Monday, 12 March 2012
Cheese and Biscuits on tour - The Burgers of San Diego
There's a very widely-read blog called A Hamburger Today, all about - you guessed it - burgers. It's an offshoot of the hugely popular US website Serious Eats and as you might expect largely focusses on that part of the world (with the occasional foray abroad to the usual suspects), but it is nevertheless an interesting and pleasingly unpretentious bulletin of what's new in the burger world. AHT is just as likely to cover the revamp of the Carl's Jr. chicken burger as a gourmet $25 offering from a top restaurant, and clearly makes an effort, geographically speaking and budget-wise, to be as inclusive as possible. But very early on I couldn't help noticing how many top-rated burgers of all shapes and sizes and prices came from one place - San Diego. I took with me on my latest trip a wishlist of over 15, which for a stay lasting only 14 days is, you will appreciate, rather ambitious. And of course I didn't get to try all of them but like the fearless gastro-tourist I am I bloody well did my best.
Perhaps the first thing I should point out is that, contrary to any hugely overinflated expectations I may have had about "San Diego, Burger Mecca", not every last one I ate was worth the effort. It seemed that the more we spent, the fancier the surroundings and the more slick the service, the poorer the sandwich, a fact illustrated most neatly by an evening meal in Avenue 5, Banker's Hill where everyone on our table enjoyed a perfectly pleasant meal apart from those unlucky enough to order the cold, tough, overcooked, tasteless house burger. Which was only me, of course. But I'm not going to dwell on those that didn't make the cut; instead, here are my top 5 burgers of San Diego.
5. Miho Gastro Truck
It shouldn't be a surprise that in a city, or at the very least a state, that has a good case for claiming to be the birthplace of the street food revolution, food trucks are still the first place to go for something lovingly crafted and determinedly unique. Miho Gastro Truck do a range of gourmet sandwiches using premium ingredients popular with their well-heeled and well-fed following, such as the extraordinary buttermilk fried chicken and biscuit sandwich (above) and a lamb burger (more unusual perhaps in the states who don't eat anywhere near as much lamb as we do). But the vaguely Europeanised MGT burger, with its grass-fed beef, black pepper and truffle aioli and caramelized onion, is a thing of rare beauty. The preseasoned beef (I think) created a denser patty than you'd otherwise find but the sweet brioche held together well and I could even ignore the pesky addition of rocket - it made sense in the context of everything else. MGT also do a burger containing candied bacon. Catch 'em while you can.
Various locations in San Diego - check the website for more details
4. Neighborhood Bar
The menu at the Neighborhood Bar is a thing of wonder to an American food junkie like me. It's no word of a lie to say I wanted to order every last thing off it, from the bacon-wrapped mini hot dogs to the braised beef ribs to the grilled cheese salad. Hell, I'd even quite like to try the veggie bean burger with Swiss cheese. But on our visit we managed to whittle down our choices to a heaving pile of pasilla chilli cheese fries, a ridiculous looking thing called the Local Animal (a Polish sausage soaked in pulled pork and gravy with a fried egg on top - every bit as filthy as it sounds) and, of course, the Neighborhood Burger. Simple and satisfying, it contained just three fillings - caramelized onion, gruyere cheese (always a good choice for a gourmet burger cheese I find) and pepper greens for colour and crunch. The bun was a kind of sourdough mix of some kind, robust and full of flavour, but the real star was the beef, confidently medium-rare and boasting that addictive buttery minerality of USDA.
3. Waterfront Bar & Grill
A glorious, unreconstructed dive bar in Little Italy, I fell in love with the Waterfront the moment I walked through the doors. Noisy, dark and full of grimy nooks and crannies, the food is perfectly in character with the surroundings, being unapologetically junky and all the better for it. Starting with a portion of Buffalo Chicken Wings (crunchy, zingy, perfect) I soon got to work on the Waterfront Bacon, a glossy mound of medium rare beef, crispy bacon and neon-yellow American cheese. Excellent pickles, salad on the side and the crunchiest fries in Southern California just sealed the deal. A hoot, and actually the closest thing in style I ate during my trip to the MeatLiquor burger.
Well, it had to feature somewhere. There's always the worry when you try and revisit a great lunch that it will fail to live up to the time-gilded memories, but it's testament to the extraordinary quality and consistency of In'n'Out that a Double Double with fries and a root beer was just as brilliant in 2012 as 2010. In many ways In'n'Out is a kind of objective ideal of a cheese burger - enjoyable, familiar and reassuring while also superbly fresh (you can easily watch the whole process whilst you wait for your food - I bet you don't know many fast food joints in the UK that peel and chip their own potatoes) and, of course, delicious. The real revelation this time though was rediscovering the fries - golden brown, crunchy outside and soft within, they had the most incredibly potatoey flavour. I have simply never had better potato chips anywhere else.
1. Carnitas Snack Shack
Picking a winner amongst competition like this was never likely to be straightforward, but the monumental Shack burger has posed a completely unexpected problem - namely, I know in my heart it's my favourite, I know it's better than any other burger I ate in San Diego, but I have no idea why. On first glance it is nothing extraordinary; a heavily poppyseeded bun, lettuce, cheddar, tomato, beef. But strange and wonderful things happen when you bite into it. Firstly, you will notice that the beef is powerfully flavoured (grass fed I believe, an increasingly common specification in the "gourmet" end of San Diego burgers) and cooked cleverly to a juicy pink despite being quite wide and not too thick (anyone can cook a burger the size and shape of a baseball to pink). Then you will notice the addition of a thin slick of bacon jam just underneath the top bun, which much like the candied bacon in the Miho burger adds a sweet and savoury seasoning and an extra tranche of flavour. And then - and I can hardly believe I'm saying this - the tomato. The juiciest, tastiest, most tomato-ey tomato I've ever tried in a burger, traffic-light red and oozing heavenly umami, it was as unexpected as it was brilliant. It's possible the bacon jam enhanced the tomato in some strange way, or maybe it was some kind of rare breed heirloom vegetable ripened under the bright California sun and picked during a full moon. I just don't know. And anyway it's not just the tomato that made this special - although I've done my best to try and figure it out, I still don't really know why the Carnitas burger was so good. It just was. Perhaps that's all that matters.
I'm tempted to end on a somewhat controversial note. I ate incredibly well in San Diego for not very much money, the sun shone, the fresh IPAs flowed freely and every minute was a blast. But if - only if - I am to focus my attention for a second purely on the burgers, I reach the inescapable conclusion that actually, ignoring the higher prices and the weather and the Piccadilly Line, the best of London really can hold its own nowadays with the best of Southern California. There are many more worse meals to be had generally in the UK than in the easygoing service culture of the USA but when passionate, talented people hunker down and make good food, be it in WC1 or 92104, geography becomes irrelevant. So I'm going to just come out and say it, and of course I'm hopelessly biased, but the best I've ever eaten is still the MeatLiquor Bacon Cheeseburger. But perhaps a return trip to San Diego and a 2nd trip to Hodad's is in order. Just to be 100% sure, you understand.