Summer’s here and the time is right for grilling. But if you’re too lazy, don’t have a yard to grill in because this is real estate-impacted Santa Barbara, or you just prefer dining out, our panel of food writers has immodestly decided to name Santa Barbara’s Top 5 Burgers, one of which, in true S.B. style, doesn’t even have meat but still passes muster.
Many places boast of hefty-priced hamburgers, but price has nothing to do with goodness. Part of wondrous food experiences are memories invoked, and Char West serves up cheeseburgers that send me fondly back a decade (or so) with each bite. I’m no longer a teenager cruising into the Char West on upper State, but when mackin’ down on their burgers, I can vividly recall boys I had crushes on and the ankle-turning Candies shoes I was wearing.
Char West’s cheeseburger was messy then : messy still. The patty offers a slightly charred grill-mark emblazoned outside hiding a tender inside. The cheese is not too overpowering but perfectly gooey. The tomato is red, the lettuce crisp and green, unlike the dullish stuff slapped upon other burgers. The buns fall apart attempting to contain the juiciness.
The upper State Char West no longer exists, but one still remains tucked away on Stearns Wharf (221 Stearns Wharf, 962-5631). For a modest price, you can grab a Gordo Burger and relish a breathtaking view of our little red-tiled paradise. Keep those $95 burgers. The best burgers in Santa Barbara are those that truly taste like home.
- Jill Johnson
The best burger for veg heads is Natural Cafe (508 State St., 962-9494; 361 Hitchcock Wy., 563-1163; 5892 Hollister Ave., Goleta, 692-2363; thenaturalcafe.com), which actually offers three different vegetarian options. Of the three, the Zen Burger scores highest for overall flavor and texture. A whole-grain and vegetable patty, the Zen comes on a whole-wheat bun with lettuce, tomato, sprouts, and a smooth garlic mayo, with blue corn chips and salsa on the side (sorry, no fries). Veggie burgers can suffer on the grill, turning gooey or tooth-crackin’-crunchy if mishandled, but the Zen is consistently delicious.
The tempeh Good Karma Burger has a definite soy-saucy, slightly Asian flavor, with a heavier texture. The Natural Burger, topped with grilled red onions, is a soy-based, Boca Burger-type patty, the most “meatlike” of the three, reminiscent of those thin burgers at fast food joints. Despite that comparison, it’s a good sandwich.
For vegetarians with carnivore friends, or a heavy craving for fries or onion rings, Natural Cafe’s partner restaurant, Kahuna Grill (7010 Marketplace Dr., Goleta, 685-3711), can dress up a plain ol’ Garden Burger with sauteed mushrooms or chilies until it’s ready to hula out the door.
- Chryss Yost
As a pet project on a menu that is almost exclusively seafood, the Hungry Cat (1134 Chapala Street, 884-4701, thehungrycat.com) features the Pug Burger (named after owners David Lentz and Suzanne Goin’s dog) as a satisfying alternative for meat lovers. The Hungry Cat’s appeal to sophisticated and experimental palates is complemented by its casual flair. Sitting at the copper bar, you can watch the action happen as the chefs assemble various plates, while bartenders whip up specialty cocktails from freshly squeezed juice.
To make the Pug Burger, a fist-sized sirloin patty is piled almost as high as it is wide on top of grilled brioche with deliciously thick and crispy bacon, bleu cheese that melts from the heat trapped between the bun, and avocado. Accompanied by humongous onion rings, this decadent burger is more than just the sum of its parts. You aren’t left with many restaurant choices if your company is in the mood for raw oysters on the half shell and sea urchin while you’re craving a burger, but the Cat provides the perfect venue to satisfy both.
- Joanie Hudson
An important aspect of a best burger is its ability to represent the town it is served in. The Santa Barbara Burger at Quantum Kitchen & Cocktails does just that: It combines the Hispanic influences that are inescapable in Santa Barbara with the avocado, truly the gem of California cuisine.
Your first look at the burger makes your mouth water - it’s brought to you in a wooden box reminiscent of your favorite fast food diner service or a bento box at a sushi restaurant. Served atop a grilled potato bun, the charred beef burger is brimming with roasted green chilies, pepper jack cheese, smoky guacamole, and pico de gallo, almost like having a chile relle±o on a bun. If that isn’t enough, crisp lettuce, sliced red onion, juicy tomatoes, and chopped jalape±os are presented alongside the burger for the consumer’s discretion.
To complete the true burger experience, Quantum (201 W. Carrillo St., 962-5999, quantumrestaurant
.com) serves theirs with your choice of sides; the burger aficionado will go for the sweet potato fries, whose sweetness provides the proper complement to the spicy burger.
- Amanda Mummert
You know the Paradise Burger will live up to its name as you can smell it grilling over the oak wood even before you enter the restaurant, which, let’s face it, is the definitive Santa Barbara venue: a charming patio, an intriguing mural in the bar, a lovely, pleasant wait-staff, a vibe casual but just hip enough to be special.
Paradise Cafe’s (702 Anacapa Street, 962-4416, paradisecafe.com) burger is a half-pound feast of beef done to your liking, best with cheddar and grilled onions. You can have bacon or avocado, but that’s just overkill, and I say that loving both. What’s crucial is that the burger’s onion bun has just enough personality without getting in the way.
With the cafe’s well-chosen, fairly priced wine list, that burger can taste so much better with a Jaffurs Petite Sirah or a Rh’ne blend with a bit of age on it - a Ch•teauneuf-du-Pape will bestow a papal, tannic blessing on your meal. A good wine and a good burger are a coupling as tasty as Brad and Angelina, but your meal will be paparazzi free.
- George Yatchisin