389 Linden Ave., Carpinteria, CA 93013 (map); 805-684-6311; carpinteria.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: This truly classic burger stand makes a classic, Southern California-style burger that is just pretty good
Want Fries with That? Yes; nothing fancy here, but plenty crisp and flavorful
Prices: Cheeseburger, $3.95
Even growing up in New York City, it was rare for me to find myself eating at a place that boasted 100 years of service. Now that I live in Los Angeles, a ten year-old restaurant feels like an old school establishment. But drive about an hour and a half up the coast to the sleepy beach town Carpinteria and you'll find a burger shack that first opened its doors in 1914.
As you'd imagine, The Spot has changed owners a few times over the years, but there's little sign that its lost much of original ethos. Located at the beach end of Carpinteria's main drag, Linden Avenue, it looks pretty much like the beach burger stand it's always been except for addition of an adjacent sitting area. At lunch time you'll usually find a line clamoring for this straightforward quarter-pound burger, fries, and shakes affair (their menu also features a few Mexican dishes). The current owners, who've come from the wholesale food business, have made some minor updates to the burger with mixed results.
I ordered a standard single cheeseburger with everything on the advice of the woman in front of me in line. The double, she warned, "is a bit much." They also drop lettuce, tomato, raw onions, and pickles into the mix. The bun looks like a standard commercial, but it actually has a potato bun texture. The final addition is a their not-so-secret sauce, a Thousand Island slathering.
It looked beautiful in its classic Southern California paper wrapper. In fact, a close look a the patty revealed a compelling medium-coarse grind. The flavor was satisfyingly classic with the griddled, fresh beef making a strong showing against the bread and veggies. It could have used a better hit of seasoning and hotter griddle to develop the crust, but it wasn't the wan hockey puck you'd get at too many fast food spots. The patty itself was wonderfully juicy, as you can see in the below photo.
The toppings were all fresh as expected from a Central California restaurant. Even the raw onion added a nice bite. The major failing was the bun. I can imagine the owners felt like they were upgrading to this "higher-end" option, but they'd do well to switch back to a standard commercial bun. The potato bun-style they've chosen is too bready for their burger.
I added a second cheeseburger with grilled onions rather than the standard raw slices for comparisons sake. It sounds like a small difference, but so often I've found grilled onions are the proverbial difference maker on a Southern California-style burger. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case at The Spot. Not only did the grilled onions not add the sweet richness that I'd hoped for, they didn't work as well as the raw onions.
Both the fries and onion rings were solid. The quarter-inch cut spuds were nicely crisp on the outside and smooth, if not silky, on the inside. Best of all, they had a rich flavor reminiscent of one of my childhood favorites: the Nathan's fries. The rings weren't terrible, but not the fried treat I'd choose.
The Spot is a pleasing bit of Americana and it's nice that through the years the owners have labored to keep the integrity of the place. The ingredients are fresh and the prices are low. That said, don't expect the burger to knock your socks off. Then again, The Spot is only a few steps to the beach so you probably won't be wearing any in the first place.
About the author: Damon is one of our roving burger reporters and food writers. When he's not eating more than is warranted or healthful (and then writing about it) he can be found writing and producing for television and film. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.