.Cheeseburgers in Paradise

Who serves the best burgers in Santa Cruz?

Introduction

Want to start a hot conversation at your next party? Ask someone where they find the best burgers in Santa Cruz.

Nothing gets talk going quicker here in what is ironically one of the best places on Earth to find vegetarian food. People love their burgers and not the fast food kind.

Leave it to the Cruz to find ways to liven up what you put inside a bun, from fish to shellfish to bacon and eggs and serrano peppers. It shows that once again there’s nothing boring about our town and you can find so many unusual things to talk about and gobble.

We are like nowhere else, even in our takes on what was once the most basic meal imaginable.

As the commercial says, we think outside the bun.

secure document shredding

PARTICIPATING RESTAURANTS

​​This is gonna get personal.

It’s also going to get messy and massive, specific and saucy, creative and crave-making, euphoric and caloric.

But as much as anything, Santa Cruz Burger Week reveals how passionate its populace is about burgers, and how personally its citizens take them.

Chef Anthony Kresge has some ideas why. He’s the same flavor maker who built Belly Goat Burgers’ menu of Seoul Surfers, Drunken Onions and Foragers when it opened, and has now come to oversee operations in person after his Reef Dog Deli shuttered post-COVID.

“It’s America’s most loved combination,” he says. “It goes back centuries. People take burgers seriously because it’s one of the most consumed foods in America, and draws from vast intelligence from around the world, and can be adjusted on so many dimensions with so many ingredients, which makes it more interesting to the common consumer.”

Just the other day, Kresge got into a conversation with a patron on the importance of seasoning that bloomed into a full-blown dissertation.

“You have to season,” he says. “But if you overseason, nothing tastes right and salt overpowers. I like to season it on one side so it won’t dry out, and you really taste the meat.”

Speaking of meat, sourcing presents another priority for Kresge.

“People need to be aware of the impact a burger can create, not just as far as sustainable farming but choosing different places to buy burger meat other than mass producers,” he says. “That makes the chef want to elevate it further.”

There are other details to dial in from there. Kresge obsesses over everything from condiments (“Llke any great dish, whether a Michelin-starred plate or a taco, a lot comes down to sauce—very single thing on that burger has to compliment each bite”) to harmony (“A good burger is composed of all the flavors balancing out at once—the acid, the texture, the sweetness, the spiciness, the texture—not too mushy or too sloppy”).

When Good Times asked various participating restaurants what makes burgers borderline spiritual, the answers were appetizing.

Alisha Dodds, manager at under-the-radar burger destination The Crow’s Nest, says she knows when she has a burger connoisseur on her hands when they make multiple visits to try different featured burgers, regularly working through every burger on the menu.

“I feel like you either love burgers or you’re not a burger fan, without a lot of people in between,” she says. “If you love burgers, you probably have a go-to, but it’s also a platform for creativity. You can take it to elevated levels, which makes for a good conversation piece and inspires creativity in the kitchen.”

When discussing the higher art burgers can occupy, Kresge and Mad Yolks co-owner Peter Wong rank among artisans loyal to the power of a proper foundation.

“People often overlook the bun,” says Wong, who tinkered with Mad Yolk’s brioche recipe for months before they opened. “You have a quality half-pound Angus patty, and there’s a lot of juice in there. If your bun loses integrity, the burger loses integrity.”

Wong has his own way of diagnosing true burger believers.

“The first reveal is serious opinions, and they make at least one modification,” he says, reffing a common permutation on the Late Night Burger, a half-pound umami bomb with bacon, tomato, arugula, Mad Yolks sauce, cheddar and sautéed onions. “People remove the arugula. They are like, ‘I’m gonna go all out eating something super indulgent.’”

Which is a reminder Burger Week is not a long-term lifestyle.

It’s a short-lived celebration.

It’s not Carnaval, Christmas, Spring Break or Lunar New Year.

But for the real-deal burger lovers among us, Burger Week is the best time of the year.

Good Times turned to a fellow writer and local stage actor Sarah Kenoyer Thornton for a final thought because she’s so consistent in her burger consumption and comparisons she’s known among her friends as “The Burger Whisperer.”

