucks why not try a four-ouncer of Beacon #9 Lager brewed specifically for Tom Ham’s Lighthouse by Ballast Point.