Bliss Between Buns

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wagyu burger at Sapphire, Cellar-Craft-Cook_credit Sarah King
The American wagyu beef burger features Spanish cheddar cheese, house-made pickles and more at Sapphire, Cellar-Craft-Cook. | Photo by Sarah King Photography

Whether it’s made with a beef or bison patty—or a plant-based option—and piled high with decadent toppings, the humble burger never goes out of style.

By Crawford McCarthy and Laguna Beach Magazine Staff


While the birth of the hamburger remains unclear, several iterations through history have led to the burger as we know it today. In first century Rome, some ate minced-meat flavored with pepper, crushed nuts, wine and garum (a fish sauce). And the 13th century Mongols were known for eating thick slabs of beef tucked under their horse saddles and tenderized by a day of riding.

Some claim the hamburger was invented in Hamburg, Germany. A mid-1700s cookbook titled “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” by Hannah Glasse included a recipe for “Hamburgh sausages” served on toast. And a dish called “rundstück warm,” a meat patty on bread, was popular in Germany by 1869.

It’s believed that immigrants brought the idea with them to the United States. Here, beef between bread popped up at a few local fairs in New York and Wisconsin in 1885. However, the U.S. Library of Congress touts Louis Lassen of New Haven, Connecticut, with creating the first burger (between two slices of toast) in 1900.

Reunion Kitchen & Drink veggie burger_credit Bob Hodson Photography
Reunion Kitchen & Drink’s Veggie Burger, topped with garlic aioli, avocado, Swiss cheese, crispy onions and tomato | Photo by Bob Hodson Photography

At some point, other toppings were added. The most popular, no doubt, is cheese. In fact, the cheeseburger is one of the most recognizable culinary creations in the country. Many food historians believe it was a California invention dating back to the mid-1920s, adding it to the long list of delicious contributions to the world from the Golden State.

At first glance, the recipe and format seem simple enough: meat topped with cheese, further topped with vegetables and condiments and placed in a bun. However, to say that this is the only way to make a cheeseburger would be like saying that art can only be made one way. The fact is, the cheeseburger is just a template—yes, the classic preparation is an icon, but it’s also a base for chefs to modify for their own unique iterations. And several tasty options can be found in Laguna Beach.


Building a Better Burger

When working with any recipe, it is vital that the best ingredients are used. In terms of great burgers, this means that nothing can be taken for granted—the meat must be great, the cheese delicious, vegetables fresh and so on. Laguna Beach chefs understand this and then some. Take Ahba in south Laguna, where the team has created a beautiful burger, taking care to not overlook a single component and adding just enough creative extras to help it stand out from the pack.

“Our burger is a double patty wagyu grind—a little bit of short rib, some brisket—it has a really nice fat ratio, so we start with a great product,” says Ahba chef/owner Nick Bennett. “We’re cooking it on a ripping hot plancha, then finishing with some heat from Fresno chiles, house-brined pickles and a saucy spread. The caramelized onions and super melty cheese really make the bun almost a part of the other components. We really try to make it all one unit so it sort of melts in your mouth with a little bit of everything in each bite.”

AhbA_Burger_2-Kailee Walters
The Ahba Burger boasts a double patty, cheese and caramelized onions. | Photo by Kailee Walters

Lumberyard takes burgers to the next level with its half-pound Angus chuck patty topped with not only blue cheese but also caramelized onions, avocado and bacon. Reunion Kitchen & Drink offers up the OC Sourdough Burger with Swiss cheese, tomato, lettuce, dill pickle and Thousand Island dressing on Parmesan-grilled sourdough, with the option of adding grilled onions. And Sapphire, Cellar-Craft-Cook sets itself apart with an American wagyu beef burger that features Spanish cheddar cheese, sweet gem lettuce, shaved onion, hothouse tomato and house-made pickles with secret sauce slathered on a challah bun.

But when a restaurant’s entire ethos is surrounded by proteins, such as the phenomenal Selanne Steak Tavern, it takes special skill to make the burger shine. “When constructing a steakhouse burger, I take two things into consideration: the quality of the meat and making sure all the flavors are identifiable,” says Executive Chef Vince Terusa.

“We start with a brioche bun, brushed with clarified butter, toasted on the flat top. From there, [it gets] a spread of house-made mayo made with bacon fat. Our patty is an 8-ounce wagyu beef patty with an aged white cheddar melted on top. Baby arugula for a bright kick tossed with a green onion vinaigrette. Applewood-smoked bacon, sliced tomato and our ‘angry onion,’ which is a breaded onion ring with cayenne pepper and Hungarian paprika in the flour dredge.”

This preparation follows the concept of tweaking each individual item with enough expertise that the entire plate changes to a top-tier dining experience—a sentiment shared by the chef. “[It’s] classic construction where every element of the burger is treated in a way to enhance the quality of the patty,” he says. This execution gives the humble cheeseburger a roaring voice among the other dining options.