“Bite into a good burger and all your problems fall away,” she says. “The juices connect soul and palate.”

Her final note: Don’t let their omnipresence distract you.

“Burgers are ubiquitous—you can order them almost anywhere—but to do it well is to achieve a beautiful feat,” she says. “A good burger is like the truth. You can’t deny it.”

•••

Do not pace yourself. Instead, get a plan, and get to it. Pronto.

Too many Animal Smashes, Da Bombs, Big Kahunas, Sopranos and Sicilians mean no time for dilly dallying.

Put differently, there are no fewer than 59 special burger creations on this list (!!), every single one of them crafted to maximize enjoyment in character-rich and flavor-forward ways.

And Santa Cruz Burger Week runs through Feb. 27, so pack in as much exercise as possible to help pack in all the indulgence on the menu.

Here appears the congregation of SCBW participants, with mini hymnals on their Burger Week specials, in alphabetical order:

Back 9 Grill & Bar

The casual ranch setting—overlooking the golf course—feels right for two rustic 1/2-pound ground chuck monsters like the Cheddar & Serrano Chili Pepper Burger and the Garlic, Feta & Black Olive Burger, both flame-grilled and $18 with a side.

Highway 17 at Pasatiempo, Santa Cruz, backninegrill.com

Belly Goat Burger

Two reminders Belly Goat doesn’t mess around with its messy from-scratch craft burger game: the Saigon Fusion with gochujang mayo, tamarind-citrus slaw, smoked cheddar and Korean barbecue sauce ($12) and the Sicilian with pepperoncini slaw, olive tapenade, truffled mushrooms, fontina, roasted red pepper, both with Angus patties on potato brioche buns.

Abbot Square Market, 725 Front St., Santa Cruz, bellygoatburgers.com

Betty’s Burgers

It’s not a contest, it’s a collaboration among the burger congregation. But here appear three BW reasons Good Times readers vote BB best: The Argentine with chimichurri, provolone and red pepper ($13) the Shoreline with hummus, arugula and spicy salsa verde and the Brie with jalapeño jam, fried onions, bacon and brie (both $15).

Four locations (Eastside, Midtown, downtown, Aptos), bettyburgers.com

Bruno’s Bar and Grill

The Soprano might off the unsuspecting with three prawns, onions grilled in red wine, bourbon bacon jam, pepper jack and Cajun aioli. #gangstergrade. SCBW special #2: the Goatbuster with pesto, garlic aioli, mushrooms, sautéed onions, goat cheese, arugula, both featuring 1/3-pound beef patties and brioche bun at $15.

230 Mount Hermon Road, Scotts Valley, brunosbarandgrill.com

Churchill & Beers

Sometimes the harder a burger is to eat, the more it deserves to be eaten. That applies with the Western Bacon with a stack of onion rings, melty cheddar, LTO, barbecue sauce atop Angus beef on Aldo’s house brioche, $18 with fries. Also appearing is a Jalapeño Jack with the titular items, LTO and fries for a tidy $15.

1110 Soquel Drive, Aptos, churchillandbeers.com

The Crow’s Nest

Uncommon creations help make SCBW beautiful, and two shine here, with the Rib-Eye with ground grass-fed steak, bacon-onion jam, Havarti cheese, horseradish and arugula, and the Pacific Rim marinade-seasoned Salmon Burger with sweet chili mustard, Asian slaw on a toasted francese bun. Either runs $18 with fries and beach views included. 

2218 E Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, Crowsnest-santacruz.com

Empire Grille

On brand, the Empire deploys a realm of high-ranking tastes for a proletariat price. The Blue Cheese Burger, Breakfast Burger with bacon and egg, Guacamole Burger with Jack cheese and Mushroom Burger with bacon, Swiss and sautéed onions all rule benevolently for $15

6155 Highway 9, Felton, facebook.com/p/Empire-Grille-100063760202490/

Firefly Tavern

The relatively new Fly does a choose-your-own adventure with old-school instincts and contemporary care for the craft. Choices are a single patty with thick-cut bacon, Shropshire blue cheese and roasted radicchio; a double with Worcestershire onion jam, local mushrooms, manchego, LTO; and a double classic with beefsteak tomato, white onion and American cheese on a potato bun. Each $18 with French fries.

