Alameda a la carte: Battle of the burgers

Alameda a la carte: Battle of the burgers

Michele Ellson
Alameda Grill

A lettuce-wrapped cheeseburger from the Alameda Grill.

When my family and I moved to Alameda, in 2005, the Island was a veritable burger desert. Sure, there were places where a patty could be procured, with all of the classic fixings. But the Island had few places that could be considered truly burger-centric, and not a single restaurant offering the high-quality meats and artisanal stylings that some of our neighbors took for granted.

Fast-forward a decade, and it seems that the Island’s burger SOS has been answered by a bevy of patty-slinging outlets ranging from local startups to national chains. A half dozen burger joints have opened here just in the past five years, and more are on the way.

I don’t eat burgers very often, but have to admit I was curious who had the best burger. So I set out on a nine-day burger odyssey, testing sandwiches at seven places that have opened over the past five years (and an eighth that is an Island mainstay). I embarked on this mustard-soaked mission while in the middle of one of those protein-only diets, so most of the burgers were tasted sans bun (more on that in the story).

What follows is my report on Alameda’s new crop of burger meisters, and how they stack up against each other.

In-N-Out Burger vs. Five Guys vs. Habit Burger Grill

Washington, D.C. (and President Obama) favorite Five Guys was the first of these three burger chains to hit the Island, opening a store in the South Shore Shopping Center in the summer of 2013. The construction of Alameda Landing brought us two more Southern California based burger chains this year, Habit Burger Grill and In-N-Out.

I started my burger odyssey with a lunchtime trek to In-N-Out and Five Guys, with my burger-loving middle schooler along to help taste test.

Founded by Harry and Esther Snyder in 1948 in Baldwin Park, In-N-Out arouses an almost evangelical fervor in burger lovers for its freshly cooked patties ground at a trio of patty-making facilities by the chain’s in-house butchers, hand cut fries and a “secret” menu not on display in stores but viewable online. The chain, which has 300 stores, most of them in California, opened up at Alameda Landing just a few weeks ago.

When we arrived, we were greeted by about two dozen friendlier-than-friendly employees, including a few directing traffic in the parking lot and many more behind the counter. We ordered quickly and had our food in minutes, despite the crowd of diners who filled the restaurant.

I ordered a cheeseburger wrapped in “hand-leafed” lettuce (an item on In-N-Out’s secret menu, I have since learned), while my son got a regular cheeseburger and a chocolate shake. We split an order of fries.

The two-ounce patty – or what I could taste of it, since it was drowning in American cheese – was rich and flavorful, but it definitely wasn’t enough meat to satisfy a burger craving (which explained to us why people usually order a double). I was still hungry when we left.

My son was “annoyed” by the small size of his burger patty (which was seated on a toasted bun) but enjoyed his thick chocolate shake, which is made with 100 percent ice cream.

We weren’t as enamored of the French fries, which were fresh but dull and flavorless (though my son appreciated the fact that In-N-Out includes a salt packet with them instead of just coating them in the stuff).

Five Guys’ fries – thick cut, salty and cooked in peanut oil, with a crispy exterior and a creamy inside – were far superior to the ones offered by In-N-Out, and the best of the three restaurants in this first test. (If you’re allergic to peanuts, though, steer clear – the restaurant is filled with them.)

Like In-N-Out, Five Guys was also a family business, founded in 1986 in Arlington, Va. by a group of siblings. The chain expanded much more quickly, opening more than 1,000 stores in states across the U.S. and Canada, including its South Shore store, in 2013.

The South Shore outlet replaced a local chain burger place, Pearl’s Deluxe Burgers, whose owner said competition from the mall’s weekly food truck event proved challenging for business. So far, it seems like Five Guys is holding its own.

While In-N-Out sticks to the basics – burgers, fries and drinks – Five Guys’ menu is a little bit more extensive. It includes hot dogs, a BLT and a veggie sandwich (which my vegetarian husband loves).

Like In-N-Out, Five Guys also offers freshly made patties, hand formed just before they are tossed on the grill. The company also makes its own buns; the recipe is proprietary.

I ordered a little cheeseburger on lettuce leaf with fries, which are served in a paper cup (that they typically spill out of, coating your takeout bag with telltale grease). The burger was larger than the small patty offered up by In-N-Out (their patty is 3.3 ounces).

