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Jul 26, 2009 03:04 PM

Burger Picks for Santa Cruz

As you can tell from my alias, I believe it's time to revisit the burger situation in Santa Cruz.

Ok, so it’s tough to say which is the best burger. Sometimes you can be in the mood for different things.

Here are some of my picks:

Downtown Santa Cruz

Hula’s – The Cajun burger is surprisingly good, but make sure you get the grilled mushrooms with it.
Hindquarter – The burger standard in Santa Cruz.
Jack’s Burgers – Great value and flavor for a burger stand.

Scotts Valley

Chubby’s Diner – They have a good home made burger, although it is served on a roll instead of a bun.


Gayle’s Bakery – Burgers are not on the lunch or dinner menu every day. If you time it right though, you’ll find they have excellent bacon cheeseburgers.
Chili’s – If you like a BBQ burger, this is a good spot. They also have smoked Applewood bacon burgers. Can you tell I like bacon?


Bittersweet Bistro – Their sliders are very good and Thursday nights they’re half price.


Wooden Nickel – They produce some really great hamburgers, also served on rolls.

If you want to venture out of Santa Cruz, try these:

Pacific Grove

Toastie’s – The teriyaki burger is a house favorite. Again, another burger served on a roll. I prefer buns, pun intended.

Los Gatos

Main St. Burgers – With a classic atmosphere and menu, they hit the mark.

San Jose

Ono Café – They have a gourmet and fairly expensive Wagyu beef burger with Brie.

I wouldn’t say the Bay Area or Central Coast are ground zero for burger fans. There’s a bit of catching up to do, but there’s hope. I started my burger career at Bob’s Big Boy when I was three. Bob’s is the home of the original double decker burger. It was bigger than me. The Big Mac was inspired by the Big Boy. And for you burger historians, here’s a bit of insight:

The original hamburger claimed to be invented by Wisconsin native Charlie Nagreen in 1885 had a meat patty placed in between two slices of bread. There was also the Menches brothers who called it a hamburger during the Erie County Fair, also in 1885 and served between two slices of bread. Today, we call this a patty melt. The first known hamburger on a bun was invented by Oscar Weber Bilby during a July 4, 1891 BBQ in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This is where the hamburger as we know it today was born. These were hickory wood grilled Angus burgers on home made, secret recipe yeast buns and popular with hundreds of people. Lionel Sternberger invented the cheeseburger in 1924 at his father’s sandwich shop in Pasadena, California.

A burger without a bun is a Salisbury or Hamburg Steak, made popular by German immgrants to the US during the 18th and 19th centuries. Salisbury Steak made a big comeback when the TV dinner was invented in the 20th century. It's also making a minor comeback (like spam) in the recession-plagued 21st century.

Genghis Khan would use scrapings of lamb or mutton which were formed into flat patties and consumed raw. The Russians adopted it into their own cuisine with the name "Steak Tartare," (Tartars being their name for the Mongols).

Even ancient Egyptians ate ground meat. I know, I know, “What didn’t the ancient Egyptians do?”

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  1. I think Betty Burger is the best.

    1. I've done some of the rounds, but not as extensively. I'll say up front that my perfect burger would be fairly large (like a half-pound), have excellent quality meat, a good char on the outside, and cooked to somewhere between medium-rare and medium (something like a reddish-pink throughout). Finding a place that has the quality of meat to pull all of this off around Santa Cruz isn't easy. As for buns, as long as they keep the dripping juices somewhat at bay, I'm fine.

      I would add to your list:

      515: Their lamb burger (lunch only, I think) was outstanding the one time I had it. And it doesn't hurt that their fries are really good - and I'm not generally all that partial to the shoestring variety which these are.

      Johnny's Harborside: I find their burger rather satisfying, mainly because the size (half-pound), the quality of the beef (they advertise Creekstone Black Angus), and the quality thick-cut bacon they top it with. Probably my favorite local burger. Fries are OK.

      Linda's Seabreeze: They have a nice house made burger. At least the meat is pretty decent. Their fries are a bit weird (the insides comes out a bit like mashed potatoes) but oddly tasty nonetheless. I'll admit that I prefer the turkey sandwich here, so I rarely order the burger.

      Comments on above suggestions:

      Hindquarter: tried once, didn't think too much of it for the price, maybe have to go back and try again.

      Jack's: yes, everybody loves this place. I think it's OK for a fast food joint, but really not all that special.

      Wooden Nickel: I stopped there recently and thought the burger was pretty good, but not worth a special trip.

      Main St.: Been there a couple of times, and certainly wasn't wowed.

      Betty's: not a big fan. There's something funny about it.

