The Summerland Beach Cafe
2294 Lillie Ave., Summerland CA 93067 (map); 805-969-1019; summerlandbeachcafe.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: This classic summer cafe makes a burger worthy of lunch, but not the local reverence
Want Fries with That? Yes; curly fries don't usually do it for me, but these were crispy and satisfying
Prices: "Cheeseburger in Paradise" w/side, $8.95
Over the last few years I've found myself exploring the Santa Barbara area during the summer as part of a little family bonding. Along the way I've learned a few things: I don't like Spanish style architecture, polo is surprisingly violent, and there are some pretty damn good burgers to be had in the Central Coast of California. I always immediately think of the best-in-class American Wagyu burger at The Boathouse at Hendry's Beach, but you'd do well to try the Burger Bus or any other number of spots.
In fact, I always get a number of recommendations from locals about where to find the area's great burgers. One spot that seems to have quite a following is the Summerland Beach Cafe. The restaurant is a casual and welcoming place (pets are welcome) that seems to specialize in breakfast food, burgers, and what my mother would call charm. The owners have put together an interior that holds on to the old-timey vibe, but I was more concerned with how they put together their burger.
The Summerland Beach Cafe menu is rife with cutesy name. No surprise for a spot like this, but the Cheeseburger in Paradise ($8.95) oversells the burger and the location. Summerland is a lovely little town, but perhaps shouldn't be the top of your "must see" list considering it's wedged between Padaro Lane beach in Carpinteria and the casual, yet upscale-as-it-gets Montecito main street. As for the Cheeseburger, it's actually just the Summerland Beach Cafe's "Basic Burger"—which is served on a fresh baked bun with mayonnaise and adorned with a some lettuce lettuce, sliced tomato, red onion, and dill pickle chips—plus your choice of cheese. Since there's no American option, I chose cheddar.
The burger sets up as a great, beach cafe classic. The folks at The Summerland Beach Cafe use a 1/3-pound of ground chuck (a measure that approaches the ideal for me) and don't concern themselves with burger fads. This is a no nonsense burger and, as I've often claimed, that makes perfect sense.
The patty got a hefty char from what had to be a properly very hot grill because the interior of my mostly medium rare burger came out on the pink side. That said, the patty lacked the proper amount of seasoning. A nice charred chuck patty absolutely needs to be set off by some heavy salting or the beef just reduces to texture and char.
The toppings were all fresh and plentiful. In fact, I'd say too plentiful in this case. Being that this was only a 1/3-pound patty, the amount of vegetable on this burger was a bit overwhelming. I found it tastier with a little rabbit food reduction.
The bun wasn't my preferred commercial, but certainly was much better than some brioche tragedy. I'd describe it as one of those fancy supermarket buns. The texture was solid if imperfect. In all, that is a summary of the experience of The Summerland Beach Cafe's burger. I found it perfectly good, but far from perfect.
Out of their choices of burger sides, I tried the homemade macaroni salad and curly fries (no regular fries available). Since I'm not usually a proponent of the curly fry, I predicted the mac salad would be where I'd find my lunch rounding out. In this case, my prediction was wrong. The curly fries were wildly crispy and full of flavor though not that overdone seasoning you so often find. They were actually nicely balanced. The mac salad, however, needs heaps more seasoning. Mine tasted like noodles and mayonnaise with a few onions chopped in. Definitely go with the fries.
I appreciate when folks get behind their local burger spots. Even if I don't find the burgers more than good, I find it great when people support mom and pop shops over the metastasizing chain restaurants, so please keep sending along the recommendations. This one in Summerland is a titch overrated, but that might also just be about the circumstances. They call it "the foundation for the greatest burger in town." Perhaps that's true, but Summerland is a darn small town.
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 [email protected]