Thai Burger Company | An Innovative San Diego Burger

Thai Burger Company | An Innovative San Diego Burger

Food vendors of every stripe bring their a game to the Reader Burgers & Beer Festival, and many bring inspired interpretations of what makes a hamburger. One such restaurant is the Thai Burger Company, and its efforts earned it a most innovative burger distinction in 2017.

North Park Beer Company | Historic Beer Served in Style

North Park Beer Company | Historic Beer Served in Style

About as stylish a brewery as you’ll find anywhere, of course, North Park Beer Co. of San Diego is a namesake of the craft beer rich neighborhood it calls home. Their friendly neighborhood atmosphere and exceptional décor make it a great place to linger and try historic beer styles.

This Beer Is Better Than Wonder Bread

This Beer Is Better Than Wonder Bread

Mission Brewery Located Near Petco Park in Downtown San Diego

Named in honor of one of the first San Diego breweries, Mission Brewery once occupied the 1913 historic landmark that originally housed its namesake. However, while the original Mission shut down a century ago, the current incarnation has become one of San Diego's fastest growing craft breweries.

These days you'll find Mission in the East Village, working out of an even older historic building, a former Wonder Bread factory dating to 1894. While the bread factory used its silos to store wheat, Mission uses them to store barley, crafting a wide variety of boldly flavorful beer styles.

Take one of its more recent recipes: Plunder. The dank IPA offers plenty of bite, courtesy of nine different hop varieties that give it heady aromas of citrus and pine. This can stand up to any burger you throw at it, so double up on bacon and jalapeños if you like, and swig away. But if you really enjoy an outsized beer, brave Mission's burly Dark Seas Russian imperial stout. The inky black 9.8-percent beer boasts a luxurious velvety body, loaded with enough roasty complexity to rival coffee, with notes of plum and port wine delivering endless depths of flavor. It's a beer, and an experience.

The Media Likes Its Burgers Funky

The Media Likes Its Burgers Funky

Funky Burgers and Fries in El Cajon, San Diego

Funky serves big time burgers out in El Cajon, where it recently grew from being a cult favorite hole in the wall to a local destination burger joint, when it moved into a new, larger location. In addition to its signature standard, OG Burger, its loyal customers show up to dig on a dozen creatively constructed burgers that easily live up to the Funky name.

Take the Pizza Burger, topped with pepperoni, sausage, and fried mozzarella sticks. Or the Hangover Burger, which satisfies breakfast cravings with fried egg, hash browns, and bacon. The Southwest Shrimp & Steak is built like it sounds, with surf and turf toppings along with avocado and southwest-style hot sauce. Funky gives the same treatment to hot dogs, and even french fries. You'll find even more takes on dirty fries, smothered by the likes of chili, gyro meat, or buffalo chicken!

Funky Fries & Burgers won the coveted People's Choice award at the first Burgers & Beer contest with its delectable BBQ Pulled Pork Burger, topped by a four hour slow cooked pork, house BBQ sauce, cole slaw, onion rings, melted cheddar, and a drizzle of ranch dressing.

That's tough to beat, but in 2017, owner/chef Sebastian Hallak once again wanted to feature one of his regular menu items. This time he chose the Bacon Mac n Cheese Burger, topped with both melted cheddar and a fried patty of panko-crusted, three-cheese macaroni, served on a brioche bun. Funky didn't repeat as People's Choice, but it did win the Media Hour vote!

The Beer-Burger Pairing of Champions

The Beer-Burger Pairing of Champions

Coronado Brewing Located in Coronado, San Diego

One of San Diego's oldest craft breweries, Coronado Brewing started out small in its brewpub near the Coronado Ferry Landing back in 1996. Today it distributes beer to more than 20 states and 15 foreign countries, and has locations in Imperial Beach and Bay Park. The latter's where it produced the delicious brews that earned it possibly the most prestigious beer award on the planet in 2014: Champion Mid-Size Brewing Company at the biennial World Beer Cup.

Starting out as a brewpub means Coronado's always produced beers with a mind towards pairing with food, and a couple of its longstanding favorites reflect this. It's Mermaid Red ale boasts toffee malts and a dry finish to make it a great match with anything from BBQ to pizza. For more delicately flavored dishes, it's pretty impossible to go wrong washing them down with Coronado's celebrated Orange Ave. Wit, a citrusy Belgian style wheat beer flavored with orange zest, coriander and honey.

Of course, every OG San Diego craft beer brand has an OG IPA, and Coronado's award-winning Islander IPA beautifully delivers piney hop bitterness and grapefruit aromas that go exceptionally well with burgers, or San Diego's other foodie love: tacos.

A Taste of Belgium by Way of San Diego

A Taste of Belgium by Way of San Diego

The Lost Abbey Tasting Room in San Marcos, CA

First to introduce the idea that the centuries-old beer traditions of Trappist Belgian monks could work in a San Diego craft beer setting, this San Marcos brewery started something beautiful. Led by its many, many time award-winning brewer Tomme Arthur, The Lost Abbey has become one of the best recognized names in San Diego beer, internationally.

Any and all high praise has been earned. Lost Abbey consistently produces stellar beers that live up to the exacting standards of its Belgian forebears, whether it's a deceptively simple farmhouse style ale, or a once every three year, barrel aged sour blend that beer fans travel across the country to buy.

For starters, The Lost Abbey's Belgian blonde, Devotion, was made to drink well with lighter, spicier fare than a burger, but the dry, subtly hoppy ale tastes great next to anything. For more savory burgers, try the brewery's Lost & Found, a bigger than it tastes Belgian dubbel. The 8-percent ABV beer offers an almost chocolaty malt finish made interesting by complex, dried fruit character.

