600 5th Ave, San Diego CA 92101 (map); 619-255-7373; barleymash.com
Cooking method: Grilled
Short Order: A tasty burger with subtle tweaks and mass-appeal
Want Fries With That? The seasoned fries that come standard are decent, but if you're with a group, order some topped fries to share
Price: All American Burger, $12; San Diego Iron Fries $10
Burgers and beer are easy to come by in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter—most restaurants have a decent tap list and at least one burger on their menu—but it's not often that I find a burger that's truly memorable. The latest burger to break the trend is from Barleymash, a huge space typically packed with a beer-addled crowd that I'd wrongly written off as yet another "brostaurant." Turns out in addition to lots of libations, the kitchen is more than capable of turning out a great burger. Their menu features six beef burgers, along with chicken, turkey, tuna, and veggie options.
The most straightforward burger of the bunch is the All American ($12), a classic cheeseburger with mostly traditional toppings. The star of the burger is a loosely-packed, half-pound patty that's striped with grill marks and bursting with flavorful, fatty juices. Mine was cooked exactly to my order of medium-rare, with a warm, pink center. Toppings start off traditionally enough—you've got your thinly sliced red onion, tomato, and American cheese—but when it comes to the lettuce and the spread, things get a bit interesting. Instead of the standard iceberg lettuce, the burger is topped with frisée and the spread, keeping with the restaurant's theme of infusing beer and bourbon into various menu items, is an ale-aioli. A pickle spear comes on the side.
The two dominant flavors are the aggressively savory beef patty (perfectly seasoned and nicely charred), and the thick slice of American cheese, with the veggies and aioli rightfully singing back-up.
The bun deserves major props. While most restaurants opt for brioche, Barleymash makes their own barley-beer bun in-house. Its spongy texture soaks up all of the juice from the burger, allowing it to stay intact until the last bite while neatly encasing all of the toppings.
Burgers come with your choice of seasoned fries with housemade ketchup (which is tasty, but a bit watery) or chili-beer slaw. I found the spuds flavorful but dry.
If you're with a group, it's worth splurging on one of the topped fries, like the San Diego iron fries ($10), to share. The towering platter of seasoned spuds is a riff on carne asada fries that swaps grilled steak for stout-braised short rib, and adds pepper jack beer-cheese sauce to the mix. With gobs of sour cream, guacamole, salsa fresca and diced chilis, this generous plate of fries is just as delicious as you're imagining.
If you like your burgers straight up and simple, I wouldn't hesitate to order the same burger I tried, but knowing that the restaurant can nail the baseline model makes me more confident that the more complex burgers, like The Volcano (with serrano chilis, cream cheese, salsa fresca, tobacco onions and tequila-cilantro aioli), would be worth giving a go. I have a strong feeling that I'm about to find out...very soon.