SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA
Ninety miles north, Santa Barbara is Los Angeles's favorite weekend retreat; a red-adobe-tiled sliver of Spanish colonial buildings, emerald mountains, and sandy coves. Among the matchless Mexican food, epic hiking, and good surfing, there are a few great burgers hiding. This weekend, we traveled up the California coast to visit one that has been overlooked by time and taste buds.
Plenty of the Inland expatriates who reign in Santa Barbara, feigning local status after a four-year stumble through UCSB, like to run around proclaiming the burgers at The Habit are the best in town. I had The Habit's burgers at the popular State Street location a year ago but was not so impressed. (Still, I'll revisit The Habit now that A Hamburger Today guides my eating regimen.)
True Santa Barbara locals, however, know what Char West is capable of. There was a time when this shack held burger dominance in SB, with a few locations dotting the picturesque municipality and providing tasty char-grilled hamburgers, thick fries, and even thicker shakes. Then came a sad day; these beef-slinging shops started shutting down. We are blessed, though, that a hidden outpost still remains on the city's historic Stearns Wharf, which is tourist-crammed in summer and barren in winter. I believe Char West still has Santa Barbara's best hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and double burgers.
Char West clings to the wharf, lonely save for occasional day-trippers or die-hard fans making their way to the middle of the ocean. The shack's dramatic setting puts it in first-place for "Burger with the Best View Award," lingering low above the waters of the dark-blue Pacific. After a tiring day of ducking bullets and surfing the death-defying waters of gritty south-central Montecito, AHT drove over the rickety wooden boards that form the wharf, past a plethora of travelin' company from the Midwest, local fisherman casting their rods into the drink below, and lovers taking in sweeping coastal views.
As a longtime fan of Char West, whose decor features a wall-mounted harpoon, I knew to skip such menu options as clam chowder and fish and chips and to go right to the cheeseburger, which is what it's all about here. Sharing an outside table with an uncommonly mellow seagull, I was soon lost in thought, watching nearby sailboats bob in the bay. Seven minutes later, my cheeseburger was ready, straight from the char-fired grill. A plump sandwich with American cheese atop tomato, pickle, shredded lettuce, and a special sauce that tastes a little like Thousand Island but which is thicker and less tangy, the cheeseburger is wrapped in simple white paper and sports a nondescript but decent bun.
Biting into the Char West cheeseburger is awesome: A warm patty with slightly crispy sides contrasts with the cool lettuce and sauce; along with the other understated toppings, neither lettuce nor sauce overpowers the meat, instead doing their intended job of backing things up and providing a nice balance. The meat is the center of attention, its thin but delightfully dense span giving a mouthful of flavor and complemented by a just-slightly noticeable kiss from the charcoal grill. Char West almost has a more rugged In-N-Out feel, with fresh ingredients and a solid old-school patty. Like most things in Santa Barbara, though, it is more expensive.
I could easily eat two of these savory and delectable burgers*. However, like feeding the sea birds that sometimes gather around your table, eyeing your ground-beef prize with psychotic eyes, it is not recommended.
Location On Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara. (Start at the end of State Street at Cabrillo Blvd., and keep going toward Hawaii, onto the wharf, past the dolphin fountain, for parking.)
Phone: None listed
Cost: Hamburger, $3.55; cheeseburger, $3.75
Short Order: Current titleholder of Burger with the Best View Award
* Thankfully I didn't, which allowed me to scarf some surprise sliders served at the Brad Pitt-stalking-paparazzi-saturated Casa Del Mar Hotel, at its party for tapas and Spanish wine in Santa Monica that night. Hmmmm, right after Tiny Hamburger Week. Coincidence?
Large photo at top and aerial photo of wharf from SantaBarbara.com