Having explored the county’s top burger spots over the past few years, I’m ready to draw two definitive conclusions. First: if the menu says a burger comes with the ‘house’ or ‘secret’ sauce, it’s always thousand island. Second: there has never been and will never be a “best burger in San Diego.” Great hamburgers range from fast food-like snacks to elaborate chef creations; judging them against one another makes about as much sense as comparing poodles to pit bulls. Each can be, in its own way, endearing. Rather than argue personal preference, let’s spend our time celebrating the abundance of options. We’re burger rich, y’all, and I’m not even talking about all the vegan stuff.
4101 30th Street, Suite C, San Diego
The food counter inside the North Park taproom of Rip Current Brewing got a major upgrade this year when the folks behind Monster Crafts Food Truck moved in. They didn’t miss a step transitioning from mobile to permanent kitchen, making a beer-friendly mark with tacos, sandwiches, and mac & cheese. But the unequivocal star is their Monster Burgers menu, built around half-pound patties of a fresh ground, all-natural beef, each a blend of short rib, chuck, and brisket. The Not So Basic sets the tone, with bacon, white cheddar, and onion jam for $12.50. But when you’re really feelin’ it, graduate to the $15 Make’n Bake’n, which adds slow roasted pork belly and fried egg.
7094 Miramar Road #105, San Diego
The folks behind this beer country counter restaurant opted to employ three positive adjectives to describe their sandwiches, so they have little choice but to deliver. When it comes to burgers at least, they emphatically do. In particular, with the unique concoction they call a California burger. It’s not inspired by the California Burrito, so you won’t find fries on it. Instead, its grilled brioche bun sports a half-pound, grass-fed patty, bacon, and a slab of warm brie cheese. When you bite into the burger, the brie crust breaks and the goopy cheese spills out like a fried yolk. More stupendous: there’s also a hunk of brie mixed into the succulent burger patty itself!
2333 Highland Avenue, National City
When the popular Barrio Logan taco shop expanded into National City this year, it expanded into burgerdom as well. The Taco Shop burger repeats as a daily special Friday and Saturday, and proves no less dripping with savor than its tortilla creations. For $11, including fries, you get a 5-ounce, bacon cheddar cheeseburger topped by chunky pico de gallo, sliced avocado, a mess of shredded lettuce, and my favorite touch: a generous slathering of cilantro mayo. This location doesn’t share the great craft beer selection of the original, but there’s a winning workaround to that. Just take your meal to Machete Beer House next door.
515 Mission Avenue, Oceanside
This beach-adjacent burger specialist offers a half-dozen tasty ways to dress up the angus beef of its classic cheeseburger ($7.10 for a 5-ounce patty). Ty’s Signature menu stacks toppings including roasted jalapeño, fries & guacamole, pastrami, and mac & cheese, and wild game burger options include buffalo, venison, elk, and wild boar. But a couple of higher-tier beef alternatives caught my eye: the Open Range burger showcases the distinctive (and more natural) flavor of grass fed beef ($9.90, 5-ounce). That would normally be my preference, were it not for the Kobe burger. Though not made with genuine, ultra-expensive Japanese Kobe beef, this American-raised kobe alternative yields an exceptionally tender and steaky burger ($11.15, 7-ounce).
475 Hotel Circle South, San Diego
Here are three terms I rarely associate with good food: Mission Valley, Hotel Circle, and Days Inn. However, with apologies to In-n-Out, this small, no-frills restaurant in the Days Inn on Hotel Circle may offer Mission Valley’s top burger. Credit chef Jeff Rossman, who practices farm-to-table principles and wrote a book of burger recipes. Here you may choose your bun (brioche, sesame, or lettuce wrap), substitute your all-natural beef patty (salmon, turkey, or vegan), and add toppings ranging from macaroni to crushed avocado. But if you stick to the All American Classic, what you’ll get is textbook cheeseburger: the perfect ratio of beef, ketchup, mustard, lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickle chips, and house sauce, a.k.a. thousand island.
1521 30th Street, San Diego
The burgers at South Park’s seminal craft beer pub have always been an indulgent affair: a 1/3rd pound of chuck, brisket, and short rib, stacked high on brioche and slathered with stuff like fried eggs, roasted chilis, raspberry preserves, and bacon; priced over ten bucks, with a side of potatoes. With a beer or two swishing around in your belly, ordering one is a commitment. A new burger on the menu goes a different direction. The Five Fiddy is a nostalgic, paper-wrapped, $5.50 cheeseburger — no chips. Think of it as a friendly concession to drinkers who just want to enjoy a quick, nourishing bite between rounds. It smashes a quarter pound patty, grilled crispy at the edges, on a flat bun with nothing but ketchup, pickles, and melted American cheese. It’ll go great with any beer you chase it with.
4727 University Avenue, San Diego
This recently opened bar from the owner of Aero Club sits in a part of town best known for ethnic cuisines and dive bars, but despite its name and whiskey-soaked pedigree, it’s primarily a burger and beers joint. But what a joint. The lovingly renovated structure shows off red leather booths and ornate copper ceiling tiles downstairs, with a lounge and patio upstairs. Wherever you sip, grab one of the grill’s simply constructed burgers: a half pound of angus beef with your choice of American, cheddar, or pepper jack cheese, on a bun encrusted with both white and black sesame seeds. Like the décor, every detail of the burger was considered, with even the pickles, tomatoes, and lettuce reminding us that, in basic terms, the cheeseburger is just a really great sandwich.