560 5th Avenue, San Diego, CA (map); 619-702-8068; nickyrottens.com
Cooking Method: Pressed
Short Order: Remarkably well constructed burgers that are also a great value, particularly for the area
Want Fries With That? Yes! Lightly-seasoned, golden-brown fries come with the burger. Or, upgrade to sweet potato fries with maple syrup for $2 extra
Price: Rottens Bruschetta Burger, $9.95
Notes: Buns can be swapped out for lettuce cups
Whether you're a local, a tourist, or a conventioneer, chances are while you're in San Diego, you'll end up spending some time in the Gaslamp Quarter. The eight-block stretch of downtown San Diego is home to multiple restaurants that run the gamut from sports bars to fine dining. Nicky Rottens lies somewhere in the middle: The atmosphere is like an upscale bar/restaurant, but the menu is decidedly comfort food, with a focus on burgers. Each of their 14 burgers can be made from Brandt beef, basil turkey, grilled or crispy chicken, or a vegetarian patty. Best of all, they're all under $10 and come with fries and a pickle spear—an excellent value, particularly for the Gaslamp.
Since I was in the mood for something a little different, I selected the Rottens Bruschetta Burger, billed as "da one dat makes ya turn to da udda side," presumably because it features the dynamic duo of garlic and Parmesan cheese, as well as roma tomatoes, provolone, basil, mixed field greens, and pesto aioli.
The half-pound patty was cooked to my requested medium-rare with a thin layer of crust and a juicy pink center. It was well seasoned and had a rich, unadulterated beefy flavor. The burger's description lead me to believe that it would be heavy on the garlic, but its many toppings balanced each other out. The fresh basil and sweet roma tomatoes mellowed out the pesto aioli, and the provolone and Parmesan cheese were in perfect harmony.
The golden-brown sesame seed bun was the ideal finishing touch. It was freshly baked and had just the right amount of substance. By the end of the meal, the bottom of the bun was soaked in burger juice, which made it a bit messy to eat but also doubly delicious.
The burger's construction was impeccable. At first glance I thought the roma tomatoes were missing, but on closer inspection the ingenious design is revealed. On top of the patty sat a provolone cheese "envelope" containing the tomatoes that ensured they stayed in place during eating. The envelope also kept the heat of the beef away from the rest of the burger, which allowed the mixed greens to stay crisp and prevented the pesto aioli from melting.
The giant portion of lightly seasoned fries were perfectly cooked and passed the test of being consumed well beyond the point of my hunger being satisfied. The pickle was the only element of the meal I would have tweaked. It was a bit too "new" for my tastes—a little too mild and not sour enough—and didn't have that blast of dill and garlic I was expecting. A very minor (and totally subjective) flaw, to be sure.
From the selection of ingredients to the preparation and construction, the Bruschetta Burger from Nicky Rottens was poetry in motion. Before I had even paid my bill, I already wanted to come back for round two.