110 Walnut Ave., Santa Cruz, instagram.com/firefly_tavern

Heavenly Roadside Cafe

A half-pound Angus patty is an investment by the maker and muncher alike. Smart money here lands on Ruby’s Devilish Delight with grilled jalapeño, pepper Jack, cilantro, chipotle mayo, LTO and choice of mixed greens or fries ($12) or Bella’s Cali with avocado, applewood smoked bacon, American cheese, secret sauce, the fixings and choice of accompaniment ($15).

1210 Mt. Hermon Road, Scotts Valley, heavenlyroadsidecafe.com

Hula’s Island Grill

The Hula’s homies are not the types to miss out on a flavor-forward fiesta. So bring on The Cajun with bayou spices, Jack cheese and Hula sauce, and a welcome meat-free alternative in The Big Sur Veggie with an inventive-intuitive plantain-rice-panko patty made in house, crowned with portobello mushroom, avocado and pesto aioli. $15 each, dine in please.

221 Cathcart St., Santa Cruz, hulastiki.com

Laili

A pair of the more North African offerings across the whole beef scape share the room here. Behold the Beef Koobideh crafted with turmeric, cumin, coriander, fresh mint, garlic powder and jalapeño, topped with mint aioli, caramelized onions, arugula and gorgonzola cheese, and the Lamb Burger with Swiss. Both come with roasted paprika potatoes and mixed green salads for $18.

101 Cooper St., Santa Cruz, lailirestaurant.com

Laughing Monk Brewing

The most aggressive religious experience here is also the most affordable. The Smoked Gouda unlocks a double smash burger with red wine-grilled onions, barbecue sauce and LTO ($12). It comes flanked by a Fiesta (smash burger, sautéed bell peppers, guacamole, grilled onions and Sriracha mayo ($15) and an All American featuring crispy onion straws, bacon, cheddar cheese and beer cheese on a pretzel bun, ample napkins vigorously advised ($18).

262 Mt. Hermon Road, Scotts Valley, scottsvalley.laughingmonkbrewing.com

Mad Yolks

The Yolked Bacon Angus Burger comes hard—in an over-easy way—with the mandatory egg dripping over a half-pound ground chuck, bacon, extra sharp cheddar, baby arugula, caramelized onions and house spicy aioli. Bonus offer to chase it: jasmine lemonade for $3. In some parts of the world, a fried egg is automatic on burgers. Here it’s a rare luxury.

1411 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, madyolks.com

Makai Island Kitchen & Groggery

The Barbecue Bacon Cheeseburger—with high-grade cheddar and an onion ring on brioche, $18 with fries—is new special for SCBW, and hopefully a keeper. The Hawaiian Mochiko Fried Chicken Sandwich, meanwhile, takes a house hit and turns it into a crave-creating wonder marinated in gojuchang and topped with tangy gojuchang aioli and sweet miso sauce, also $18. Dang.

49A Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz, makaisantacruz.com

Mozaic Mediterranean Restaurant & Bar

For Burger Week, Mozaic goes the opposite of prosaic, with study, straightforward and saliva-drawing attractions on three wavelengths. The Mozaic Burger delivers a charbroiled Angus patty with caramelized onions, the Wild Salmon comes grilled with house honey Dijon sauce and caramelized onions, and the Lamb Burger also arrives grilled with fresh mint aioli, tomato and onions. Beyond patties also available, each $15 with fries. 

110 Church St., Santa Cruz, mozaicsantacruz.com

Paradise Beach Grille

Tasty simplicity is an art form that finds expression with the Paradis Classic Burger, with a choice of turkey patty, garden patty or Star Ranch Angus beef, complete with LTO, fries and one of the better views in the SCBW lineup.