I consider myself a Five Guys fan, and was happy with the burger I got. That said, In-N-Out delivered a more flavorful (if smaller) patty.

If you’re there for the fries, though, Five Guys offers some of the best in town, and theirs were far superior to the bland basket offered by In-N-Out.

This brings us to Habit Burger, which I visited a few days later with my husband. The burger chain was founded in 1969 in Santa Barbara and has more than 100 stores in California, with a bunch more in states across the country.

I originally thought Habit was more of a sit-down restaurant and had planned to put its offerings up against BurgerMeister and some of the other Island locales – in addition to burgers, Habit offers steak, tuna and chicken sandwiches, and salads – but the burgers were definitely fast-food class.

The chain stunned America in 2014 when Consumer Reports named its burger the best in the country. So naturally, I was curious to partake of their charbroiled offerings, which are hand-cut and grilled over an open flame.

Habit’s twist on the traditional burger fixings is a heap of carmelized onions, and it offers a pepper bar for diners who like their food spicy. So I was expecting something that was a cut above In-N-Out and Five Guys.

What I got was a gray, overcooked patty coated in what looked like pepper, on a sesame seed bun that was coated in mayonnaise and the devil’s invention, shredded lettuce (I forgot to order the burger without a bun). Apparently America likes its burgers done medium well, because that’s how Habit’s burgers are cooked.

The husband pronounced his veggie burger okay, though he prefers patties that are lentil based (he said this one tasted like it was made primarily with potatoes and carrots). And Habit’s fries were kind of blah.

Bottom line: In-N-Out’s burgers were the best of the bunch, but if fries are your thing, Five Guys is the place to be.

In-N-Out Burger, 555 Willie Stargell Avenue. Five Guys, 2254 South Shore Boulevard; 769-1788. Habit Burger Grill, 2640 Fifth Street; 337-9984.

Scolari’s Good Eats vs. Baron’s Eats vs. BurgerMeister

For many Island burger lovers, Scolari’s is the quintessential artisanal burger. Almost every person who I told that I was doing this story (after they finished laughing) waxed rhapsodic about this place, kind of like that Saturday Night Live sketch where zombified theater lovers proclaim the show they just watched “was better than Cats.”

Opened in 2010 by Lucky 13 bar owner Dan Nichols and chef Michael Boyd, Scolari’s offers sandwiches, Stromboli and salad in addition to burgers, dogs and fries and a wealth of daily specials. It’s got a second location out at Rock Wall Wine Company and a converted Airstream trailer for events.

We ordered burgers, a hot dog and fries from here for Sunday dinner after the kids had finished a round of performances. The food wasn’t ready when we were supposed to pick it up, and we didn’t get the plain cheeseburger we asked for.

What we got were a pair of half-pound hockey pucks topped with unmelted cheese on a challah bun that looked premade and tasted dry and bland, with little chewy bits inside. The hot dog is actually a fairly spicy sausage that my kids wouldn’t touch.

The husband wasn’t particularly enamored of the falafel burger, saying he prefers his falafel not in a patty, but a pita. The fries, though, were delicious and creamy (if overly salty).

I had a much better burger at Baron’s, which opened in the Alameda Marketplace in 2013. The food stand is an offshoot of Baron’s Meats across the corridor, and it uses the same high-quality beef sold at the meat counter.

Baron’s burger offerings include its signature “5150” bacon and beef burger, lamb and wild boar patties, and its menu includes Pullman sandwiches, fish, hot dogs, soup and sides. I stuck with the program, ordering a cheeseburger and fries (though at this point I had given up on the diet and ate the delicious brioche bun, courtesy of Baron’s neighbor Feel Good Bakery).

Even though I was feeling pretty burned out on burgers at this point (Baron’s being #7 on the list of eight I tried), I devoured the rich, smoky Five Dot Ranch patty and buttery bun, shredded lettuce be damned. While the burger wasn’t as juicy as some of the others I tried, it was still moist and flavorful.

The fries – just $3 as a side – were thin and crispy, with just the right amount of salt – the perfect foil to Baron’s burger (and, I suspect, a tasty accompaniment to a thick shake if Baron’s served them). This is probably the best lunch burger on the Island, and certainly the best I tasted.

