San Diego: Beef Blunder at Saltbox
1047 5th Ave, San Diego CA 92101, inside the Palomar Hotel (map); 619-515-3003; saltboxrestaurant.com
Cooking method: Grilled
Short Order: A well-conceived but poorly executed burger
Want Fries With That? Rosemary-heavy fries come standard, but they're not great
Price: Hamburguesa Grande, $16
With spring comes the arrival of many more tourists and convention attendees to the Gaslamp Quarter, all seemingly facing the same dilemma: where to eat lunch. Being a one-time out-of-towner myself, I have a soft spot for this lot and make it a point to regularly check in on downtown burger offerings in hopes of finding an appointment-worthy patty. And though Saltbox (in the Hotel Palomar) does offer the sustenance-seeking crowd certain advantages (solid cocktails and a sleek dining area), the Hamburguesa Grande is only great in theory.
The behemoth of a burger starts with a hand-formed patty of Brandt beef that's topped with roasted salsa, guacamole, and jack cheese. True to its name, it's gigantic, likely around 1/3 of a pound. Conceptually, it's a great burger. The combo of roasted salsa and avocado is delicious, and the torta roll is a nice little hat-tip to the Mexican influence in San Diego's food scene, even though it really should have been toasted to stand up to all of the juices.
But the minor bun flub could be easily overlooked—it was nothing compared to the heartbreakingly bad treatment of the Brandt beef. It's ground much too fine, to the point that the interior of my medium-rare patty tasted like a cool beef paste. It's also lacking seasoning and, consequently, flavor. Despite waiting 30 minutes for the burger to come to the table and being so hungry my hands were shaking, I ate less than half of it.
After abandoning the burger, I hoped the visually striking hand-cut fries would be the saving grace of the meal (or at least quiet my still-starving stomach), but the rosemary was portioned with the same vigor as an 8th grade boy applying body spray before a school dance: far too heavily. Making matters worse, the spuds were served at room temperature and tasted like cardboard.
Pricing burgers at a premium sets expectations high, and when they're not met, it's a substantially worse letdown. At $16, a burger needs to be reliably awesome every single time, with no "off days" allowed. I still think Saltbox is worth a visit, just not for the burger. Stick with the daily lunch special ($12) and Moscow mule.
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