707 G. Street, San Diego CA 92101 (map); 647-346-0617; zanzibarcafe.com
Cooking method: Grilled
Short Order: A burger with real potential to be great, made with grass-fed beef and topped with sun-dried tomato aioli, bacon, and lettuce
Want Fries With That? Upgrade to the sweet potato fries. The regular ones are too bland
Price: Zblt burger, $10.95
I'm a creature of habit, and when I find a place I love, I'm there a lot. Such is the case with Zanzibar, my local fuel and sugar gratification station, as well as regular lunch spot (the turkey and avocado croissant is killer). After sampling several sandwiches (all of which were excellent), I came back with a mission more suited to AHT: trying the burger.
There's only one option, unless you count the portobello burger (I don't), and that's the Zblt burger, with bacon, sun-dried tomato aioli, and lettuce. Lots and lots of lettuce. Fries come standard, but for $1, you can upgrade to sweet potato, which is highly encouraged (more on that later).
One thing the menu doesn't mention about the burger is it's made with grass-fed beef, a huge selling point. The half-pound patty is a blend of chuck and sirloin, and has a surprising depth of flavor for being (relatively) lean. Mixed in with the beef, there is a handful of diced green onion and a splash of Worcestershire sauce, which ups the savory quotient, but in a background, subtle way that isn't overpowering (this is coming from an onionphobe of the first order). The only other seasoning is salt and pepper, so while it's a side-step away from a classic burger, it's nowhere near being a meatloaf burger.
Where the burger faltered was its execution. It had small flecks of char and visible grill marks, but was cooked a touch past my requested medium rare. That, combined with the fact that the beef was over-worked, made it a bit dry and tough. With no cheese to round out the moisture factor, and too little of the sun-dried tomato aioli, the only moisture back-up the burger could hope for was the tomatoes, which were blown away by the bacon. A slice of cheese would go a long way to redeeming this burger, as would a big ol' glob of that aioli (and about 1/4 of the lettuce).
One element that was just right was the brioche bun from Bread and Cie, which looks almost comically large in the top photo, but it squished right down when held. The toasted bun provided just enough of a bread cushion and wasn't strangely sweet. Never fear, brioche haters: this bun's for you (too).
For an extra buck, it's well worth upgrading from the standard fries to the sweet potato version. I tried both, and could only detect potato flavor in the former with my eyes closed, thinking particularly starchy thoughts. The sweet spuds may be the standard, cooked-from-frozen fare, but you can't fault them: they're simple, but they're tasty too. At one point, I had to shove my plate out of reaching range to stop eating them.
Zanzibar's burger may not be perfect, but the cafe is still one of my favorite spots for lunch and mid-day meetups. With a little bit of work it could be markedly improved, but for now, if you're in that corner of the East Village and specifically craving a burger, there's a much better one next door at Neighborhood.
About the author: Erin Jackson is a food writer and photographer who is obsessed with discovering the best eats in San Diego. You can find all of her discoveries on her newly-launched food blog EJeats.com. On Twitter, she's @ErinJax