3175 India Street, San Diego CA 92103 (map); 619-358-9766; starlitesandiego.com
Cooking method: Grilled
Short Order: A tasty, straight-forward burger that's best enjoyed with a cocktail
Want Fries With That? Yes! Lightly salted shoestrings come with the burger. Ask for some lemon garlic aioli to go with 'em
Price: Burger, $13, Starlite Mule, $9 ($6 on Sundays and Mondays, $8 during happy hour)
Driving by the San Diego airport on the 5 or hanging out in the surrounding neighborhoods makes it very likely that you'll experience a close encounter with a plane—so close that if you're on foot when one passes overhead, it feels almost rude not to wave. Starlite is located in the heart of the fly zone, right across the midway on India. It's an unlikely spot for most restaurants, but with its speakeasy vibe and retro swagger, Starlite is totally at home. Inside, it's dark enough to add a layer of intrigue to something as innocent as sharing a crock of mac and cheese, while outside on the backyard patio, the roar of aircraft engines mixes with ice cubes clinking against copper mugs filled with a heavy pour of vodka, ginger beer, lime, and bitters. The Mule is Starlite's signature drink, and it's got a kick.
Chef Kathleen Wise's evolving, seasonal menu appeals to locavores and the hipster foodie contingent alike, with 90 percent of produce sourced from local growers, and 60 percent of animal products and proteins coming from sustainable sources. Starlite's patties are from Brandt Beef, where holstein cattle are fed a natural corn and alfalfa-based diet, which imparts sweet, buttery flavors into the beef. The eight-ounce, 80/20 patties are grilled and topped with Gruyère and caramelized onions, served on a sesame seed brioche bun from Con Pane, a local bakery (and maker of this intense "almost" grilled cheese sandwich). Red leaf lettuce, a pickle spear, ketchup, and dijonaise come on the side, ready to be smeared on the patty or to serve as a dip for the fries.
Both sides of the patty were flecked with char, with the highest concentration of crust around the edges. The beef was juicy, with a subtle earthiness that was played up by the thoroughly caramelized onions. The slice of Gruyère melted nicely, but unfortunately, wasn't quite sharp enough to stand out, aside from as a textural component. A single leaf of lettuce provided a surprising amount of flavor, but there was one element missing: tomato. Not all burgers require a slice, but the umami-rich flavors of the onion, cheese, and beef coud really use something to cut through the fat and brighten up the burger. Turns out Wise agrees, and says the only reason the burger was sans-tomato was because they were not yet in season. When she can get 'em fresh from Suzie's Farm, they'll be on the burger (which should be in the next couple of weeks).
Lightly fried shoestrings dusted with salt come standard, and are tasty enough dipped in the dijonaise, but ask for some lemon garlic aioli. The creamy dip comes standard with the appetizer-sized spuds, so it shouldn't be an issue.
Bitters feature heavily on Starlite's cocktail menu, including cherry vanilla, peach, and Angostura, which is what tarts up their most popular drink, the Starlite mule ($6 on Sundays and Mondays). The mix of ginger beer, lime, and bitters does almost too good a job of balancing the heavy pour of vodka, so drink up, but beware of the kick.