It’s a Wild, Wild World of Burgers

There are more types in the East Bay than you can imagine: Our selective guide to classics, far-out versions, unburgery burgers, and chain options.


Published:

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

There may be no more quintessential American food than the burger. Nor one that’s as ubiquitous. So, my first thought upon being assigned a roundup of the East Bay burger scene —after landing a leaping fist-pump — was how in the world can I encapsulate this into one story? There are so many in so many styles at so many different types of restaurants. I didn’t have the time, stomach space, or artery width to try them all.

But I took a pretty damn good shot at it. What I discovered defies easy summary. There does seem to be a return to simplicity with restaurants using just a few iconic toppings — tomatoes, cheese, lettuce, pickles — perhaps best exemplified by Chris Kronner’s meticulously curated and assembled Henry’s Burger. Then again, Scolari’s most popular version comes with blueberries, blue cheese, and bacon, and it’s pretty awesome.

Thinner smash-griddled patties, often doubled-up, as perfected at the enduringly delicious Trueburger are everywhere. Then again, Chop Bar’s patty is a thick, juicy brick, while Perle Wine Bar’s decadent creation is cooked on a mesquite grill. 

Retro ’50s-era Americana offerings are in, like Sequoia Diner’s patty melt and the chili-cheeseburger at Lovely’s. Then again, Dyafa serves an elegantly satisfying Middle eastern spin, while Belly mixes in Korean barbecue marinade sauce and kimchi aioli. 

A handful of (gasp!) smaller chains have even entered the fray, offering a quality and responsible product you don’t have to order with a paper bag over your head.   

In short, it’s a wild, wild burger world out there brimming with more — and more diverse — options than ever before. What follows is an attempt to reflect that diversity in a list of some of the best versions that I came across. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to eat a salad.

 

The Classics

HENRY'S

When it comes to this particular topic, Chris Kronner wrote the book. Literally. His A Burger to Believe in came out earlier this year to rave reviews and offers a deep dive into his obsessive quest to crafting the perfect burger. His eponymous Kronnerburger on Piedmont Avenue closed earlier this year, but you can still taste Kronner’s attention to detail at Henry’s, the longtime and recently renovated Cal watering hole where he’s taken over kitchen operations.

Henry’s burger is a bit different from the Kronnerburger — using a mix of fresh and dry-aged pasture-raised, grass-fed, organic Cream Co. beef versus all dry-aged — and I actually like it better. It’s more accessible with a slightly smaller patty that’s less aggressive in flavor. This allows the charred-on-the-outside, rare-nearly-raw-on-the-inside beef to mix in juicy harmony with the other excellent ingredients — chilled iceberg lettuce, crispy housemade pickles, an excellent Tartine-baked sweet potato bun — for a final product that’s at once completely familiar and uniquely special.

Comes with: Fries.

Upgrades: Roasted bone marrow, anyone?

Atmosphere: Upscale pub.

Quibble: I liked the small 4-ounce patty but some may find it too small. 

Price: $15.

2600 Durant Ave., Berkeley, GraduateHotels.com/berkeley/restaurant/henrys.

 

photo by lance yamamoto

Chris Kronner uses a few iconic ingredients on his Henry's Burger.

 

CHOP BAR

If Henry’s burger is all understated charm, Chop Bar’s hits you over the head (or the gut) with an anvil. This thing is big and thick and comes standard with bacon, avocado, and a juicy slice of tomato. It’s also really good; the excellent quality Marin Sun Farms beef is juicy as hell with a flavor-packed char-griddled exterior and perfectly rare interior. You’ll need a nap, but you’ll sleep the sleep of the righteous. 

Comes with: A pile of fresh, lightly dressed arugula. Probably a wise move.

Upgrades: Cowboy onions (sweet, grilled onions) are $1.

Atmosphere: An easy, friendly, better-quality-than-it-has-to-be neighborhood joint. 

Quibble: Don’t order this on a first date: The Acme bun pretty much disintegrates with burger juice after the third bite, leaving you licking your hands for the rest of the meal.

Price: $15.