215 Esplanade, Capitola, paradisebeachgrille.com

Parish Publick House

PPH isn’t shy with its burger show. Exhibit A (like each, served with house barbecue chips and available with an Impossible or veggie patty): The Jack Bite with deep fried pepper jack bites, pickled jalapeños and creamy “honey stung mayo.” Exhibit B: Dave-O fried chicken with crispy bacon, shredded Parmesan,and pesto sauce. Exhibit C: The Gabagool with an antipasti mix of olives, pepperoncini, and shredded lettuce, crispy Italian cured meat and balsamic reduction drizzle. I rest my case.

841 Almar Ave., Santa Cruz, 8017 Soquel Drive, Aptos, theparishpublick.com

Riva Fish House

The uncommon SCBW crab entry sounds incredible with the Crabby Patty Stack piling a broiled house crab cake with pickled red onions, arugula, tomato and the Riva’s five-star remoulade sauce. The other play is the Black & Bleu with a 1/3-pound patty loaded with bacon, arugula, tomato, homemade bleu cheese spread and a harmonizing balsamic drizzle. Both on ciabatta, both $18.

31 Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz, rivafishhouse.com

Rosie McCann’s Irish Pub & Restaurant

The Pacific Street institution plays to its strengths with the messy spectacle that is The Guinness Burger ($15),

1220 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, rosiemccanns.com/santa-cruz/

Roux Dat Cajun Creole

The Capitola gem hiding in plain sight amid the Brown Ranch strip mall goes high value and high flavor with three rich po’ boys ($15 “served dressed” along with Cajun fries, coleslaw or stew): the Black Angus Po’ Boy with caramelized onions and peppers; the Blackened Salmon Po’ Boy also with onions and peppers; and the Vegan Burger Po’ Boy with spicy black bean patty, onions and peppers and dairy-free Cajun aioli.

3555 Clares St., Suite G, Capitola, rouxdatcajuncreole.com

Santa Cruz Diner

The flame-broiled options at the textbook definition of diner all go for $15 and come with fries. Da Bomb Burger employs an egg of any style, bacon and cheese. The Mushroom Burger comes draped in sautéed mushrooms and melted Swiss. The California Burger rocks avocado, Monterey Jack and crisp bacon.

909 Ocean St., Santa Cruz, santacruzdiner.com

Seabright Social Brewpub

False advertising is real. Not here. The Big Kahuna Burger proves precisely almost unbelievably big, and may be the tallest SCBW entry in town. Aboard the substantial Social Burger land pulled Kalua-style pork shoulder, grilled pineapple, fermented chili, tomato garlic aioli and a cilantro-ginger slaw. In a word, wowie.

519 Seabright Ave., Santa Cruz, seabrightsocial.com

Sevy’s Bar + Kitchen

Two takes on ambitious indulgence materialize this week at Sevy’s. The Ultimate Brunch Burger layers a big burger, fried egg and bacon on waffle squares. The Double Pizza Burger does all the mozzarella, marinara and pie game fame. It’s a lot for $18; $3 tags in tots or fries.

7500 Old Dominion Court, Aptos, sevysbarandkitchen.com

Solaire at Hotel Paradox

The freshly reborn Solaria Restaurant + Bar reveals its flair for zesty details with mozzarella sticks (and bacon, LTO and spicy barbecue sauce) on the Hitch Hiker, double pressed Angus patties (plus American cheese, caramelized onions and fancy sauce) on the Smashed Animal, and turmeric pickles (combine with green onions, pickled onions, little gem lettuce and spicy aioli on a Wagyu sesame patty) on the Paradox Burger. $18 a pop, with a selection of sides $5.

611 Ocean St., Santa Cruz, hotelparadox.com

The Point Kitchen & Bar

Atop a brioche bun and an 8-ounce grass-fed beef patty gather bacon, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and bourbon barbecue sauce. In other words, BBB. Beef. Bourbon. Bacon. Everything you need, nothing you don’t.

3326 Portola Drive, Santa Cruz, thepointkitchenandbar.com

The View at Chaminade Resort

This sneaky scenic hilltop spot provides landscapes in 3D and burgers in four dimensions ($18 each): 1) the Quesabirria Burger with house birria, queso and consommé to dip in, 2) the Angus Chuck Smashburger with melted onions and secret sauce, 3) the Prime Dip with ground short rib Angus chuck, Grazin’ Girl blue cheese, horseradish aioli and jus, and 4) the Plant-Based Burger with a black bean patty, vegan cheddar and tahini mustard on a gluten-free potato bun.