BurgerMeister is the place I typically go when I have a vanload of kids to feed and entertain for the day. While the kids order burgers and hot dogs, I usually get a salad (their Cobb is so loaded with bacon and cheese it usually doesn’t need dressing).

While I would much rather have taken advantage of some of the other offerings on the Bay Area chain’s extensive menu, I gamely ordered my plain cheeseburger on lettuce with fries, while the kids opted for chicken strips and a chocolate shake. I was pleasantly surprised with what I got: a juicy, flavorful burger that was cooked exactly the way I like it.

Unlike every other burger place I tested, BurgerMeister lets you decide how long you want your patty to sit on the grill. You can also choose the size of your patty; they offer half-pound and third-pound burgers.

And while BurgerMeister wasn’t the best of the burgers I tried, I was satisfied with what I got.

The fries were not the best or worst we ate, but they were good. My son preferred their milkshake to In-N-Out’s, though, saying it was more chocolatey (it’s infused with chocolate syrup).

Bottom line: Baron’s wins the day in this test, though BurgerMeister also delivered a satisfying meal.

Scolari’s Good Eats, 1303 Park Street, 521-2400; 2301 Monarch Street, 521-3287. Baron’s Eats, 1650 Park Street; 263-9915. BurgerMeister, 2319 Central Avenue; 865-3032.

Alameda Grill

At this point I’d like to send a special shout-out to the Alameda Grill, which has been serving up burgers on the Island since 1993.

The patties? Premade, based on the photo on their website. Quality of the beef? Who knows. But in terms of burger-scarfing goodness this place is everything a local burger stand should be, offering a pink, juicy patty (which I’ve had them wrap in lettuce) with a smile, along with extra napkins once I’ve coated my fingers in meat juice, mustard and ketchup.

As a bonus, I’m entertained by a group of teenage gearheads who serenade me with “Bohemian Rhapsody” while I eat (Alameda Grill is attached to a bike shop).

Alameda Grill’s menu includes a variety of burgers (including salmon, chicken, turkey and tofu), sandwiches and even Korean plates. If you’re just looking to scarf and go or for a quick takeout option, this is the place to be.

Alameda Grill, 1520 Park Street; 523-1700.

American Oak

We wind up our burger taste test at American Oak, which, cards on the table, I have always considered the best burger in town.

American Oak opened in 2012 as a hip gastropub offering friendly service, high quality eats – and more than 250 whiskeys. While its menu is seasonal, its burger – a half pound of Kobe beef on a brioche bun – is a signature mainstay, and my personal go-to on the rare occasion I get a craving for beef.

When the plate finally arrives I’m instantly reminded why I saved this burger for last: Before me is a perfectly cooked slab of beef, charred on the outside and juicy inside, dressed only in onions and a sheaf of lettuce (thoughtfully situated beneath the patty, to keep the bun dry).

The burger is accompanied by super-thin shoestring fries whose crispy exteriors surround buttery insides. And even though I’m sick of burgers and am now afraid to try on a pair of jeans, I scarf the whole burger and a good quantity of fries, burger belly and diet be damned.

I stumble out of American Oak holding my stomach, ready for a burger-induced nap – and a few weeks’ worth of salads.

American Oak, 2319 Santa Clara Avenue; 521-5862.

Comments

Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Fri, Jun 5, 2015

Comprehensive and a good read as always, Michele. I'm going to have to try Baron's - wasn't aware of that.

My beef with Scolari's is that it is really expensive for a to-go burger. Thanks!

Submitted by TK (not verified) on Fri, Jun 5, 2015

Have not yet tried Baron's, but now I have to!

Scolari's is the best burger I've had so far, BUT also the WORST burgers I've had so far. I have had them screw up my order so many times I cannot take the risk any longer. Nothing worse than ordering a burger well done with no onions, only to get home to find it cooked rare and smothered in onions.

Your comment about BurgerMeister being the only place you could order the type of patty you want made me chuckle. I *always* order my Habit and INO burgers well done. Five Guys sells 'em that way. I hate Five Guys fries, so I don't typically get burgers from there, but I *do* love their BLT. I also like the fact that you can order online and pick it up quickly.

