Kirbie's Cravings

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Burger challenge

Every month Foodbuzz has a 24, 24, 24 event.  24 meal proposals are chosen, and all 24 meals are to take place on the same day.  It’s a pretty cool concept, and this month, my proposal was chosen by Foodbuzz!

My proposal was to do a San Diego burger challenge to find the best burger that San Diego has to offer. For my challenge, I chose four other people and together we had to try five burger joints in one day, to determine the best burger place in San Diego.

I’ve been wanting to do a review of San Diego burgers for a while.  San Diego is known for its great weather, beautiful beaches, but it isn’t exactly known for its culinary achievements.  I often am complaining about the lack of good eats in San Diego.  However, while San Diego isn’t brimming with well known chefs and restaurants, it has gotten some recognition for its burgers.  CNN has featured Hodad’s as one of the “Five Tasty Burger Joints Worth Visiting.”  Hodad’s has also been featured on the food network show “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.”  Rocky’s Crown Pub burgers have been featured on A Hamburger Today.  So I thought it would be fun to do a challenge, trying various “best burger” places in San Diego, and determine once and for all what is the best burger in San Diego  (at least in my opinion).

So, first, let’s meet the brave participants who were willing to taste so many burgers:

Me: Why do I feel qualified to judge burgers?  I love burgers and have eaten quite a few in my time.  I used to snack on burgers from McDonalds and Burger King as an after school snack before dinner.  Burgers are one of the few foods I can never resist.  You know those Carl’s Junior commercials with a guy eating a burger and not wanting to be bothered?  Well I’m not a fan of Carl’s Junior burgers, but I have to confess, I find that commercial so sexy.

Boyfriend:  Boyfriend is what I consider a “Meat Boy.”  He loves meat and only meat.  He loves burgers and eats them at least once a week.

Allie:  Allie loves cheeseburgers, and eats one at least once a week.  She also just loves eating in general and was definitely up for the challenge.

Chris:  Chris is a foodie like me.  He likes eating almost as much as me, and is a regular reader of my blog.  He loves a good burger as well.

Devon: Devon is another meat boy.  His idea of a great meal is a big, fat juicy steak.  He also has a really big mouth.  I’ve seen him eat a Big Mac in 3 bites.  So I had to take him along.

Next, the criteria.  I read quite a few articles for descriptions of what people used when writing about a good burger.  Then based on everything I read, I chose the five criteria I thought to be most important and created a ranking system for the burgers.  Sticking to the theme of 5, I chose 5 criteria and the point system was from 1-5.  The criteria are as follows:  juiciness of the meat, flavor of the meat, components of the burger, the burger bun, and overall taste.

When designing my criteria sheet, one thing that bothered me for a while were fries. I almost always have fries with my burger.  So should fries be judged?  I know not everyone has fries with their burger, but the two go hand in hand most of the time.  Yet I also didn’t feel it was fair to punish a good burger that is accompanied with bad fries.  So I designed a bonus score.  A burger joint could be rewarded up to one point for really great fries.  They could be rewarded half a point for above-average fries, and if they have below average or just average fries, then they wouldn’t get the bonus, but wouldn’t receives any deductions either.

Next, the burger joints.  How did I determine which joints to choose?  Well I did quite a bit of research.  I looked on the internet for articles, polls, talking about the best burger joints in San Diego.  I looked on yelp.  And finally, I read burger posts by my fellow San Diego food bloggers.  The burger posts by Roger from the Fifth Deadly Sin, Charlie from Clayfood, and Kirk from mmm-yoso!!! were especially helpful.

The five burger joints I ended up going with were: Hodad’s, Rocky’s Crown Pub, Burger Lounge, Bare Back Grill, and Neighborhood.

My initial plan had been to try to do five burger joints in five hours, sticking to the “5” theme.  However, I soon realized this was not going to work out as many of the joints on the list were completely packed with long waits.  So we made some last minute changes, and decided to get all the burgers to go.  Ideally, it would have been nice to get all the burgers and then go home and try them out all at once.  But we didn’t want the burgers getting soggy while sitting in the car.  So we began eating and driving, making this a real challenge.  Messy burgers, one car with five people, and trying to take photos?  It was one fun trip.  And luckily we all survived and no one had a heart attack from all those burgers.