      I'll give Hula, Gayle's and Chubby's a try.

      2 Replies
      1. re: bouncepass

        Hi bouncepass,

        Thanks for your suggestions. Here are my comments:

        515: I haven't been there since it was Sports Bar & Grill. I'll give that lamb burger a try - sounds tasty.

        Johnny's Harborside: I have been to Johnny's, but only for seafood. If that's your favorite local burger, then I'll definitely give it some attention.

        Linda's Seabreeze: I might stop in there sometime when it's not too crowded.

        Betty's: I totally agree with you. I've been there once, didn't care for it. The buns were big and dry and crumbly. The meat was odd.

        1. re: bouncepass

          I finally tried 515. The lamb burgers were excellent! They were actually sliders. Great Mediterranean flavors. The shoestring fries were well cooked. I liked them. Actually, I was impressed with the whole menu at 515. The prices are reasonable for brunch. I'm looking forward to more new burger tastings in Santa Cruz.

          Great recommendation bouncepass!

          515 Kitchen and Cocktails
          515 Cedar St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

        2. I had the burger at Oswald in downtown SC last night and thought it was good but not great. The good: the meat is freshly ground, juicy, and beefy. Cooked to a nice medium-rare. The not great: the roquefort cheese is overpowering and the bun is wimpy and boring. The cheese and sweet caramelized onions made it too rich w/ little textural contrast. Next time, I might ask if they can sub another type of cheese (such as gruyere) and add a nice slice of tomato. Fries were very tasty and addictive. Reasonable price at $11. Bar and lunch menu only.

          I have liked the sliders at Red in the past, but it's been a long time since I've been there. I was always impressed that they made their own buns.

          While I detest most everything I've tried at Zachary's, the burger w/ bacon and avocado was pretty tasty the time I had a bite of my brother's burger a couple of years ago.

          I had a very tasty burger at Kelly's Bakery a couple of years ago, and it looks like they still have it on their sandwich menu. Good bun, creamy garlicky aioli, and crispy fries.

          I still need to try that lamb burger at 515...

          2 Replies
          1. re: Carb Lover

            Ok, I finally tried the burger at Johnny's. It was awful - worse than a greasy double cheeseburger at McDonalds. The bun was white and doughy, greasy too. The meat was very peppery with a weird taste, like it had been sitting out all day. This was a terrible burger! The only thing good about it was the bacon. Of course, you all know by now I like my bacon.

            I was thinking they were just off today, but we had other dishes that were delicious. The Lettuce Wraps were excellent. The Ahi Tuna Tartare was my favorite. We had yummy salads too. So it was very disappointing to have such a bad, bad burger. It was so bad the waiter couldn't look me in the eye afterwards; he definitely knew. It's not his fault though. You just don't serve garbage like that. If I was feeling especially mean, I would have sent it back. It was very disappointing. I'll stick to the seafood at Johnny's.

            1. re: Burger Expert

              I actually find Johnny's to be okay but overpriced in general, especially for breakfast.

          2. I kinda like the burger at Village Host Pizza. It's better than their pizza. I order a double with mozzarella.

            What do you think of Carpo's?

            1 Reply
            1. re: Matt of Aptos

              I don't really care for Carpo's burger. It's not that I think it's a bad burger, it's just not my style. I would eat it if I was hungry and there was nothing else to eat, but otherwise I would pass. The bun is definitely not my favorite and the meat can be old sometimes.

            2. I'm sorry to hear about the Johnny's experience. I think I've had that burger three times and can't say I ever thought it was terrible. Generally hovered around "pretty good" to "fairly tasty".

              I tried the burger at Oswald (bar only, I believe) and it was outstanding. Definitely a couple of tiers above any other place that I've tried in the area. Fairly classic, actually. Aioli, sharp cheddar, lettuce, tomato, onion. Reasonably generous size. Big plate of fries comes with it. The fries are atypical - they seem single fried rather than the usual twice fried, and thus have a bit of an In-n-Out geshtalt to them, albeit much thicker. I liked them fairly well, which is way more than I can say for the I-n-O fries which I find virtually inedible. If we could have the Oswald burger with 515 fries, now that would be just about perfect. In any case, definitely worth trying and hands down, no-contest the best burger in the area that I've had.

              15 Replies
              1. re: bouncepass

                Ok bouncepass, I'm going to make Oswald's my New Year's resolution. I've never been there, but I'm willing to try a highly rated burger.

                1. re: bouncepass

                  I tried the burger today at Oswald. It's available on the lunch menu, which is good because we didn't really want to sit at the bar. This was an excellent burger. A throwback to the old days for sure. The bun was small and perfect. I have to disagree with Carb Lover on this review and side with bouncepass.

