San Diego: Tiki Cocktails and a Cheeseburger in Paradise at Bali Hai
2230 Shelter Island Drive, San Diego CA 92106 (map); 619-222-1181; balihairestaurant.com
Cooking method: Grilled
Short Order: A juicy burger made more savory with a smear of truffle black pepper mayo
Want Fries With That? Yes, tasty battered fries or a green salad come with the burger
Price: Cheeseburger, $13 (add a fried egg or bacon for $2)
Notes: Tiki-style cocktails are a must
If you're reading this from a land-locked city, sweltering in the summer heat, let me apologize for any photo-induced envy in advance. As the AHT contributor stationed in (arguably) the most scenic city, I'm aware of (and sympathetic to) pangs of jealousy that are the inevitable result of exposure to a place as awesome as Bali Hai.
I'll try to compose myself enough to maintain some semblance of journalistic integrity, but it's going to be tough, because Bali Hai simultaneously jams on all my pleasure sensors: it's got killer views, good grub, Tiki tunes, and knock-you-on-your-ass drinks.
The circular, waterfront restaurant on Shelter Island is ringed with floor-to-ceiling windows, with views of the bay and the downtown skyline. The best tables are outside, where you get fresh air and sunshine, plus a front row seat to watch the paddle boarders and sailboats go by.
Hawaiian fusion fare dominates, including items like a tuna poke stack, coconut shrimp, and soy ginger chicken satays, but at lunch, you can get a truly tasty burger. The half-pound burgers are cooked to order and served on a toasted brioche bun with butter lettuce, tomato, red onion, and truffle black pepper mayo. A pickle spear comes on the side.
Mine arrived as requested (medium rare), with a juicy red center, visible grill marks, and a few tiny flakes of char. It could have been a shade more pink, but the grilled patty was still intensely beefy and flavorful, even though it wasn't (quite) dripping with juice.
To love this burger, you've got to like truffle flavoring, because the truffle black pepper mayo is generously applied and fairly robust. My first thought upon biting into the burger was that even though there was a double-spread of mayo (above and below the patty), it wasn't a problem because it was just so damn good. There was no trace of that terrible petroleum-tinged flavor that some cheap truffle oils can have, and it was balanced by the black pepper. I could have consumed another 1/4 cup of it on the fries, easy. If you're iffy on truffle oil, ask for it on the side, and sample before you smear.
Burgers come with either ginger brown butter fries or a green salad. Fries are the way to go. The battered spuds have a flaky, crisp exterior and a light, fluffy interior, and even though the ginger was too subtle to register, the fries were still delicious. The appetizer portion comes with wasabi aioli dip, which sounds like it would push the fries into slightly tastier territory. I'd ask for some.
Also delicious? The aforementioned drinks, including classic Tiki cocktails, chief among them their "world famous" Mai Tai made with three shots of rum, orange liqueur, sweet and sour, and not even one drop of fruit juice. I tried a supposedly less intense drink, the Mr. Bali Hai, with light rum, Lemon Hart 151, pineapple juice, blackberry, and sweet and sour. Three hours later, I would have smiled all the way through having a tooth filled—without any freezing. Better yet, it only cost $6.50.
I love this place.
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 food blog EJeats.com. On Twitter, she's @ErinJax