So now the burgers have been consumed, the results have been tallied and without further ado, here are the results:

Fifth place: Neighborhood, 777 G St, San Diego, CA 92101, (619) 446-0002

I had high hopes for this place, so its last place ranking was quite a letdown and disappointment.  Neighborhood was our final destination on the crazy burger joint tour and so we were allowed to enjoy the burger in the comfort of a home, with a table and ample seating room.  The set up of the restaurant is quite unique.  I’m not quite sure the theme they are going for.  The inside is quite dark, so dark that Allie observed that they probably saved quite a bit on electricity.  I found it a bit odd that there is outside seating that faces the street.

The most interesting thing for me is if you visit the website, the opening page is a picture of Jesus eating a burger.  This picture is displayed inside the restaurant as well.

I had high hopes for this spot because I read good reviews on yelp and by my fellow food bloggers.  We had decided to sample two different burgers at each location.  One that is as close to the traditional American burger as possible, and one that is a bit different, but a popular option.  So at Neighborhood, we chose to sample the Neighborhood burger and the Spicy Canjun rubbed burger.  We also ordered a side of Idaho potato fries and a side of sweet potato fries.

Cajun burger with sweet potato fries:

Neighborhood burger with Idaho shoestring fries:

Here’s a close-up of the caramelized onions.

First, the good:  The fries here were ridiculously good.  Well seasoned, full of potato flavor, despite their thinness.  Prior to sampling the fries here, we had mostly been content with the fries of the other joints, with some complaints of lack of flavor, lack of crispiness.  But after sampling the fries at Neighborhood, all the other fries pretty much sucked in comparison.  Also the Idaho fries at $2 was the cheapest side of fries offered.  And a side was plenty for all five of us to get a good sample amount.  It was unanimous.  Everyone agreed that Neighborhood offered the best fries of the bunch and it was awarded a full bonus point by each participant.  Sadly, this did not help their score.

Now the important part: the burgers.  The burgers are served on a Ciabatta bun, making Neighborhood the only joint to stray from the traditional hamburger bun.  I worried the bread wouldn’t work with the burger.  However the bread worked out quite nicely.  The problem was the meat.  One bite of the Neighborhood burger and I noticed that I tasted something bitter.  What was it?  Then I took a bite of the meat patty itself.  And almost spit it out.  It was bitter.  Very bitter.  Bitter to the point where you’re not sure if it’s safe to swallow because you might be getting poisoned kind of bitter.

What was interesting was that the inside of the patty was barely cooked.  When asked, we ordered medium rare.  Neighborhood’s was definitely the pinkest of the bunch — even a tad too rare for my taste.  How they managed to create such a burned, bitter, charcoal taste on the outside and not cook the inside is a mystery.

Now with all the great reviews of Neighborhood, I doubt this is the standard burger that they usually offer their customers.  Obviously something had gone really wrong in the cooking of the patties on our burgers.  Chris suggested that perhaps they had chosen to clean the grill right before putting our burgers on it.  While I would have liked to sample what Neighborhood normally serves, at the same time, they shouldn’t be serving this kind of burger to anyone.  Since we were not at the restaurant, we couldn’t send it back.  I’ve never sent a food item back in my life.  But this burger was bad enough that I would have.  Everyone took a small taste in order to complete their review, but the majority of the burger remained untouched.

The cajun burger was only slightly better in the fact that the sauce was masking some of the bitterness.  However, neither burger fared well.  We even contemplated whether we could award 0’s because a 1 seemed too generous.  But that would mess up the scale.

Here are Neighborhood’s average scores:

Juiciness of meat: 3.4  While the meat might have tasted awful, it was by far the most rare burger we were served.  Even to the point of being too rare for me.

Flavor of meat: 1.4  Bitter meat led to low, low scores.  With the lowest score possible being a 1, we were forced to give 1s, though some people rewarded a little higher for the cajun burger.

Components of burger: 1.75  The components of the burger didn’t do much to enhance the taste. The cajun didn’t offer much more other than the addition of some pickled relish and cajun sauce.

