The Tacoburger: Part Two

It's all about the plancha at Benny's Mexican Food in Golden Hill.

During the day, it just looks quaint, maybe even homey. After dark, Benny’s Mexican Food (1244 30th Street, 619-238-1740) in Golden Hill has some horror movie qualities. It looks closed even when it’s open, as if to say, “You shouldn’t come in here and you get what you deserve if you try.”

Be brave. Step through the doorway. Regard the nothing-more-brown decor and the chewing gum for sale at the cash register.

Soak in all that is not beautiful at Benny’s, then order a cheeseburger. Better yet, make it a double cheeseburger. It doesn’t cost much, but how does it taste so good?

For starters, the bun glistens with an oily sheen, having been soaked and toasted on the plancha, the flat-top grill that’s warmed ten thousand tortillas and finished off countless orders of carne asada of the years. A paucity of toppings permits the focus to stay where it should: on the burgers. Each burger oozes juice and grease. The meat cannot be more than 80% lean, and it’s probably less. The taste is unmistakable. It is the flavor of the plancha.

Permit a tangent here. In Chinese cuisine, there is a phrase, “wok hei,” which means, “the flavor of the wok,” or close to that. It’s a way of describing the taste imparted by a high-carbon or cast iron surface that’s been covered with a coating of carbonized food over the years. That, in conjunction with the extraordinary heat used to fire a traditional wok, gives legit stir-fry its succulence. Much the same thing happens on a good flat-top, one that’s been used for years of burgers, decades of carne asada and carnitas. When the flat-top is seasoned well, each bite of hamburger tastes like a lifetime of savory meat, onions, garlic, and whatever else has graced the surface of the grill.

It is a seasoning that comes before and goes beyond spices and sauces.

It’s subtle, but that’s what makes a truly great tacoburger. This is the basis upon which every elegant variation--some bad, some great--must be built.

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