At its essence, it’s a beef patty ensconced in a simple white bread bun, perhaps a smear of ketchup atop. But Americans, in our never ending quest for new flavors and combinations, love to think up new ways of adorning them. Lettuce, tomato, and onion is the classic garnish combo and the gold standard for many. You might gently push the boundaries with caramelized onions, a pungent aioli, or an unusual cheese. But why stop there when you can enhance the patty by adding a bit of bone marrow, slipping a sunny side up egg under the top bun or drizzling a fancy sauce over it all? Whether your taste is classic or anything goes, my favorite burgers have a little something for everyone.
4592 30th Street, North Park
The Friendly is actually a pizza joint, and it scoffs at conventional burger rules — the Dirty Flat Top ($5), gets squeezed on the griddle to within an inch of its life, but the result is a burger I think about over and over. I don’t know how they manage it, but the patties are crisp and caramelized, with a thin, pink, perfectly juicy middle. Two burgers are stacked with gooey American cheese, topped simply with softly grilled onions, between a buttered and griddled white bun. Ketchup or other condiments aren’t available, but you won’t miss them. Go ahead and add a slice of pizza to your order. At $3.50 per, it’s a shame not to, and you can munch on it while you wait for burger nirvana.
1909 India Street, Little Italy
You’d expect a fine dining steakhouse to do a fine burger, and Born & Raised does not disappoint. Using a 50/50 mix of ground aged and dry-aged steak scraps and a bit of bone marrow for a luxurious flavor and mouthfeel, only around fifteen eight-ounce patties are available daily. Brioche buns are freshly made by sister restaurant, Ironside. Drizzles of classic Marie Rose dressing, frizzles of fried onions, savory cheddar cheese sauce and a disk of crunchy pancetta hit all the right notes. Of course, you can’t put just any old fries next to such a decadent burger; a stack of precisely cut Pommes Pont Neuf are moistened with a touch of garlic oil, baked, then flash fried to order, ready for dunking in garlic aioli. Don’t skip the house made pickle. It’s a spicy, tangy palate cleanser.
1863 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
I love a great dive bar, especially one that not only serves up a delectable burger, but has a solid menu of old-school classic cocktails. The third-pound, custom ground Balboa Burger from Balboa Bar and Grill, grilled on a flat top to a nice char, is piled with fresh lettuce, tomato, onion, a smear of zesty garlic aioli, and oozy melted American cheese. It’s nestled into a freshly baked, toasty bolillo bun from a bakery in Barrio Logan and sturdy enough to soak up all the succulent juices without falling to pieces halfway through your meal. It’s a deal at $8.75 and a steal during happy hour from 4-6 daily, when it’s a mere $5, plus a buck off cocktails.
2201 San Dieguito Drive, Del Mar
It’s not unusual for breweries to also serve great food, but Viewpoint Brewing Company takes the Backyard Burger a step further. The patty, fresh from Chula Vista’s Hamilton Meats and Provisions, is crowned by a house-made brewer’s cheese infused with hefeweizen and a bit of Marmite. It has a creamy, complex flavor that complements the tangy remoulade sauce, also house-made. Iceberg lettuce, tomato, and grilled onion complete the garnishes, all tucked into a Sadie Rose brioche bun. Wash it down with one (or two) of 20 brews as you kick back and enjoy the expansive views of the San Dieguito Lagoon.
1805 Newton Avenue, Barrio Logan
Originally a pop-up serving the area’s breweries and farmer’s markets, Mishmash set roots down in Barrio Logan in 2016. The Cheese Louise, an off-menu item, is ⅓-pound, hand pattied in house using ground beef from Barrio Logan’s Butcher Block Meat Market. Upping the wow factor is your choice of four different flavors of house-made American cheese — regular, jalapeño, habanero and the soon-to-be-released scorpion pepper cheese. The Thousand Island liberally applied to a toasted Sadie Rose bun is truly made from scratch; even the aioli base is handmade. Don’t skip the fries, either. Hand cut, Belgian style, they’re twice fried and accompanied by your choice of two sauces from a list of nine, all house-made, including a vegan spicy chipotle option.
Sofia Hotel, 140 W. Broadway, Downtown San Diego
I’ll admit that what first drew me into Currant’s elegant surroundings was a sign outside that promised $8.00 Beefeater martinis on Mondays, and who couldn’t use a good strong adult beverage on a Monday. But I also loved the Brasserie Burger, a half pound of Hamilton Meats and Provisions ground beef, expertly done medium-rare. Inside the Sadie Rose bun is a bit of wilted arugula, melty aged white cheddar, and caramelized onions. Soft butter lettuce leaves, ripe tomato slices and piquant house-made pickles round out the embellishments. If martinis aren’t your thing, other days of week have their own deals, including Bulleit bourbon and rye, half-price bottles of wine, and Lucid absinthe specials.
4090 Adams Avenue, Kensington
Bleu Boheme’s Frenchified take is anything but conventional. The Croque de Garçon stars Angus beef, ground in-house, served open-faced on a slice of buttered, toasted brioche, adorned with brie, a slice of crunchy Duroc ham, melt-in-your-mouth slow cooked onions, and a runny fried egg. Of course, crispy, herbs de Provence-sprinkled pommes frites are the perfect side dish. Over thirty wines are available au pichet (quarter- or half-liter) to wash it down.