247 Fourth St., Oakland, OaklandChopBar.com.

 

TRUEBURGER

Oakland’s original new-school, old-school burger joint drew headlines (and long lines) when it opened in 2010. Nearly a decade — and surprisingly just one new location — later and TrueBurger is still slinging those same delicious smash-griddled “cheesy” burgers using all-natural, ground-daily beef with tomato, lettuce, and American cheese between soft egg buns. Ironically, part of its appeal for me now is similar to the fast-food chains against which TrueBurger originally set itself apart: Familiarity and consistency. I know what I’m going to get, and I know I’m going to like it. There’s something reassuring about that.

Comes with: Free pickles!

Upgrades: Make it a double.

Atmosphere: Oakland at its unpretentious best.

Quibble: They can lay that garlic mayo on a little thick.

Price: $7.25 (with cheese). (Another thing that hasn’t changed much is the price.)

146 Grand Ave. and 4101 Broadway, Oakland, TrueBurgerOakland.com.

 

Good God, What Are You Doing? OK, That’s Actually Pretty Good

SCOLARI'S

This blueberry bacon blue cheese au poivre really shouldn’t work. The blue cheese is extra pungent, the blueberry sauce super sweet, and the peppercorn-crusted patty sharply spicy. But when they all come together in the same bite, something magical happens as each in-your-face ingredient balances out the other into a feisty but oddly enjoyable mix. Credit to Scolari’s irreverent head chef and owner Michael Boyd, who is not afraid to try out wild flavor combos — he cribbed this idea for this one from a former foodie bouncer who worked at Lucky 13 next-door — in the hopes of creating burger magic.

Comes with: Nothing.

Upgrades: I dare you to add a fried egg to the mix.

Atmosphere: Fast, loud, and fun.

Quibble: Why bother with the red onion?

Price: $15.

1303 Park St., Alameda, ScolarisGoodEats.com.

photo by lance yamamoto

KON-TIKI

How do you improve on a cheeseburger in paradise? You put a thick slice of fried up spam on it, and it becomes a burger with crispy Spam. Sure, maybe it’s unnecessary, since Kon-Tiki’s non-Spammed burger is excellent on its own, an utterly comforting and compact package starting with super-flavorful smash-griddled double patties made with Cream Co. Beef, plus melty American cheese, squishy sesame seed bun, and a touch of pineapple-Maui onion jam and Kewpie mayo for cultural Tiki context. But what the heck, why not slip some spam in there for an extra layer of salty, greasy goodness?

Comes with: Nothing minus some bread-and-butter-style sweet pickles — but if you’re not backing up that burger with an unnaturally colored cocktail, you’re doing something wrong.

Upgrades: The Spam. I didn’t try the heirloom tomato for $1.50, but it’s not a bad idea.

Atmosphere: Tiki-riffic.

Quibble: Hard to see your food in the dark light.

Price: $15 without Spam.

347 14th St, Oakland, TheKon-TikiOakland.com.

 

LOVELY'S

It’s a bit of a hot mess, this chili cheeseburger. But that’s kind of the point at Lovely’s, a pop-up by Mikey Yoon that’s been slinging a streamlined menu of drive-through-style grub out of The Lodge bar on Piedmont Avenue since earlier this year. And I couldn’t put it down once I wrapped my taste buds around this amorphous mix of meats, the juicy crumbly hand-formed patty topped by American cheese melding magically into the deeply flavorful chili with each bite. I particularly loved the sliced jalapenos and classic yellow mustard for a perfect hit of bite and tang. Simple, sloppy, yummy.

Comes with: Isn’t the chili enough?

Upgrades: Hush pups, fried mushrooms, and fries that you can also load with chili.

Atmosphere: Hipster-chalet.

Quibble: The threat of this pop-up going away fills me with dread.

Price: $8 ($6 for the basic cheeseburger).

Inside The Lodge, 3758 Piedmont Ave, Oakland.

 

The International Set

PERLE

Likely the best burger origins story I came across was from Perle owner Rob Lam, who said his creation, Perle’s French onion dip burger, was inspired by watching the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest in which contestants dip their hot dog buns in water to moisten them before eating. It’s the same concept, except much more decadent, for his French onion dip concoction. The idea is to dip an already delicious burger into a side of similarly delicious French onion soup until “you can literally use your tongue to eat it,” Lam said. “Dude, this is the fastest burger ever eaten; you just inhale it.”

