Of course we love our mom & pops, and our favorite burger joints around the country are pretty much all independently owned, but there are certain times in life—overnight layovers, hungover Sunday mornings, all-day shopping trips at the outlets—that the only options around are the chains. Chain Reaction is here to help you decide when to go for the burger, and when you're better off sticking with the chicken fingers.
The Habit Burger Grill
845 Camino De La Reina, San Diego CA 92108 (map)
47 locations in California, 3 in Arizona; full list at thehabitburger.com
The Schtick: Burgers made from high-quality ingredients for a low price
The Burger: A tasty charbroiled burger that beat the pants off most chain offerings
Want Fries With That? Yes! Regular french fries are great, sweet potato fries are especially flavorful
Setting: A little bit nicer than your typical fast-food joint
Price: Charburger, $2.95; french fries, $1.80; sweet potato fries, $2.65; cone, $.95
The Habit Burger Grill has been around since 1969, but it wasn't until recently that a new location opened in my stomping grounds. According to the website, two enterprising young brothers bought the original location in Santa Barbara, reformulated the burger, and over the next 42 years, opened 49 more locations. The genesis story sounds a bit like that of McD's, but when it comes to the quality of the food, there's no comparison.
There are five types of burgers on the menu, ranging from a simple charburger, to versions topped with mushrooms and swiss, BBQ sauce and bacon, or Teriyaki sauce and a pineapple ring. Other options include grilled sandwiches, salads, and all of the standard sides. Everything is under $7.
The Habit is one of several "better burger" chains to open in San Diego during the last few months, along with Elevation Burger, Slater's 50/50, and the expansion of Smashburger and Five Guys. The chain's timing was perfect, and the location—right next to Fuddruckers—was ballsy. For their part, Fuddruckers had a good sense of humor about their new neighbor, and even tried to spin the situation with some clever advertising.
One thing that immediately stood out about The Habit was the toppings bar, which had banana peppers, lemons, jalapenos, along with a selection of bottled sauces (hot sauce, A1, Worcestershire sauce) for customization. Though, to be fair, I'm not sure where the lemon slices are supposed to come in.
Visible grill marks were the first indication that The Habit's charburger was superior to chain offerings. A fresh slice of tomato peeking out from under the patty and a perfectly melted slice of American cheese were also good signs. From the first taste, my best suspicions were confirmed: It was easily one of the best chain burgers I've ever tasted.
The beef had a delicious smoky flavor and was juicy (despite being pattied so thin), the toppings were all fresh and well portioned (especially the thick glob of mayo on the bottom), and the sesame seed bun was perfectly toasted, which gave it some crunch.
The regular fries achieved the trifecta: they were golden brown, crisp, and light. They'd be great dunked in ketchup, but also perfectly tasty plain.
If you're a sweet potato fan, the sweet spuds are the way to go. Unlike most fast-casual restaurants, who all seem to serve the same mass-produced neon orange sweet potato fries, the ones at The Habit were cut into thin, 2x4-esque slabs and tasted like they were made from actual sweet potatoes. They were crisp and flaky on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and intensely flavorful.
Soft serve ice cream is available in several different forms: in a cone, swirled in a milkshake, or in a sundae. The cone (95¢) is the cheapest option, but the sundae, with its swirls of syrup that coated the sides of the cup, was the most impressive. The ice cream was rich and smooth, with a pleasant vanilla flavor. Let your hunger decide whether to stick with a simple cone or ante up for a shake or sundae.
From the juicy burgers, to the two types of fries, and even the tasty options for dessert, The Habit Burger Grill is a solid option for a classic burger at a shockingly good price. The food is vastly superior to most fast food chains (and even fast-casual). I'd even go so far to say that it's in the same class as In-N-Out. Yep, that just happened!
About the author: Erin Jackson is a food writer and photographer who is obsessed with discovering the best cheap and tasty eats in San Diego, including all things sweet and sugary, for her dessert blog San Diego Sugar. She also blogs for San Diego Magazine.