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.
4353 La Jolla Village Dr, San Diego CA 92122, inside the Westfield UTC Mall (map)
7 locations in California, others opening soon in Berkeley, Seattle, etc. Full list at eurekaburger.com
The Schtick: Cheffy burgers served alongside an impressive list of American craft brews and whiskeys
The Burger: A tasty-enough beef patty that's improved by unusual toppings in combinations that really work
Want Fries With That? The standard fries are tasty, but so are the onion rings, sweet potato fries, and slaw. Decisions, decisions
Setting: A comfortable dining area classed up with reclaimed wood, served with a side of live music
Price: Original burger, $9.50; fig marmalade burger, $11.25; caprese burger, $10.50 (+$1.25 for slaw or onion rings); truffle fries, $7.75
Several national (and international) chains have moved into swanky new digs inside the Westfield UTC mall, from Toronto-based fro-yo company Yogen Früz to Seasons 52, a health-conscious chain restaurant where everything on the menus is 475 calories or less. They've got a burger, but if a beef and bun craving hits during your shopping trip, the better bet is Eureka!, a California chain with seven locations, all serving up a "chef-driven menu" that's heavy on the burgers, craft brews, and American whiskey.
The standard burger (pictured above) is totally fine if you want something simple, but Eureka! is the type of place where edging outside of your comfort zone is rewarded. The 11 different burger options, all which can be made with a beef, turkey, or veggie patty, are souped up with inventive toppings including bacon-infused jalapeño jam, fried pancetta, and Buffalo mozzarella.
I've seen fig jam creeping on to several menus around town, and while you may not think it would work smeared on a burger bun, it most certainly does. In the case of the fig marmalade burger ($11.25), the sweet flavor of the figs is rounded out by salty and savory additions like strips of bacon, peppery arugula, and a dollop of spicy porter mustard. There's also minced tomato for acid and some melted goat cheese for tang. It's a burger with a lot going on, but the elements are all in synch.
The same can be said for the caprese burger ($10.50), which fuses the elements of the classic Italian salad with a burger. Under the seasoned, grilled beef patty, there are a few thin slices of tomato and fresh basil, and some semi-melted Buffalo mozz on top that's drizzled with a bright and tangy balsamic vinaigrette. The time-tested trio of tomato, mozzarella, and basil works just as well with the addition of beef and a bun—no big shock since two of the three components (tomato and cheese) are established burger toppings.
The bakery-style bun was tops, too. Squishy, golden brown, and lightly toasted, it smushed down when held, providing a great bread-to-meat ratio.
Taken as a whole, the burgers are delicious, but I wouldn't advocate for a naked patty. The patty was in the ballpark of my requested temperature (medium-rare) but not quite there. That extra time on the grill robbed the beef of some much-needed moisture, resulting in a fairly bland patty that wouldn't stand up as well, were it not for all of those froofy toppings.
For sides, you've got options. Lots of options. There are the steering wheel-sized onion rings, heavily battered with cornmeal; sweet potato spuds flecked with cinnamon and sugar; oil and vinegar dressed coleslaw; and the baseline spuds—all of which are worthy.
If you're going with a group and don't have a strong aversion to truffle oil, the share-size truffle fries ($7.75) topped with green onions and havarti, are quite good. The truffle flavor is subdued enough to not offend those on the fence about this much-maligned ingredient, and anyway, the main attraction is the cheese.
In too many cases, cheffy burgers are needlessly complicated riffs on an item that needed no such "upgrades," but when they really work, they're a beauty to behold. If you're open to something outside the box, this is the chain to do it. For a classic burger, I'd go elsewhere.
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