611 5th Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101 (map); 619-233-7327; searsucker.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A burger made with steak trimmings, onion jam, and baconaise that can be very good
Want Fries With That? Yes. Spend the $3 to upgrade your salad to brown butter fries
Price: Two Hand Burger, $10; brown butter fries, $3
In San Diego, there's a limited supply of celebrity chefs, but chances are, if you know only one by name, it's Brian Malarkey. The former Top Chef contestant is the co-owner/executive chef of Searsucker, a multiple award-winning restaurant in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter, and newly-opened Burlap in Carmel Valley.
Searsucker has garnered a lot of positive attention from local diners and the press, but the menu (at least to me) always had one glaring omission: no burger. That is, until recently, when, on sous-chef Shane McIntyre's insistence, a "two hand burger" was quietly added to the lunch menu. The burger is made with eight ounces of freshly-ground filet mixed with fat trimmings, topped with cheese, house-made onion jam, baconaise, and a habanero-garlic pickle. Knowing the restaurant's reputation, I came with high expectations.
On my first visit, the burger I received was nothing short of heart-breaking. When I returned a second time, hoping the first visit was a fluke, the burger was a thousand times better.
Where the first burger failed, the second burger excelled. The fatal flaw was improper cooking technique. The first patty was cooked so far past the defacto medium rare that it was covered with a black crust. It was completely void of juice and the entire burger tasted like char. Even a thick, melty slice of cheese couldn't revive it. In a desperate attempt to salvage my lunch, I applied the house-made tomato jam liberally to the patty, but even that didn't work. It was DOA.
The second burger was much better in every conceivable way. The freshly-ground filet mignon patty was grilled to medium rare with a thin crust and a few spots of char. It was well seasoned with salt and pepper and was full of rich, beefy juice. The cheese was perfectly melted and added a gooey creaminess, and the baconaise, made in house with mayo and bacon fat, gave it a smoky bite—though I could have used more of it. The soft, buttery brioche bun was a bit burnt in spots the first time, but on my second visit, it was perfectly toasted and provided just enough cushion for the moist, juicy patty.
Even the toppings were vastly better than the first attempt, and included razor-thin slices of avocado the second time around. Admittedly, I scraped the onion jam off the bottom bun, but my dining companion confirmed that it too was tasty.
On the first attempt, the brown butter fries weren't anything special, but like everything else, they were remarkably better the second time. The golden-brown russets are tossed in brown butter after being fried, which gives them a deeper, more savory flavor. The fries are well worth the $3 premium over the side salad that comes standard (which is also quite tasty, if you're trying to shave off some calories).
Given the fact that I've had a few really excellent non-burger centric meals at Searsucker, I'm going to assume that there was a kitchen mix-up on my first visit. Perhaps someone requested a very well-done burger and got my medium-rare burger instead. All I know for sure is I'm glad I went back and gave the restaurant a shot at redemption. With a bit more baconaise, Searsucker's burger could be one of the best in the city.