I eat them rare. I eat them piled high with toppings that range from the conventional to the absurd. I eat them with forks and knives like a perfect gentleman; or I eat them with my bare hands and without heed for the inevitable onslaught of juice, grease, and condiments. I order them at nice restaurants, and I order them at places where burgers have ordinarily no business being served. Above all, I do not discriminate, and I believe in no one way to make a burger. Thus, ranked from most to least conventional, here are some of my local burger choices.
9862 Mission Gorge Road, Santee
5375 Kearny Villa Road #101, Kearny Mesa
At its old-school heart, Anny’s meat/cheese/special sauce formula hearkens back to the progenitive Bob’s Big Boy, whence sprang every thousand island-dressed burger in Southern California and beyond. Anny’s feels very L.A., kin to the ubiquitous, independently owned “charburger” joints still thriving in LaLaLand, but which have mostly fled San Diego, if they ever had real presence here at all. As such, Anny’s basic burger offers no frills on a tender, buttery brioche bun. One might also order burgers piled high with pastrami, onion rings, or chili from the wall-sized menu; but eighty-plus years of history inheres in the basic options, and I admire them for that.
Anyone who happens to live up in Ramona probably already knows the Grill is the spot to go for a burger. I would call the vibe there “rancher chic,” maybe 40 percent country music and belt buckles, with the remainder a mix of hipster craft beer, jalepeño poppers, shark tacos, and burgers big enough to feed you twice. Those who reside down the hill needn’t write the Grill off as too remote. I could find worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon than riding my motorcycle up to Ramona via Highland Valley road, polishing off a patty melt at the Up the Hill Grill, then taking the long way home via Wildcat Canyon. I’m just saying.
4805 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa
When the ramen burger first became a thing, I vigorously nay-said it as categorically impossible to eat without having it “disintegrate after the first bite.” I recant. So long as eaten with utensils, ramen burgers are now fine by me. Common Theory smothers ground chuck in cream cheese and gravy; tops it with kimchi, pork belly, and a sunny-side egg; sandwiches the whole thing between two “buns” of compressed and griddled pasta and calls it a Convoy Burger. To anyone I may have offended or misled on the subject of ramen burgers, mea culpa. One caution: the bun kicks high-level spice game. Common Theory has regular burgers for those who can’t handle the hotness.
7767 Balboa Avenue, Kearny Mesa
Tradewinds puts an elegant spin on the otherwise delightfully low-key loco moco. Fried rice is a little more interesting than the plain, white stuff. The gravy has a zesty kick more intriguing than mere brown packet gravy. Finally, they add Spam and bacon to the mix, as though a more Spartan loco moco were somehow insufficiently salty and indulgent. The kitchen puts out a more conventional burger at the same $13 price point, but, unless you’ve got some aversion to Spam, gravy, burgers, and sunny side eggs all sharing a plate (and I wouldn’t necessarily blame you if you did), it’s loco moco or bust.
3520 Ashford Street, Kearny Mesa
The “burgers” here are at once a stroke of genius and a streak of pure heresy. Compressed patties of Thai-style sticky rice fulfill the duties of a conventional burger bun. Where the majority of burger joints seem to reflect a substantive “more toppings, more better” policy these days, Thai Burger Co. bucks the trend by concealing a modest layer of plain, meaty filling between the two rice patties. Every filling is some variation on sweet, tangy, spicy Thai meats-in-sauce; and customers can add a dash of cucumber salad, or an egg, if they please, but the devilish simplicity of the Thai Burger works gustatory magic by honing in on simple flavors and letting them be. I’ll let you make up your own minds about the squid balls.
3533 Adams Avenue, Normal Heights
Fishermen call 200+ pound tuna “cows,” so you can make burgers out of them and not really be cheating. Poke Co. packs its Hawaiian-style raw fish salad between two, furikake-seasoned rice patties, which is pretty heckin cool, and about as far as you can get from a conventional burger and still use the word with a straight face. But it’s the Hot Cheetos that really get me. I don’t know where the Poke + Flamin’ Hot Cheetos thing came from, but I love the weird contrast between basically the healthiest thing you can eat (i.e. raw, lean tuna) and neon orange science food that exhibits a property called, I am not making this up, “vanishing caloric density.” It exists, it’s called the Oh No Burger, and I dig it.