1 Chaminade Lane, Santa Cruz, chaminade.com

Zachary’s

One of the most bangin’ bargains in the SCBW sphere is also the lone melt. Zach’s Pesto Melt combines a 1/3-pound patty with house pesto, mushrooms, grilled onions and mozzarella on grilled sourdough, just $15 with home fries, fresh fruit or potato salad.

819 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, zacharyssantacruz.com

More at santacruzrestaurantweek.com.

SIDEBAR

Back Nine Grill & Bar

555 Hwy 17, Santa Cruz, 831-226-2350, Backninegrill.com,

Belly Goat Burger

725 Front St., Santa Cruz, 831-225-0355, bellygoatburgers.com

Betty Burgers

505 Seabright Ave., Santa Cruz, 831-423-8190

1000 41st Avenue, Capitola, 831-475-5901

1200 Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz, 831-600-7056

bettyburgers.com

Bruno’s Bar and Grill

230 Mt Hermon Rd., Scotts Valley, 831-438-2227, brunosbarandgrill.com

Churchill & Beers

10110 Soquel Dr., Aptos, 831-612-6558, beeraptos.com

Crows Nest

2218 E Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz, 831-476-4560, crowsnest-santacruz.com

Empire Grill

6155 Hwy 9, Felton, 831-704-2130

Firefly Tavern

110 Walnut Ave, Santa Cruz, 831-291-5880

Heavenly Cafe

1210 Mt Hermon Rd., Scotts Valley, 831-335-1210, heavenlyroadsidecafe.com

Hula’s Island Grill

221 Cathcart St., Santa Cruz, 831-426-4852, hulastiki.com

Laili Restaurant

101 Cooper St., Santa Cruz, 831-423-4545, lailirestaurant.com

Laughing Monk Brewing

262 Mt Hermon Rd. Unit 103, Scotts Valley, 831-226-2868, scottsvalley.laughingmonkbrewing.com

Mad Yolks

1411 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, 831-291-3686, madyolks.com

Makai Island Kitchen & Groggery

49A Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz, 831-466-9766, makaisantacruz.com

Mozaic

110 Church St., Santa Cruz, 831-454-8663, mozaicsantacruz.com

Paradise Beach Grill

215 Esplanade, Capitola, 831-476-4900, paradisebeachgrille.com

Parish Publick House

841 Almar Ave., Santa Cruz, 831-421-0507

8017 Soquel Dr., Aptos, 831-708-2036

theparishpublick.com

Solaire at Hotel Paradox

611 Ocean St., Santa Cruz, 831-600-4525, hotelparadox.com/solaire-restaurant

The Point Kitchen and Bar

3326 Portola Dr, Santa Cruz, 831-476-2733, thepointkitchenandbar.com

The View at Chaminade

One Chaminade Lane, Santa Cruz
831-475-5600
chaminade.com/santa-cruz-restaurants

Riva Fish House

31 Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz
831-429-1223, rivafishhouse.com

Rosie McCann’s Irish Pub

1220 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, 831-426-9930, rosiemccanns.com

Roux Dat

3555 Clares St. Suite G, Capitola, 831-295-6372, rouxdatcajuncreole.com

Santa Cruz Diner

909 Ocean St., Santa Cruz, 831-426-7151. santacruzdiner.com

Seabright Social

519 Seabright Ave UNIT 107, Santa Cruz, 831-426-2739, seabrightsocial.com

Sevy’s at Seacliff Inn

7500 Old Dominion Ct, Aptos, 831-688-8987, seacliffinn.com/santa-cruz-restaurants

Zachary’s Restaurant

819 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz, 831-427-0646, zacharyssantacruz.com

2 COMMENTS

  1. Besides Chaminade, which of these burger places serve a burger on a gluten free bun?
    Lettuce wrapped are messy and don’t give the satisfaction of a burger on a bun.

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

spot_img
Good Times E-edition Good Times E-edition
music in the park san jose