Burger Bun: 3.1  In general, the burger bun didn’t do much despite its unique bread offering.  It didn’t hurt the burger but it didn’t enhance it either.

Overall taste: 1.75  The taste was strongly affected by the patty obviously.  Some people felt the cajun burger was at least edible and gave it a bit higher marks.

Fourth Place: Burger Lounge, 1608 India Street, San Diego, CA 92101, (619) 237-7878

Burger Lounge was on quite a few lists as the best local burger joint in town.  This was my first visit to Burger Lounge and I was quite disappointed.  Had the burger patty at Neighborhood not been disastrous, Burger Lounge would have been my last pick.  The set up of Burger Lounge was not what I expected.  It is a bit like a high-end fast food spot, with its order at the counter and find your own seats set up.  With its name, I expected quite a few burgers on the menu.  Boy was I surprised to learn that they only offered three burgers:  beef, turkey or vegetarian.  The menu is quite sparse.  With so few options, we ended up sampling the Grilled Lounge Burger and the Grilled Turkey Burger.  And we ordered a side of fries.

The fries were surprisingly tasty.  They had a nice seasoning on them. Not as good as Neighborhood’s, but definitely above average.  Then came the burgers.  I found the burgers to be tasteless and dry.  Normally I enjoy turkey burgers, but if this had been my first encounter with a turkey burger, I would never eat a turkey burger again.  The restaurants boasts its fresh ingredients, grass fed beef.  Does grass fed mean tasteless?  Overall, no one was impressed with Burger Lounge.

Turkey burger:

Beef burger:

Juiciness of meat: 2.8  People were mixed on the juiciness of the patty.  I found it to be dry, despite seeing the light pink color in the meat.  Others thought it was above average.

Flavor of meat: 2.8  The general consensus was that the meat lacked the necessary seasoning to make it a good burger.

Other components of burger: 3.1 Some enjoyed the addition of the caramelized onions, others did not. Overall, the components did not seem to help or hinder the burger too much.

Burger Bun: 3  Some gave it props for having a not soggy bun.  Some didn’t like the taste of the healthier multi grain bun.

Overall taste: 3  Overall, this was an average burger.  A disappointment for a place specializing in burgers.

Bonus for fries: 1/2  Some enjoyed the seasoning, some didn’t enjoy the fries.  An average of 1/2 a point was rewarded, signaling above average fries, but not out of this world good.

Third place: Bare Back Grill, 4640 Mission Blvd, San Diego, CA 92109, (858) 274-7117.  Its website boasts that it has been voted best burger in San Diego for the last four years.  I read quite a few positive reviews as well.  At Bare Back, we sampled the Average Joe and the Bare Lil Lamb. We also ordered a side of fries.

Bare Back was our first stop of the night. While we unwrapped out burgers immediately inside the car after receiving our order, we were surprised to find the buns already beginning to get soggy.  The thickness of the buns saved them from being a total mushy loss.  The majority found the thick layer of mustard to be a bit too heavy.  The sweet bare back sauce was enjoyed by some and disliked by others.  Overall, everyone agreed the burger patty itself was fairly juicy.  However, the overall taste was much like any typical restaurant burger, and no one thought it deserved being voted best burger in San Diego.

Average Joe:

Lamb burger:

Juiciness of meat: 3.6  The meat was definitely above average in terms of juiciness and the cooks knew what they were doing when grilling up these patties.

Flavor of meat:  3.4  I enjoyed the flavor of the meat, and could eat the patty by itself.  It was the most well-seasoned of all the patties we tasted in my opinion. The lamb meat also had a wonderful flavor to it.  You could taste the lamb but it wasn’t too gamey.

Other components: 2.6  Complaints ranged from too much mustard, too much sweet bbq sauce, to the lettuce being too limp.. No one was a big fan of the components of the burger

Burger bun: 2 The sogginess of the bun gave it its low score.

Overall taste: 2.8  Overall, we agreed this was like any other restaurant burger.  It was tasty, but it didn’t stand out.  Disappointing after the rave reviews.