Submitted by Gabe (not verified) on Fri, Jun 5, 2015

Something not mentioned here, but I'd advocate a trial there as well, on Wednesdays, the Little House Cafe (http://littlehousecafe.com/wordpress/) has a burger special, beef or turkey. As a note, if you don't mention they tend to cook the burgers a bit more rare than I like (definitely mid-rare, edging towards rare some days depending on how busy they are) but they will cook to order if you mention you'd like it closer to medium, it comes out slightly pink and very juicy, which is how I like it.

Submitted by Angela Hockabout (not verified) on Fri, Jun 5, 2015

I just discovered that Ole's burgers are my favorite. All the flavor without the extra salt and grease and I had mine with bacon, cheese and bbq sauce and didn't feel gross afterwards.

Submitted by Gil (not verified) on Fri, Jun 5, 2015

Very well done, Michele (Bad pun intended)
When I wrote about burgers for the Alameda Sun in 2009,the two best were the Culina Burger- from Pappo chef John Thiel, and the Gold Coast Grill’s eponymous Gold Coast Burger.

Both were spectacular- featuring hand- molded, five- ounce patties of ground chuck, perfectly grilled, medium- rare. That seems to be the ideal patty size for a burger.

Because I am a “PIG” (Picky, Insufferable Glutton) I didn’t bother reviewing places that used pre-fab patties. In 2009, that snobby criteria ruled out every other Alameda burger joint.

In my not so humble opinion, the greatest Alameda burger was the late Season To Taste’s bleu cheese burger. It was five ounces of perfectly –grilled chuck on fresh ciabatta, with melted Maytag bleu cheese, caramelized onions, thinly sliced tomato, red-leaf lettuce and aioli.

It passed the five-napkin, ultimate burger test. You’d bite into it, and warm rivulets of savory juices would drip down your arms, onto your shirt, into your lap, onto your pants, and into the bag of warm, crispy homemade chips that came with it. It took five napkins to clean up the mess, but you didn’t care .You had ascended to burger nirvana.

I believe that Season To Taste’s great burger vibe is very much alive at the Alameda Marketplace. It was channeled by the Culina burger, and lives today in Baron’s Eats 5150
burger.

It’s a beautiful thing!

Gil Michaels

Submitted by BW (not verified) on Fri, Jun 5, 2015

As a longtime aficionado of In-N-Out (former SoCal resident), I've learned that the fries pass muster only if you order them "well-done." It takes longer, but is definitely worth it! In fact, the best fries I've ever had were at the Alameda In-N-Out on opening day - even with lines around the block, they delivered a gourmet-tasting basket of well-done fries in about 5 minutes...

Submitted by Jim (not verified) on Fri, Jun 5, 2015

Think you need to go back to Scolaris. You are the first person I've heard say they had a bad burger there. For me their food is consistently excellent, especially the burgers.

Submitted by deb (not verified) on Fri, Jun 5, 2015

Scolari's burgers are amazing.Maybe takeout isn't good for food.

Submitted by M. T. (not verified) on Fri, Jun 5, 2015

Red Onion also has great burgers.

Submitted by b. (not verified) on Fri, Jun 5, 2015

Bummer that you had a not-so-great experience w/Scolari's. The "proper" way to eat a Scolari's burger is to take your number next door to The Lucky 13 and order yourself a nice cold beer and then watch the people walking by as you wait for them to bring you your burger. Also, the magic words at Scolari's are "Medium-Rare"! Never had a bad experience!

Submitted by Kyle Hansen (not verified) on Fri, Jun 5, 2015

I find some of this article a little....questionable. Opinions are just that, and I openly accept yours, but when it comes to Scolari's? That is where I did a little twitch and tilted my head to the side in the exact manner my dog used to do when I looked at him and said "dog park?" Scolari's, in my midwestern beef aficionado opinion, is HANDS DOWN, the best burger on the island. I have never had a bad experience with any food I have ordered there. I took a friend from TX there a while back and we ordered burgers. We went next door to the Lucky 13 and got 2 cold pints and we waited. I had an evil grin in my mind knowing how great the gift we were about to receive was. This fellow is a foodie. Actualy, he is MUCH more than that. He has eaten food all over the place. He is an absolute maniacal gluttonous food junkie. He doesn't eat garbage food and he himself is tied for the best personal cook I have ever known. When our food arrived he looked at it with joy, but I have seen him be displeased with substandard cooking so many times it hurts to mention. So as he sunk his teeth into his burger, I sipped my Pliny (pronounced PLIN-ee not PLINE-ee if you have a clue or know history) and waited for his reaction. His eyes rolled back in his head and after he swallowed he looked me in stark disbelief and joy. I just laughed and started eating. When we were finished I asked him what he thought. I don't remember the exact words, but they were somewhere along the abridged version is "omg, awesome." Scolari's is the best on the island. Period.