It’s not subtle, but the result makes total sense within the context of Lam’s French bistro concept. And it’s executed flawlessly. The nearly-fall-apart meat — a custom mix of Angus certified chuck, short rib, and prime rib — is faintly fragranced by the mesquite grill, draped with a melty Gruyère-havarti cheese blend, and encased in a house-made Hokkaido milk bun that acts as a perfect sponge for the soup. This may have had the most intensely delicious flavor of any burger I tried.

Comes with: It’s in the name: French onion soup. There are some greens, too.

Upgrades: For $32 you can get gild the lily with foie gras and shaved truffle.

Atmosphere: A haven of adult sophistication in kid-friendly Montclair.

Quibble: I ate it too fast.

Price: $16 — but just $10 on the happy hour menu!

2058 Mountain Blvd., Oakland, PerleWineBar.com.

photo by lance yamamoto

DUENDE

I like a chef with a sense of humor. Paul Canales’ burger at his Uptown Spanish eatery is presented cheekily with a bright-red campo de montalban-stuffed piquillo pepper arranged atop the patty like a KISS tongue pointed directly at the diner. Clever. But also delicious as the flame-charred pepper and sharp melted cheese within add layers of smoky-sweet and savory flavor (effectively replacing the standard sautéed onions and bacon). The mix of beef and lamb packs a rich gaminess without going too far. And the pile of baby arugula on top makes it all healthy … 

Comes with: Kennebec potato chips.

Upgrades: The sangria pairs surprisingly well with the burger.

Atmosphere: Dark industrial chic.

Quibble: The burger is a little small — but every bite packs a punch.

Price: $16.

468 19th St., Oakland, DuendeOakland.com.

 

BELLY

The popular Uptown fast-casual spot is better known for its Korean-Mexican-California tacos and burritos, but it brings the same SoCal-bred fusion philosophy to its burgers. The nearly foot-tall burger comes stacked high with impossibly light-and-crispy tempura-fried red onions that accordion down upon gripping the buttery brioche bun to make it all bite-able. Tart house pickled cucumbers mix with tangy garlic aioli, sautéed mushrooms, and cheddar, while the kicker is the burger itself marinated in a sweet-salty bulgogi-style Korean barbecue sauce.

Comes with: Nothing. But Korean-Cali fries are loaded with sirloin, kimchi, sour cream, and a fried egg if you’re really hungry.

Upgrade: Add housemade kimchi ($1.50) for extra funk.

Atmosphere: Airy, casual, and friendly in a hip LA kind of way.

Quibble: The kimchi aioli was blown away by all the other elements.

Price: $12.50.

1901 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, BellyUptown.com.

 

Wait, Is This Actually a Burger?

DYAFA

The kefta burger at Dyafa is maybe — OK, definitely — closer to a wrap. But, oh, what a wrap! Reem Asil’s new upscale Oakland project, Dyafa in Jack London Square, uses her deliciously spongy signature Palestinian-style fresh baked flatbread as the vehicle for delivering moist kefta patties made from ground halal beef marinated with chopped onions, parsley, and Middle Eastern spices. Lettuce, carrots, and cabbage offer lightness and crunch, while the lemony tahini brings creamy brightness to each bite.

It’s assuredly outside the usual definition—in fact, Asil recently removed “burger” from the title on the menu, because diners expected something more burgerlike. But it’s worth a try for nontraditionalists.. 

Comes with: You can add a fattoush side salad for $5.

Upgrades: Nothing, but it’d be a shame not to try her mezze sampler of housemade dips.

Atmosphere: Lovely, diverse, and super friendly.

Quibble: The place feels a little lonely located on the edge of the cavernously empty Jack London Marketplace.

Price: $14.

