I take burgers a little too seriously.
I’m the guy who gets all up in your grill at a summer barbecue: critiquing patty formation, warning to only flip it once. I preach salt and pepper as the only seasonings a patty needs, and that American slices are no substitute for actual cheese. Making a good burger isn’t rocket science, which is exactly why it’s important to set a high bar. I can get a burger anywhere, so why waste time eating a mediocre one? I’ve tried many San Diego burgers once. These are the ones I go back for.
4030 Goldfinch Street, Mission Hills
3448 30th Street, North Park
Lefty’s Chicago Pizzeria
Ordering a burger at a pizza restaurant may sound misbegotten, but Lefty’s perfectly named Char Cheddar Burger has been a favorite nearly ten years now — just saying the words out loud elicits drool. These days, the restaurant calls it a Char Cheeseburger to highlight the availability of provolone and swiss. But what the menu won’t tell you is that a Blue-Cheese Bacon Burger is also an option. Maybe it’s a secret menu item, maybe the Lefty’s gang are just cool with custom orders. Either way, the main thing to remember here is this one irresistible burger word: char.
2228 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
Juniper & Ivy
Speaking of secret menu items, Juniper & Ivy’s Hidden Burger may be the worst kept since ordering the Double Double animal style at In-N-Out Burger. Which is fitting, because that’s exactly what chef Richard Blais modeled this burger after. Sometimes referred to as the “In-N-Haute” burger, this fine-dining riff closely resembles the original, at five times the price. With due respect to the paper-hat crews churning out untold millions of In-N-Out burgers each year, this skilled chef’s upscale version proves worth the extravagance. High-end ingredients and dry-aged fat mixed into the patty elevates the fast-food classic.
11480 N. Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla
The Grill at Torrey Pines
The Lodge at Torrey Pines is best known for fronting the world-famous golf course and employing acclaimed chef Jeff Jackson at its upscale A.R. Valentien restaurant. However, Jackson’s handiwork may also be enjoyed at the hotel’s casual eatery. The grill’s seasonal menu always features its standout Signature Burger. The Drug Store Burger takes inspiration from classic Americana, simply rendered with Niman Ranch ground chuck, pickles, and fixin’s on a house-baked bun. The whole thing is steamed before leaving the kitchen to maximize moistness and — for my money — best enjoyed at sunset from the eatery’s newly built, Craftsman-styled, coast-facing patio.
16761 Bernardo Center Drive, Rancho Bernardo
2002 S. Coast Highway, Oceanside
Before getting lost in this coastal brewpub’s deep beer and whiskey menu, check those burgers. Some carry over from Urge’s original Rancho Bernardo restaurant, such as the avocado, fries, and cheddar-topped California Burger — best seller at both locations. Don’t let the name scare you off from the Garbage Burger, though. Starting with a half bacon, half Angus beef patty, this one brings out the best of both, with grilled onions and mushrooms, white cheddar, and horseradish aioli adding to its savory succulence. A pillowy soft potato bun holds this juicy beast together admirably well, while soaking up some of that booze.
1004 North Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego
2632 University Avenue, North Park
Carnitas Snack Shack
You’ll find few chefs as devoted to bringing out the best in meat as Hanis Cavin, and his attention to detail shows in the Snack Shack burger. Not interested in sacrificing flavor if it means trimming the fat, Cavin orders grass-fed beef a low 70 percent lean, opting for a thicker than average chili grind to give the burger a steakier bite. That juicy goodness gets seared into the patty, topped by aged Vermont cheddar and served on a lightly crusty Amish bun. Finally, the pork-loving chef puts his signature on this favorite of mine with a singular topping: bacon jam.
3120 Euclid Avenue, City Heights
Nate’s Garden Grill
Some purveyors of grain-fed cattle will tell you grass-fed beef tastes too gamey, too grassy, or too lean. I think it’s fantastic. If you’re with me, seek out Nate’s, the rustic restaurant attached to City Farmer’s nursery. Its grass-fed beef isn’t just more nutritious and better for the environment than the corn-fed standard — it’s got more flavor, and that adds up to an exceptional burger. Organic toppings and a Bread & Cie bun complete the wholesome picture. I love that the place serves great beer and allows dogs on the patio.
380 K Street, Downtown San Diego
8970 University Center Lane, University City
Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
Once far and away the city’s best burger deal, the $6 prime cheeseburger at Fleming’s goes for $8 these days, and even that price is good only between the hours of 4 and 7, and only if you’re sitting at the bar. Regardless, every ounce of the half-pound burger is worthwhile — it’s pieced together from the steakhouse’s excess of prime-grade meat, resulting in the sort of top-shelf quality that rarely stoops to the level of mere burger. Oh, yeah: and it’s topped by bacon and your choice of cheese, so do not sweat those extra two bucks.