When I’m having folks over for burgers, I like to buy the premade ground-chuck patties at Iowa Meat Farms ($4.99/lb). The pack and portion are perfectly consistent, the price is close to supermarket ground beef, and the meat is the sort of meat you’d expect to find at an upper-tier butcher shop. I took a similar approach with this round of burger tasting: two of my picks are steakhouses, and two take their ground beef from an adjoining butcher shop. The move made intuitive sense, and I was not disappointed. As for the other three, well, you have to allow for surprises (a seafood joint), show-offs (hello, Hash House!), and old favorites in new locations (the wilds of Willow Glen Road).
1355 North Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego
Ruth’s Chris Steak House
Nota bene: you won’t find the burger on the menu: it’s a $14 bar item. But it’s a lovely bar, with cozy tables and a Harbor View. Two things make a burger “wet” — grease and juice. Grease is easy: just start with fattier ground beef. And grease is good, delicious, fine. But juice is trickier: how to trap it in a porous patty? And juice is what Ruth’s Chris has, along with a grind so fine you can crush it with your tongue. Complemented by perfectly precise quantities of lettuce, tomato, red onion, and tangy cheddar, and dusted with black pepper.
9350 Fuerte Drive, La Mesa
Brigantine Seafood & Oyster Bar
Why eat a burger in a midcentury local chain restaurant that features a ship’s prow in its foyer? Because (surprise!) the burger is every bit as juicy and beefy as any high-end steakhouse offering — hence the menu’s title of “Steakhouse Burger” ($15.25). Compared to, say, Ruth’s Chris, the bigger grind and grass-feed render it a little chewier, and there’s more char. But the meat holds up, shines through, and justifies its place. The onions are soft, the avocado relish carries jalapeño heat, and the bacon is especially thick and smoky.
3628 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
Hash House a Go Go
If Ruth’s Chris perfects proportion with its burger, the Hash House explodes it. (“The food always defeats you here,” said our waitress, smiling.) The stuffed burgers (two patties, $16.95) are not a challenge to finish; they are a challenge to surround with your mouth and bite. So much muchness, including our stuffing of bacon, avocado, and cheddar. This is burger as event, as theater, as performance. And it’s tasty! The meat oozes melty fat, teasing you to press on despite the density (both yours and the burger’s). Airy, seasoned waffle-cut fries are notable.
6118 Paseo del Norte, Carlsbad
Tip Top Meats
Don’t fret when you see the defibrillator across from the sausage case as you wait in this old-world deli’s dinner-rush line; it’s only there to restart your heart after you behold the shockingly low price for the Big John’s Cheese Burger. A half-pound of butcher-shop beef — lean, almost sirloin steak-y — on a rich, springy, eggy, best-of-the-bunch bun: $4.98. Besides the meat and bread, what you’ll taste most are the onions, grilled to the point where they are mild and tender but not yet caramelized. Add light-bodied fries and a soda, and maybe get bacon ground into the beef, and the cost rises by $2.
777 Jamacha Road, El Cajon
The Junction Steakhouse & Sports Bar
It was a hard day when I heard the Junction raised the price on its lunchtime burger special from $6.99 to $7.99, but that’s just the way things go. To cheer myself up, I went to the Junction for lunch and ordered their excellent burger special. I left happy. A great burger starts with great ground beef; the Junction gets theirs from the next-door Harvest Ranch Market. Probably my overall favorite in terms of texture: pebbly and yielding. And while my wife favors the house-made chips, they do a mean tater tot.
5255 Kearny Villa Road, Kearny Mesa
The Butcher Shop Steakhouse
At $17, the Stuffed Charburger was the most expensive I tasted. And the process of cooking the delicately fused Angus patties so that they melted the American cheese center to the absolutely correct temperature for warm gooeyness left them unavoidably medium instead of medium rare. But the experience was appropriately exalted: red leather banquettes, dark wood paneling, exquisite service, garlic bread, soup or salad, hearty fries, a toasted sourdough bun, and the general feeling of a happy time-warp to a time when the term “class joint” could be used without quotation marks.
3773 Willow Glen Drive, El Cajon
Nicky Rottens Bar & Burger Joint
It’s rare that a fancied-up burger can turn my head; I like the straightforward pleasures of meat and cheese too much to chase distractions. And I sometimes wonder: what are they hiding under that frou-frou? But I trust Nicky Rottens’ beef, and so I risked “Da Goat” ($13.95), which added goat cheese, tomato relish, and mixed field greens in a balsamic glaze to the more standard caramelized onions and bacon. It tickled every part of my palate: sweet onions and relish, sour cheese and vinegar, salty bacon, bitter greens, and the umami richness of the meat.