44 Webster St, Oakland, DyafaOakland.com.

 

SEQUOIA DINER

A ground beef patty with cheese between two slices of bread? Call it what you want, but a patty melt is a burger in my book. Sequoia’s version of this old-school American diner staple is basically a spin on a Reuben. Instead of corned beef, however, a juicy burger is paired with grilled onions, tangy pickle-spiked Russian dressing, and Swiss, all between two slices of hearty housemade rye bread.

Comes with: Amazing potato salad that’s about worth the price tag by itself.

Atmosphere: A contemporary spin on a classic American diner that’s absolutely humming. Sit at the counter if there’s space.

Quibble: Slippery grilled onions and hearty bread can cause burger ejection.

Price: $14.50.

3719 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, SequoiaDiner.com.

 

IMPOSSIBLE FOODS

I didn’t try any burgers made from the miraculous faux meat made by Impossible Foods. Not because I wasn’t curious, but because so many places offer versions. It would have required eating double the amount just to pick the best one, and that’s a whole separate story. The sheer number of options for non-meat eaters here — nearly 20 according to Impossible’s website — is impressive and encouraging.

ImpossibleFoods.com.   

 

Burgers Un-Chained

BELCAMPO

It has seven locations scattered across California, but Belcampo is about as far from fast food as you can get, a point made crystal clear by the mini flag planted in the burger’s brioche bun designating it “Organic & Pasture Raised.” Belcampo controls every aspect of its supply chain, raising its animals on its own organic farm in Northern California, killing them humanely in its processing facility, and selling the meat at its butcher shops and restaurants. It’s a unique and commendable commitment to sourcing meat — but is the burger any good?

Yes, yes it is.

What sticks out most about Belcampo’s signature burger is the silky-soft, buttery, juicy beef, dry-aged for 28 days, that just melts in your mouth. The rest — aged cheddar, jam-like concentrated caramelized onions, and a thin piece of butter lettuce — is designed to let the meat shine.

Comes with: Fries. Really good, double-fried fries that you can upgrade to ones cooked in tallow if you haven’t reached your daily quota of animal fat.

Upgrades: For dinner, they offer a 100-day dry-aged burger for … $32. (Or you could just order two of their signature burgers and stick them in your fridge for 72 days.) 

Atmosphere: Very un-chain. It’s a fantastic sit-down location on the Jack London Square waterfront — grab a table on the outdoor patio if you can. 

Quibble: You’ll want to eat two.

Price: $16.

55 Webster St., Oakland, Belcampo.com.

 

SUPER DUPER

This SF-based minichain (there are about a dozen locations around the Bay Area) uses humanely raised, vegetarian-fed, ground-fresh-daily beef for its mini-burgers. (It also uses organic dairy from Straus Family Creamery for the shakes and the packaging is 100 percent compostable, among other laudable touches). Importantly, Super Duper makes a mean little burger. I appreciated the petite 4-ounce size of the mini, which comes neatly wrapped and packs a ton of juicy flavor for under $6. 

Comes with: Free housemade pickles.

Upgrades: Make it a double patty for $8.25.

Atmosphere: Bright and colorful. Fast foody but much less depressing. Look out for a new location in the Emeryville Public Market toward the end of the year.

Quibble: Nothing really — this might have been the best-value burger I tried.

Price: $5.75.

2355 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley, SuperDuperBurgers.com.

 

FARM BURGER

A Georgia-based chain bringing responsibly sourced burgers to Berkeley? The nerve. But Farm Burger, which has around a dozen locations mostly in the Southeast, delivers with the FB Burger, a  thick pepper-crusted patty and California-sourced, hormone-free, grass-fed, ground-fresh beef topped with aged Vermont cheddar. 

Comes with: Fries are extra, but there is a daily lunch combo with fries and a drink on offer, so go for it. 

Upgrades: Toppings are plentiful and eclectic, ranging from pickles, red onion, and tomatoes to local goat cheese, roasted bone marrow, and oxtail marmalade. 

Atmosphere: Industrial eco-chic. Think reclaimed wood, exposed ceiling, and photos of organic-looking farms and happy cows on the wall.

Quibble: The meat was a little on the bland side and the caramelized onions soupy and messy.

Price: $9.95.

1313 Ninth St., No. 130, Berkeley, FarmBurger.com/berkeley-ca

Add your comment: