More so than other foods, it’s tough to crown which restaurant, bar, cafe, hotel, shack, stand, gas station, backyard or deli has the best burger in town. One reason being that almost every place has a burger on the menu. It’s almost a prerequisite. Once you think you have a handle on all the top burgers in the area, someone blurts out “Have you every tried Bru’s Wiffle burger? It’s the best.”
Why would I go to a waffle joint for their burger? It doesn’t matter, the seed has already been planted. Now I have to go. The proverbial game of Whac-a-Mole continues. Try one said great burger only to read L.A. food dynamo Jonathan Gold has just anointed Cora’s Cafe version one of his favorites. It’s a vicious, yet delicious cycle.
The palate comes into play as well. It’s tough to sell someone on a balsamic fig and brie burger when all they want is In-N-Out. A burger set in its simplest form can be a magical thing. Conversely, a complexity of textures and flavor profiles can yield pure bliss. The bottom line is there is no one burger to rule them all, nor is their one authority to give a burger top honors.
I have, however, devised a road map of noteworthy burger places around town based on some solid years of pigging out. If I forget to mention your favorite burger, I apologize, but this is hardly an Academy Award acceptance speech.
There is little dispute that Father’s Office boasts the best burger on Montana Avenue. The no-substitutions Office Burger (arugula, bacon, caramelized onions on a French roll) is uncompromisingly good. However, the burger is put on such a high pedestal that it’s hard to live up to such hype. Furthermore, the service seems intentionally terrible to uphold some sort of pretentious reputation. Plus the place is always packed. R+D Kitchen down the street is a worthy alternative.
On the other side of town The Counter made the build-your-own burger the cool thing to do. There are multiple locations, but the original is here in Santa Monica on Ocean Park Boulevard. Unlike Father’s Office, there are endless options to customize your burger. Consider The Counter a safe place to go with an indecisive group. For more flare try the Hawaiian-themed Shaka Shack burger on 17th Street. Offerings from Chef Lisa Stalvey (former head chef at Spago on Sunset) include grass-fed beef on sweet Hawaiian-style buns. With daily specials, a popular black bean veggie burger, and an eclectic island atmosphere, Shaka Shack burger is a nice diamond in the rough.
East on Pico Boulevard, Upper West has outstanding food top to bottom. Chef Nick Shipp’s burger is no exception. The loosely packed seared patty, topped with bitter greens, sweet onion compote, and a peppery goat cheese on toasted brioche is certainly high concept, but executed perfectly. Aside from an amazing burger, many bloggers and fellow foodie blowhards have been clamoring over their veggie burger as the best ever. Stay tuned.
Down on Main Street where every other business is a bar or restaurant, burgers are in abundance. After having burgers at many of the bars, I find the Brick + Mortar $10 happy-hour burger (onion marmalade, cheddar, lettuce, tomato, horseradish mayo, on brioche) is tough to beat.
On and around the world-famous Santa Monica Pier are two gems — Big Dean’s and Pier Burger. Both places serve up great burgers, sans the fru fru. Big Dean’s gets the nod if you want to kick back a few beers too. But both places deserve high praise for exceptional burgers at reasonable prices. Double points for holding court on the pier, where grilling up overpriced garbage to tourists is usually the norm.
Mid-City is home to my personal favorite burger in town, Hole in the Wall Burger. The do-it-yourself burger joint fries up some massive burgers. There are many options to choose from, but I strongly suggest the pretzel bun. Normally a pretzel bun is too hearty and bready of a vessel, but matched with such a sizable patty, a certain burger synergy is born. Other Mid-City notables include Truxton’s and the aforementioned Bru’s Wiffle. It’s certainly on my to do list, along with Rustic Canyon and a dozen other places. My doctor suggests adding some salads to that list.
The seemingly endless list of burgers gets even longer when sizing up Downtown Santa Monica. Umami being the most notable, but places like Pono Burger and Burger Lounge have also been welcome additions to the scene.
Just when you think the area could not get more saturated with ground beefy goodness, Stout recently opened its doors on Santa Monica Boulevard just off Ocean Avenue. The well-known Hollywood purveyor of fine burgers and craft beers has made its way to the Westside. Stout’s philosophy is all about proper burger and beer alignment. As a matter of fact, their menu emphasizes which burgers pair best with certain beers. It’s a crafty way to showcase their selection of artisanal beers and an easy up-sell too. The burger list is relatively simple, six in all, with a couple ground chicken and veggie burgers on top of that.
The company I was with all agreed that the burgers, medium in size, were not overwhelmed with an array of toppings. The burgers were just hipster enough. While I did deviate from the suggested IPA pairing to go along with my SHU Burger (pepper jack, light bell spread, spicy chipotle sauce), thankfully I did not spontaneously combust.
Our server was very knowledgeable about both the burgers and beers, but she was overwhelmed by a packed dining room, which translated into a long wait time for our food. Stout Santa Monica is new, so leeway is given where leeway is due. However, factor their seating, popularity and location, and they are in for some large crowds for the time being.
So many burgers, so little space left in the arteries. It’s a daunting task to try ‘em all. They’re all winners in my book. That’s my cop-out answer. Perhaps finding who has the best kale in Santa Monica would be better for the ol’ ticker.
If you go
Stout Burgers & Beers
111 N. Santa Monica Blvd.
Santa Monica, Calif.
Michael can be seen riding around town on his bike burning calories so he can eat more food. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/greaseweek