Submitted by Kyle Hansen (not verified) on Fri, Jun 5, 2015

further unsolicited opinion? Five guys is comparable to cod McDonalds although their Fries are OK. The Alameda Grill is great for a quick burger and a very reliable "go to." In-N-Out, well the only way to order a burger there (IMO) is "Animal Style" and always ask for the fries well done. The 5150 at Baron's is good, although not "Scolari's" good, and the fries there are excellent.

Submitted by Ru (not verified) on Fri, Jun 5, 2015

Couldn't agree more on the burger at American Oak. Top in town, and the fries are fantastic. It's even on yes brunch menu

Submitted by Patrick Rouse (not verified) on Fri, Jun 5, 2015

A little known treasure on our island is the doughnut shop just outside the base. They have phenomenal burgers. My favorite is a double bacon cheese burger with jalapenos. And their French fries are pretty awesome as well.

Submitted by Alison (not verified) on Fri, Jun 5, 2015

We like Burgermeister or Red Onion. A 5 Guys opened near me when I lived on the east coast & it was really good at first. Then it became "meh." When it opened here, we tried it again- still "meh." But 5G fries are consistently the best around.

The secret to burgers is that they have to be eaten at the point of purchase. Wrapping them "to go" is akin to involuntary manslaughter. Unless it's a drive-thru kind of burger food group (separate in my mind). Those are mostly DOA, so not much makes them worse. Thanks for a fun round-up & confirmation that Habit is about the hype. We were waiting for the crowds to die down, which was long enough for the rumor mill. We won't bother.

Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Fri, Jun 5, 2015
Submitted by Michael Fries (not verified) on Fri, Jun 5, 2015

At Habit, you can order your burger with "leaf lettuce" if you desire. They don't advertise this I just tried it one day. I don't like Burgermeister buns which just come in via Oroweat truck. Doesn't seem good enough for a sit-down restaurant.

Submitted by Mary Ellen McMuldren (not verified) on Sat, Jun 6, 2015

Nations is pretty good.

Submitted by James Scurlock (not verified) on Sat, Jun 6, 2015

Interesting stuff and everyone has their opinion but I have to disagree with the description of The Habit as fast foody. It's a bona fide California institution, founded almost fifty years ago in Santa Barbara with hand cut chix breasts, line caught tuna, choice beef and always perfect avocado. There's no drive-thru, cashiers wearing headsets, up selling, advertising or prefab patties. The decor is more like a casual dining place than a Wendy's or Jack-In-The-Box or whatever. I would never set foot in a fast food joint and I find myself at The Habit a lot.

Submitted by Doug Bloch (not verified) on Sun, Jun 7, 2015

Thanks for doing this!

Try the Poblano Burger at the 1400 Bar and Grill. Not the best you'll ever eat but consistently good and the proprietors are two of the nicest guys you will ever meet. Great staff, good atmosphere too!

Submitted by Michale Torres (not verified) on Sun, Jun 7, 2015

while I realize Pappo is a completely different type of dining experience than those you named, I believe their burger with egg is one of the best in town, albeit $15 or more...great reviews in any case. Thank you.

Submitted by nora (not verified) on Sun, Jun 7, 2015

What...no Foster Freeze? Thanks for the comparisons. I was disappointed when the burger I ordered at Scolari's, though it smelled and looked great, seemed rather tasteless. I think it was completely unsalted. And then there's the price.
For my money, In-n-Out has the best value. I order whole grilled onions instead of the default, and you can order extra lettuce and tomato for free. Root beer floats are great and not as heavy as a full shake. Mmmm!

Submitted by John (not verified) on Sun, Jun 7, 2015

Cinema Grill and (believe it or not La Penca Azul) also make tasty burgers.

Submitted by Kate (not verified) on Mon, Jun 8, 2015

The burger I had at East End Pizza over the weekend was absolutely delicious!!!! Will be back there very soon to enjoy again..