Fries: Initially we enjoyed the fries.  They were crunchy and had salt and pepper.  I thought they were missing more seasoning.  They did their job, but they became quite average after we sampled the fries at Neighborhood.  So no bonus was awarded.

Second placeHodad’s, 5010 Newport Ave, San Diego, CA 92107, (619) 224-4623

Long line at Hodad’s

Sometimes restaurants live up to their hype and sometimes they are overhyped.  I’ve never been to Hodad’s and I was afraid that the hype for this place was too big.  So my expectations weren’t too high when I came to this joint, and I was pleasantly surprised.  While I wouldn’t stand in the long line that greeted us when we arrived, I enjoyed this burger, and the burgers were priced far cheaper than the other competitors, with a single bacon cheeseburger priced at $6.25.  In fact, the burger was so cheap, I worried the patty would be too small, so we ordered one single and one double.

Single bacon cheeseburger:

Double bacon cheeseburger:

When we got these burgers, we were immediately surprised by the weight.  Were we carrying burgers or carrying a large bag of rocks?  Each burger was quite hefty in weight.  Upon opening the single, it was clear that the single bacon cheeseburger was more than enough.  The double looked like a heart attack waiting to happen.

Hodad’s burgers have been hyped for the bacon patty.  I don’t know if you would call it a patty.  It seems to me more like a hunk of ham…except bacon.  It’s not the crunchy, fatty bacon strips you normally find.  This bacon hunk is chewier, and has a consistency more like a ham jerky almost. I enjoyed it nonetheless.  The other components of the burger really sing as well.  The pickles, lettuce, tomatoes and sauce are all piled in abundance, letting you truly taste the other components of the burger.  In the end, it was the components that allowed Hodad’s to place second.  The burger patty itself is nothing to be excited about, but the components made this an enjoyable treat.

We also sampled the fries, and the milkshake.  At $5 we found the milkshakes to be overpriced and not anything special.

The double burger was piled so high, that I had to take a picture of it next to a coke can for comparison.  I opened my mouth as wide as possible, and could not fit the entire burger into my mouth in one bite.  However both Chris and Devon were able to. Here’s some video footage for your enjoyment:

Juiciness of meat: 3.75  The patty was nice and juicy…not much else to say.

Flavor of meat: 2.8  Where the patty suffered was in flavor.  It needed a bit more seasoning.

Other components: 4.6 While I barely noticed the components of the other burgers, Hodad’s is loaded with components and really allows them to stand out.  I didn’t think it detracted from the burger, though it made it hard to eat with everything piled so high.  I worried that the burger would be all component and small patty, but the patty was generous in size as well.  I loved all the components of this burger from the shredded lettuce, to the infamous bacon patty, to the sauce.

Burger bun: 2.3  One could ask, “what bun?”   The bun was very thin, perhaps because the burger is already stacked so high.  But so many components need a big bun to keep them in place!  Not only was the bun thin, but it was soggy with all the sauce, and the bottom bun was practically nonexistent.  Everyone agreed that a bigger bun was needed.

Overall taste: 4.  I always thought that the burger patty was the most important component of a good burger.  Hodad’s proved me wrong.  With a below average patty, Hodad’s still managed to score high with its eaters due to its emphasis on burger components.

Fries:  0.2 The fries here were seasoned wedges.  While I thought they were just average and needed to be crispier, some enjoyed them and awarded some bonus.

First placeRocky’s Crown Pub, 3786 Ingraham St, San Diego, CA 92109, (858) 273-9140

Its first place finish should be no surprise to local San Diegans.  In fact the general consensus among San Diegans I’ve spoken with seems to be that either Rocky’s or Hodad’s serves the best burgers in San Diego.  As a group, we felt the honor went to Rocky’s.  I have to admit, at first bite, I didn’t think that this was the best burger I had ever tasted.  However, I enjoyed the flavors of the burger, which were so darn simple yet so tasty.  Rocky’s, in my mind, is the perfect backyard bbq burger that you imagine in your mind, but usually it never tastes quite as good.  Rocky’s is a pub, and their burger menu is no frills.  Your choice is cheese, no cheese and 1/2 pound or 1/3 pound.  We went with two half pounds, one with cheese and one without.  We also ordered a side of fries of course.


Regular hamburger without cheese:

Juiciness of meat: 4.2  The meat was very juicy.  No complaints from anyone.

Flavor of meat: 4.7  The flavor of the meat wasn’t what I expected.  It didn’t have a lot of seasoning, yet it wasn’t bland either.  Whatever they add to the meat is subtle, and lets you really enjoy the flavor of the meat.  It’s natural, without being bland.  Much like a backyard bbq burger.

Other components: 4.  I felt the components did their job and complemented the burger just right, while still letting the meat be the star.  Some really enjoyed the use of fresh onions.

Burge bun:  4  I always thought I liked my buns toasted until I ate Rocky’s.  It’s enomours soft bun is the perfect compliment to its large burger.  And it was one of the few buns that was not at all soggy.

Overall taste: 4.5  It’s the quintessential American burger.  I thought my top choice would go to something out of this world.  Something with melt in your mouth meat, lots of seasoning, unique components.  While other burgers offered different components, different meats, different seasonings, they all lacked in other compartments of the burger.  Rocky’s, despite its simplicity, managed to hold everything together and serve up just a simple, good tasting burger.

Fries:  The fries had a great potato flavor but were utterly lacking in any seasoning at all. The bland taste made these the least favorite fries of the bunch.

So there you have it, the result of our burger challenge.  It was fun, and we were quite full by the end, with everyone consuming about 2 full sized restaurant burgers with fries and drinks.  Thanks to Foodbuzz for sponsoring this fun event and choosing my proposal.

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12 comments on “Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Burger challenge”

  1. Terrific post…I wonder if any newcomers have stormed the scene since then? I notice Rocky’s listed as SD’s best burger on your Favourites page!

    • There’s been a huge number of burger places that have opened in SD since this post, but Rocky’s is still my number 1.

  2. Pingback: Smashburger Del Mar | Kirbie Cravings

  3. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Before I started food blogging, I basically did not do much exploring of San Diego food despite being here for a few years. My blog has really let me venture out and I’m amazed by how many restaurants there are around here. I love trying new places!

  4. I’ve been in San Diego since the 90s and I must admit I have never been to any of the places you mentioned. And I love burgers! Guess it’s about time I try venturing out…LOL. Dang, those photos are enough to make me drool!!!
    Excellent Foodbuzz 24 post!

  5. I’m glad you liked the post! It took me a really long time to write. haha. Almost all the burgers ranged between 8-10. the Hodad’s was slightly cheaper for the single. Neighborhood was the priciest I think.
    I do enjoy In n Out. Though it’s not my favorite burger in SD. I think its definitely the best fast food burger, but I prefer restaurant burgers. I like how restaurant burgers are bigger, with a thicker meat patty.
    I’m surprised you didn’t like Hodad’s because Hodad’s reminded me a lot of In n Out.

  6. I don’t think I’ve ever had a burger in Taiwan other than McDonald’s. Do you think they taste the same even though the size is different?

  7. I was quite disappointed with Burger Lounge too. I’d rather eat a cheap fastfood burger over the burgers served here.

  8. Wow – incredible post Kirbie! This post should get an award of some kind.
    I loved how you posted each person’s burger ‘resume’.
    I tried Hodads last year (for the first time ever) and found it ok. I’m one of those ppl that felt that it didn’t live up the hype..
    The Neighborbood burgers looked really really rare. That bitterness taste would freak me out so bad. Did you complain to them? How was the cost of the burgers?
    So here’s the question – what do you think of In N Out? I hate to say it, but most times than not, at least for me, In N Out takes the cake. I’m always trying to find a place that will take that cake away from In N Out (here in SD), but so far, nope, haven’t found that burger joint.
    I will for sure try Rockys.
    Thanks for the wonderful post!

  9. damn, that makes me want to have a burger.. the burgers here are not as big though, and maybe that’s a good thing. LOL

  10. I have been to burger lounge a few times, and each time were bad experiences. Perhaps they should take the “burger” part of the name and leave it at “lounge”. the inside was rather cozy, but the burgers are a disgrace to its name!

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