                  The meat was the best part. It was big and juicy, really good quality. I love carmelized onions, so it worked for me. However, there was no tomato on my burger. To me, there has to be an essential tomato flavor to make a burger complete. This is not a double decker, all-in-one, no holds bar burger. It's a boutique burger and it serves its purpose. The roquefort cheese was not overpowering for me, but I may have had less than Carb Lover's burger. Overall, I'm very pleased and will definitely recommend it.

                  The fries were decent. Not my favorite, but they didn't suck. I would definitely go for the Oswald burger with 515 fries. bouncepass, you hit the nail on the head!

                  Oswald Restaurants
                  603 Front St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

                  1. re: Burger Expert

                    I'm glad you liked it. The toppings appear to rotate somewhat, but it also seems that one can definitely ask for a substitution without too much grumbling from the kitchen. I asked for cheddar instead of whatever other cheese was on offer last time and it didn't seem to be an issue. I'm not so fastidious about requiring tomato, but they do have that house-made ketchup that I think is awfully good.

                    1. re: bouncepass

                      I went to Smoqe for the first time today. They are a BBQ joint with wood-fired pizza on the menu. However, I went there to try the bison burger and some brisket. The burger was quite good. It definitely had a tasty, smokey flavor to it. A little gamey tasting too, but that made it interesting to me. It came with Irish cheddar and grilled onions, which I always like. The special sauce put it all together for me. You can douse it with ketchup, mustard and other condiments, but I wanted to experience the recommended flavor profile.

                      The bun was a little flimsy though. It was a focaccia bun. The flavor was good and it was shaped like a burger bun, but it fell a part a little bit. There was no tomato or lettuce available either. Also, I ordered the burger well done and it came medium rare. Still, not a big deal. Overall this was a tasty burger.

                      The staff are friendly and fast. Since this place is new, it's very clean inside. It's conveniently located off the freeway too.

                      Smoqe Bbq
                      10110 Soquel Dr, Aptos, CA 95003

                      1. re: Burger Expert

                        Ok, so this is a follow up for Smoqe. It's not called 'Smokay', it's just smoke with a Q. I tried the 1/2 lb burger with gruyere cheese. Let me tell you this, the meat was good. It had good flavor and was well done, as requested. However, it was more like one of those unimaginative build your own burgers from wherever. Nevertheless, the meat was good. That's important. On a side note, the side salad was very satisfying. I like a good burger with fries or a salad. That's the perfect meal for me. And the fries are good. Darn good.

                        So, Smoqe gets a thumbs up for overall flavor and performance. They need a little polish though. Maybe combine the Irish cheddar on the 1/2 burger and get a new bun.

                        Smoqe Bbq
                        10110 Soquel Dr, Aptos, CA 95003

                        1. re: Burger Expert

                          Wait a second. Are you saying you order your burgers well-done, or are you saying these were well executed burgers? If you're basing your reviews on well-done burgers, that's a game changer.

                          1. re: E Eto

                            I think.....mmmmm both! They are well-executed burgers that were ordered well-done. I don't care for raw meat. I like my burger e.coli free with a nice, cooked flavor. We're not talking about carpaccio here. I like the end cut of prime-rib too, not the pink middle cut that other people want. If I order a well-done burger and it's served medium-rare, then I will not enjoy it as much. If it's rare, I won't eat it.

                            If you're suggesting that burgers cooked well-done are not worthy of reviews, then you are not a true critic. Just because I don't like rare, doesn't mean I can't appreciate someone's affinity for it. I don't like eel either, but you won't see me bashing someone's flavor profile over it.

                            1. re: Burger Expert

                              Clarification shouldn't be confused with bashing. I was asking for some clarity on your criteria for judging burgers, since the last post was the first time I read anything about having them well-done. There's certainly nothing wrong with having your burgers cooked well-done, but for many burger aficionados, a well-done burger and a medium rare/rare burger are completely different dishes. If we're to gauge our tastes based on your preferences, those preferences should be clear at the outset. I just feel I need to change my reading of your burger ratings based on this knowledge.

                              1. re: E Eto

                                You obviously prefer a rare burger. Good luck with that. I stated that it was well-done because most burgers are served medium rare no matter how they're ordered. Most burger aficionados would know this already and wouldn't feel compelled to change their "ratings" of a burger cooked according to specification. They would also know that you can't always special order the way your burger is cooked. I don't always order well-done. I prefer medium-well for kobe and wagyu burgers.

