"We'll always take the delicious food over the beautiful view—but it sure is nice to have both."
Boathouse at Hendry's Beach
2981 Cliff Drive, Santa Barbara CA 93109 (map); 805-898-2628; sbfishhouse.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: This seafood restaurant vies for the title of best turf option in Santa Barbara with its excellent Kobe (i.e. Wagyu) burger
Want Fries with That? Yes—frozen, but delicious skinny-cuts
Prices: Half-pound Kobe cheeseburger (with fries), $12.95
Why are ocean views so alluring? I don't have an easy answer to that question, but it's hard to argue with the beachfront's competitive advantage when it comes to choosing a view. So it's no surprise that a restaurant on the waterfront can fall down when it comes to making delicious food. I've run into this pattern more than once on my burger adventures. Even now, I can recall a lackluster burger in Malibu as if it were yesterday's lunch.
That's why when I stopped in at The Boathouse at Hendry's Beach in Santa Barbara, I expected little more than a ordinary burger to go along with the extraordinary vista. The beachfront location is undeniably a feast for the eyes. Thankfully, the view is matched by an excellent burger.
The Boathouse sits at one of Santa Barbara's prettier beach locations (as long as you don't mind a few dogs). At Hendry's Beach, ocean meets sand, running into a vast bluff of pure California coastline. The restaurant was opened a few years back by the father and son team of Tom and Adam White. The two could be called Santa Barbara beachside-restaurant tycoons, having opened two other venues from which you can skip stones into the surf. The "surf" focus of their menus isn't much of a surprise, but when I see a Kobe Cheeseburger listed I can't help but opt for turf.
As for that burger, it's not actually Japanese Kobe beef. The Boathouse uses chuck from the American version that is similar, but not identical. That said, when it comes to making Kobe burgers, I'd rather the chef buy American. Having eaten more than anyone's fair share of Kobe beef during my time in Japan (and a few burgers made with the real deal here), I can tell you that Kobe does not make sense as the primary meat in a patty. The spiderweb lipid structure that gives Kobe its almost magical, buttery quality renders into rivulets of fat that drown the beef flavor in a burger. The American crossbreeding of the Wagyu and Angus, however, gives a better balance of meat to fat.
The hefty half-pound of beef from Shalhoob's is given a lot of attention, but is far from overwrought. The enthusiastic chef, Jason Iroff, simply salts and peppers the patty before dropping it on a mesquite-fired grill. The wood grill burns at an infernally high temperature (probably in the neighborhood of 700°F), thus delivering an impressive char without sacrificing a medium-rare middle. Then it's just some standard lettuce, tomato, and red onion atop a toasted seedless bun. Simple? I'll go with simply beautiful.
I had my first Boathouse burger with cheddar; it adds the welcome richness and tang of one of my favorite cheeses, but it isn't entirely necessary. The patty was such a pleasing mix of crunchy (from the crust) and juicy (from the fat) of the meat that a second sampling I had, sans cheddar, might have been a pip better. Either way, this is a patty that melts into the bun without wilting in flavor. The medium grind makes for a solid structure in the meat, without coming close to that mealy quality that undermines so many burgers. The veggies atop were nicely crisp, adding a layer of freshness that made the burger taste a dream of a summer barbecue.
Then there's the bun. I'm told they recently changed purveyors, and they've made a good choice. Sourced from Ethnic Breads (a provider now owned by Future Fine Foods), the Boathouse burger bun is one of the best I've come across in a long while. This isn't some gourmet brioche monster mugging for the spotlight. It's spongy with just the right amount of chew to stand up to a juicy patty.
The Boathouse was supposed to be little more than a lunch had for the sake of a view—an "I'll order anything" meal as long as that vista doesn't go anywhere. What it turned into was a full-fledged burger find that felt like it could become my new local favorite if weren't so far from my home. On my second visit, the young and personable manager, Mark McWilliams, greeted me like a regular and happily chatted about what makes for a great burger. We agreed that we'll always take the delicious food over the beautiful view—but it sure is nice to have both.