But to really dig into The Lost Abbey's use of fruit, go for the summer seasonal Framboise de Amarosa, which ages the Lost & Found ale for a year in red wine barrels, then doses it heavily with fresh raspberries. It's smooth, sour perfection.

Grilled With Extra Sizzle

Grilled With Extra Sizzle

Banzai Bar Near the Sports Arena on Midway in San Diego

The official bar of the San Diego Gulls hockey team, it's not hard to spot this bar and restaurant near their sports arena home in the Midway District — just look for the large yellow neon arrow pointing at its patio. What's easier to miss is that the stylish little spot is a sister restaurant of Little Italy's legendary Waterfront Bar & Grill, home of the city's oldest liquor license and one of San Diego's most storied burgers.

Banzai Bar takes its burger cue from the Waterfront, which is primarily to keep it simple, and let the beef do the heavy lifting. Served with grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, and pickle on a on sesame seed bun, Banzai's burger patties are lightly seasoned with garlic salt, with beef ground with a rich 27-percent fat ratio for extra sizzle on that flat top grill. They're made with superior texture in mind, and always formed by hand, because Nancy Nichols, the family matriarch behind the Waterfront's success, always said that was the secret to making an especially juicy burger.

In the People's Choice contest of the 2017 Burgers & Beer event, Banzai scored runner up honors serving the same beef on a Hawaiian bun slider with American cheese. You may find those in the restaurant, or go with the half-pound Banzai Burger, offered with your choice of available cheeses, because Banzai wants every customer to leave happy.

Burgers Purely to Your Liking

Burgers Purely to Your Liking

San Diego's Pure Burger 100-Percent Grass-Fed Beef

Found in Bressi Ranch, Pure Burger has established a great reputation for itself as North County's premier build a burger joint, and the attention it pays to its beef has a lot to do with that. Always fresh, never frozen, Pure uses 100-percent grass fed beef in its burgers. It's sourced from the family-owned SunFed Ranch in Northern California, where the pasture-raised cattle isn't loaded with the added hormones and antibiotics of factory-farmed beef. Another key to Pure Burger's success is that it receives shipment of whole beef a couple times per week, and grinds it in house daily, with a blend of garlic powder, salt, and pepper, for peak texture and flavor.

The resulting beef patty is served however you like it. Customers get a choice of white or whole grain wheat buns — each baked locally — and even a gluten free option. Real Tillamook cheese options include Swiss, pepper jack, or cheddar; while locally sourced toppings include fresh jalapeño, grilled mushroom, avocado, and pineapple. Where it really gets creative is fifteen different house made sauces to dress the burger, ranging from organic ketchup and a thousand island-style spread to honey sriracha, balsamic mustard, and chipotle aioli.

A Chance to Drink the Best Porter in the Country

A Chance to Drink the Best Porter in the Country

Second Chance Beer Company | Craft Brewery in San Diego

The truth of the matter is, Second Chance co-founder Marty Mendiola did a pretty great job with his first chance, racking up a host of beer medals during his fifteen years brewing for the Rock Bottom brewpub in La Jolla. However, he appears to have saved his best for his second career, overseeing his own Carmel Mountain Ranch brewery: he's done nothing but make superb beer since launching in 2015.

A great example of that is Tabula Rasa toasted porter — which happens to pair superbly with a cheeseburger. In each of its first two years in competition, Tabula Rasa won gold in the robust porters category at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival, meaning the chocolaty, roasted malt beer doesn't merely rank among the best porters in San Diego, but in the entire country.

Another burger-friendly winner is its hoppy American red ale, Legally Red, which cruised on its rich, caramel malts and fruity hops to earn silver in the same competition. But this brewery's worth more than just a second look — every one of its beers tastes fantastic, with or without food. Don't miss its crisp Seize the Day IPA, or the unlikely balance of Seize the Coffee, the same IPA made somehow better with the addition of cold brew coffee. Tasting is believing!

Terra Catering: This Chef Wrote the Book on Great Burgers

Terra Catering: This Chef Wrote the Book on Great Burgers

Terra Catering San Diego | Build Your Own Burger

The first place People's Choice winner in the 2017 running of the Reader's Burgers & Beer competition is this catering company that also represents sister restaurants Terra American Bistro, in La Mesa, and gourmet burger specialist Bunz, in west Mission Valley.

Owner and chef Jeff Rossman wrote the book on making a great burger (Seriously — it's a cookbook titled Build Your Own Burger!). He's also written about cooking with local and seasonal produce, and applies the farm to table practice at his restaurants, whether it's building a perfect salad, cooking up local-catch seafood, or merely topping his burgers with fresh, flavorful produce. Rossman's classic burger features black peppercorn aioli and caramelized onions, though at Bunz you'll find a dozen different burger styles with toppings ranging from the usual smoked bacon, sautéed mushrooms, and crushed avocado; to fried chicken, pulled pork, or tortilla chips.

However, for Burgers & Beer Rossman's sous chef Ken Helm cooked up something special to take the top prize. It started with Jensen Meats beef chuck, grilled extra flavorful and juicy with a 25-percent fat blend. Then, on a toasted Bread & Cie sesame bun, he topped the patty with a hunk of braised and peachwood smoked short rib and dressed the decadent combination of meats with tart aioli, Serrano-onion jam, and creamy Appenzeller cheese from Switzerland.

Little wonder it's a winner!