                                1. re: Burger Expert

                                  First of all, I said nothing about preferring a rare burger. I merely stated that since you never revealed your preference for a well-done burger at the outset of your ratings, most burger aficionados may not take your comments as seriously if they had known this fact, and perhaps question your expertise on the subject. And I do believe that most people who know their kobe and wagyu style beef would consider medium-well almost a travesty.

                                  1. re: E Eto

                                    You prefer a medium rare/rare burger as stated above. That means you prefer a rare burger.

                                    1. re: E Eto

                                      Not to raise any more hackles but I think maybe there's a parallel of views here. There are burger lovers and there are beef lovers who also like their burgers. There are burger lovers who like their beef rare and there are beef lovers who like their beef beyond rare/medium rare. I think because burgers are a complex architecture of various components, one who lusts for burgers doesn't necessarily have to in the school who expects rare/medium rare to be the benchmark for a great burger - just a preference to one of its major components. While I lean more toward E Eto's preference, I can totally respect Burger Expert's preference as well. I can see through Burger Expert's writings that you give the whole experience its due respect. I can see E Eto's concern about the previous unknown quantity being "a game changer" in other readers' views.

                                      I think I can say with full confidence that most burger places are reluctant to serve a burger less than medium, for the basic concerns that Burger Expert has. Not many places will freshly grind the meat to order, and go through the painstaking repeated process of assuring the grinder is sanitary throughout the course of its use. For those who seek out their burger patties served in this fashion, the places do exist, and these are the places that one should seek out. But I think to previously assume that views on a burger from one who is an "expert" were based on a patty that's cooked below medium might be a stretch. Just my outsider's view. :)

                                      1. re: bulavinaka

                                        I can certainly appreciate your point of view, although it is somewhat contradictory. I've had many below medium burgers in my experience. It's not hard to find a burger joint that will take less time to cook their meat. On the contrary, most of them under cook their meat on a regular basis. I don't dislike the flavor of a rare grounded beef burger as opposed to a center cut, pink piece of prime rib. I would just rather have it cooked. This is where my expertise comes into focus. I don't denigrate people that prefer a rare burger. However, those that say a rare burger lover is more of an "expert" is incorrect.

                                        The real challenge for any burger maker is to give the customer what they want. If someone orders a medium well patty, then it needs to be prepared and served with all of the flavors that one would expect. The same thing holds true with rare burgers. It's about the flavor quality, whether it's brown or pink inside.

                                        1. re: Burger Expert

                                          I'm from LA, and in this land of burgers, most of the burgers are pretty mediocre. And most won't even offer a degree of doneness. Medium to medium well-done is the standard at the vast majority of places that serve burgers, including anything from fast food joints to even sit-down restaurants. The "doneness" issue has been a minor point of contention on some of the burger threads on the LA Board as well. I think the reason is, the best burgers in most LA Hounds' eyes come from the places that offer levels of doneness, among other aspects of the burger. This just shows an attempt at having a stronger focus on the end product (housemade ketchup and buns, artisan cheeses and other ingredients, etc.). Whether it all comes together is for one to decide.

                                          Please don't take my preference for "rare" burgers as a snub to those who don't. Poster E Eto has a long and notable reputation on Chowhound for his discerning tastes and broad knowledge. All I'm saying is that I lean toward his preference of beef (and most meats in general) being prepared on the rare side (actually I lean toward medium rare). Taste is indisputably an individual's right. While I can respect E Eto's need for clarification on your preference - after all, the burger patty is what it's all about - everything else typically plays a support role (no burger patty, no burger in the true sense, right?) - taking in all the other aspects and determining whether it all comes together is the end-all.

                                          1. re: bulavinaka

                                            I'm also from LA, the birthplace of the double decker burger. When I was young, I preferred rare and medium rare burgers. I would only eat prime rib that was center cut and pink all over. When I first heard about food borne illnesses, I realized that I should develop a taste for end cuts and well done burgers for safety reasons. Along the way, I learned that there is much good flavor with a caramelized, smokey, well done burger. End cut prime rib is also chock full of spices and marbling flavor.

                                            I don't care for rare burgers anymore. Not because I don't like them. It is simply a safety issue for me. Based on my experience, I know that I'm going to continue eating rare and medium rare burgers as they are served. And I will enjoy them with guilty pleasure.

                                            I'd recommend to anyone that prefers rare burgers to broaden your palate and try to enjoy a broad spectrum of flavors. It's good for your health and may give you more perspective on other people's preferences.

                                            While I agree with you that the burger patty is what it's all about, the supporting role of buns, lettuce, onion, tomato, etc. do play an important part. After all, a burger without a bun is a Salisbury steak. If the bun is dry and crumbling, then it degrades the overall burger quality. Condiments have the power to make or break a good review.