Rocky's Crown Pub has long reigned king of San Diego hamburgers. It tops all the local "best-of" lists, and the Chowhounders rave about it. Located on Crown Point, the southern peninsula of San Diego's sunny Pacific Beach, Rocky's is a neighborhood place whose patrons tend to be walking-distance locals.
Rocky's predates the modern ascension of the hamburger in American fine cuisine. It came at a time when San Diego restaurants were either for the wealthy and old, or for those who cared more about portion size than taste. It wasn't long ago that the most exotic dish in town was the bananas foster at Mr. A's. But San Diego has grown up; our restaurants are no longer divided between "fancy" and "boring." The neighborhood places have a new seriousness about their craft, and even everyday dishes are finessed with innovative reinterpretations. A burger might arrive on brioche with a béarnaise sauce, a pizza with quail eggs and house cured ham.
Rocky's stands apart, then as now—it's just a bar with burgers. Even as restaurants begin to cater to the modern foodie hipster, Rocky's remains a pub, with sports on the television, and macro brews on tap. They don't fancy it up—they're simple, direct, and classic. And they do it right.
The wallet-friendly menu is to the point: They only serve burgers and fries, with burgers maxing out at $6. Your choice is whether you want a half-pounder or only a third, with or without cheese (it's American—processed and plastic, but with a mellow quiet flavor that only sort of nods at the beef as it goes by). Patrons who aren't here to eat have to pay for their drinks one at a time. Only burger eaters get to keep open a tab.
Burgers are ordered at the bar. They shout out your party's name when your plastic baskets are passed out of some hidden kitchen to the bartenders. There are tables for groups, but the rest have to elbow their way through the crowd for a free table or spare ledge. It can get especially crowded for weekend lunches.
Local company Jensen Meat Co. supplies the chuck. Considering that they have a patented process for turning ground beef into loosely packed patties, you know they mean business. Their process of running beef through a specialized grinder plate with angled holes forms patties with adequate space between the granules, allowing juices to cook into the meat instead of run out of the burger.
However, Rocky's doesn't buy Jensen's premade patties. Instead, they're formed in-house by hand from ten-pound blocks. The staff refers to the patty-molder with the unfortunate name, the "meat bitch."
People rave about these burgers for good reason: They're really spectacular. But they're not some new vision for eating ground meats. Rocky's burgers are notable mostly in their studied normalness.
Served on a plain sesame bun, the burger comes with mayo, green leaf lettuce, tomatoes, and red onions. As is common for burgers in California, the vegetables are fresh and excellent, with much greater depth than is common on the other coast.
The patty has a loose grain, sometimes with an irregular shape. These burgers aren't grilled hot—they don't have much char, and I've never found any noticeable grill marks. But the medium rare patty is too juicy and soft to need a coating of carbon. The value of this patty is its uniform texture from top to bottom. Any char would disrupt that zen consistency.
The un-toasted bun, the soft green leaf lettuce, and juicy tomatoes all play nicely to accommodate the pillow of a patty. The burger is squishy and comfortable to hold. Only the crisp, tart onions distract from the unity of texture—raw onions sometimes don't play well with others. I prefer these burgers without.
The fries are rather plain. Although hot and crispy, they lack salt and don't have much flavor.
While the patty is undeniably perfect, the overall burger might have some room for improvement. The store-bought sesame buns are ideally soft and appropriately untoasted, but they're boring. The onions could be left off, sliced much more thinly, or grilled to keep them from getting ornery and out of hand. None of these flaws are fatal though—in fact, they're a part of the burger's enduring charm. But the obstinate commitment to ordinariness leaves one imagining what this burger might have been.
The hamburger at Rocky's is a thoughtful representation of what a standard burger ought to be. The moral of the story is that people appreciate its lack of pretensions. It doesn't try to show off because it doesn't have to.
Rocky's Crown Pub
3786 Ingraham Street, San Diego CA 92109 (map)
Kitchen closes at 10 p.m.