640 Tenth Avenue, San Diego CA 92101 (map); (619) 450-5880; thecowboystar.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Get lean and juicy bison burgers in a fine dining environment for a reasonable price
Want Fries With That? Definitely; crisp fries come with the burger
Price: Bison burger, $15
Notes: Burgers are served during lunch and happy hour (Tues. - Fri., 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m.)
In my experience, steak restaurants can either be a great or terrible place for a burger. I've had everything from top-notch experiences to sad, charred-to-death patties that made me think I was being punished for ordering the cheapest thing on the menu. Cowboy Star, a contemporary Western-themed restaurant concept in downtown San Diego that specializes in hand-cut steaks, is decidedly in the first category.
Cowboy Star's unique design includes an open kitchen where you can watch your meat being fired on the grill, plus an adjoining butcher shop where you can purchase premium meats, house-ground beef, and burger patties. I was also pleased to discover that the restaurant follows Certified Humane's standards for pork, poultry, and meat, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program for seafood.
Out of Cowboy Star's three burger options—house-ground beef, grass-fed beef, or bison—I went for the most intriguing option: the half-pound bison burger made of house-ground bison meat from Durham Ranch, topped with white cheddar cheese, Anaheim peppers, and cumin mayonnaise.
Our waiter suggested I order my burger medium or less—I requested medium rare. The patty had a thin crust with tasty bits of char, and a warm, juicy center with plenty of pink. The lean bison meat didn't gush forth with juice like most beef-based burgers, but it was plenty moist and had just as much flavor, similar to grass-fed beef. Although the flavor was rich and savory, it didn't taste heavy—it was one of the few half-pound burgers I've ever polished off without feeling like I needed a nap immediately after.
The superior quality of the meat and excellent grilling technique were matched by toppings with bold, complimentary flavors. Working together, the toppings brought spicy, earthy, and sharp flavors to the burger, without any one ingredient overpowering the others. A fresh and slightly squishy buttermilk bun was the finishing touch that provided just enough of a bready cushion around the patty and the ideal amount of substance. Some roughage—lettuce, onion, tomato, and a pickle spear—were served alongside the burger, but I decided to leave them off to fully appreciate the combo of meat + cheese + heat.
All sandwiches and burgers are served with fries or a mixed green salad. I had the chance to sample both, and the golden-brown fries, cooked just to the point of being crisp, had the edge. The fries were crisp on the outside, and bursting with fluffy potato on the inside.
The best thing about visiting Cowboy Star for lunch is that you get the fine dining experience for a reasonable price. I have every confidence that the steak options (which range from $32 to $82) are superb and totally worth it, but it's also great to know they take as much care with the burgers, which are well within anyone's budget.