Elevated Beach Burgers

One of the best aspects of dining in Laguna Beach is the beach itself. Nearly every restaurant is either on the beach or just across the street. Even those “inland” eateries are mere blocks from the stunning coastline. This means that dining next to sandcastles and sunsets is a feat that’s easy to accomplish. Pair this experience with a top-tier beach burger, and you could’t ask for a finer dining experience. Hotel Laguna and its accompanying restaurant, Larsen, are a prime example of this.

A picture-perfect rendition—the Laguna Burger—comes with cheddar, caramelized onions, crispy shallots, lettuce and grain mustard aioli, served with fries. Enjoy this burger while enjoying the view through floor-to-ceiling windows or dine on the patio and listen to the waves crash and seagulls chatter about. The atmosphere and design of the hotel pairs perfectly with the flavors and ambiance of eating at Larsen. The Classic Burger at The Loft at Montage Laguna Beach is another prime example of a wonderfully made cheeseburger, with a stunning view to enjoy as well. With heirloom tomato, bibb lettuce, pickles and red onions on a challah bun, this is a showstopper of a meal.

Calamari_Burger_1_credit Andrew Turula
Calamari provides the protein in this burger at The Cliff. | Photo by Andrew Turula

Great burgers can be enjoyed beachside without having to waltz through a hotel lobby as well. Take, for example, The Deck on Laguna Beach, which presents a behemoth of a burger for guests to enjoy: Featuring Vermont cheddar, applewood bacon, arugula, tomato and chipotle aioli between brioche buns, this will have diners contemplating a cat nap under the California sun. At The Cliff Restaurant, several burger variants share menu space waiting for hungry guests. Among them, of course, is a classic presentation: The Cliff Burger is a half-pound beef patty, layered with lettuce, tomato, red onion and pickles, jazzed up a bit with honey-chipotle aioli, all on a brioche bun. And it can be enjoyed with the ocean view to accompany every bite.


Unique Options

For those who want something a little different, The Cliff also offers a calamari burger, which starts with a panko-breaded calamari steak.

“Our calamari burger is … unique, as I’ve seen very few places even offer calamari steak, let alone put it on a burger,” says Andrew Turula, general manager at The Cliff. “We build this burger with half a pound of seasoned, panko-breaded calamari steak and top it with lettuce, tomato, red onion and remoulade … served on a fresh brioche bun. Our remoulade is similar to tartar sauce but it has a little heat to it and is a little thicker. It is a great sauce that glues everything together.”

A chile relleno burger is also available at The Cliff. Just as the name implies, a chile relleno is added between the buns along with some spicy accoutrements for a bit of kick. “We start with our half-pound wagyu beef patty and top it with a whole chile relleno, red onion, jalapeno-infused bacon and a fried egg, served on a fresh brioche bun,” Turula says. “Rather than melting cheese on the burger, the chile relleno is seasoned and stuffed with a mix of white cheddar and Jack cheeses. The jalapeno bacon adds a little heat to it. It is a massive burger and a flavor explosion with each bite.”

HOTELLAGUNA_092921-85_Sarah King Photography
The Laguna Burger with caramelized onions and crispy shallots at Larsen | Photo by Sarah King Photography

Reunion Kitchen & Drink is another spot to find a burger with some kick. The jalapeno burger brings the heat in a few ways with jalapeno cheese sauce, fire-grilled jalapenos, chipotle aioli, lettuce, tomato and dill pickle on a brioche bun.

Vegan varieties also abound. The Cliff serves a Beyond Burger as does Lumberyard, which starts with the plant-based patty and adds avocado, onions sprouts and tomato marmalade. The Stand Natural Foods also boasts a Veggie Burger with guacamole, mild salsa, sunflower and alfalfa sprouts, lettuce, tomato, pickles, a ketchup-mustard mixture and lemon-herb dressing on either a whole wheat bun or the tempting toasted rosemary garlic sourdough bread. In north Laguna, Reunion Kitchen & Drink offers a House-made Veggie Burger while the Husky Boy Burgers stand allows a garden patty to be substituted for the meat on any of its wide-ranging burger options.

Featuring a vast menu of delicious creations, there truly is something for everyone at Husky Boy. When it comes to protein, this eatery is equipped with many options from Kobe beef to buffalo (a lean meat), turkey and chicken.  The Husky “Pastrami” Burger is a tried-and-true classic, as well as the Frisco Burger, which adds ham, bacon, lettuce, tomato and Thousand Island dressing on sourdough; a jalapeno cheeseburger; chili cheeseburger; Hawaiian burger; Swiss mushroom burger; and a particularly delicious patty melt.

Offering more than just great bites, a trip to Husky Boy is a trip back in time. Established in 1951, it’s more than an iconic restaurant—it is a Laguna Beach landmark—with beyond-basic burgers to match.

Of course, the burger needn’t only be relegated to dinner or mid-day meals. A breakfast burger can be found at Penguin Cafe, complete with a fried egg, cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato and mayo, while Orange Inn adds two fried eggs, ham, cheese and crisp bacon piled on a wheat bun. Any way you stack it, a burger is hard to beat for breakfast, lunch, dinner or any time in between.

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