March 7 2014 06:38 PM

Chula Vista joint started as a sauce-maker

3-12 world art
Halphen Red’s cheeseburger
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

Inveterate foodies may not like to admit it, but the hamburger really is our national dish. Corporate America may not want to admit it, but it wasn't McDonalds that made it so. McDonalds may have spread that gospel but did not write that gospel. The hamburger is our national dish because of backyard barbecues, neighborhood diners and family-run burger joints—places like Halphen Red Burgers in Chula Vista.

The origin of the hamburger is shrouded in myth, conflations and conflicting commercial claims. There are at least six separate claims to the invention of the hamburger, the best of which are those of Louis Lassen (Louis' Lunch) in New Haven, Conn., in 1900 and the Menches Brothers in Akron, Ohio, about a decade earlier. Lassen's claim has been validated by the Library of Congress, though the Menches Brothers', intriguingly, explains that the "hamburg" in "hamburger" refers to Hamburg, N.Y., not Germany. 

The commercialization story is clearer. White Castle was the first chain to popularize the burger. But it was the McDonald brothers' "Speedee Service System" that birthed the fast-food era. After the chain was sold to Ray Kroc, McDonalds took over more than America; it took over the world. 

Nor have hamburgers survived the foodie-era unscathed. Innumerable celebrity chefs have sought to put their stamp on the dish. Daniel Boulud may have taken the cake with his $99 Burger Royale at DB Bistro Moderne, a sirloin burger stuffed with braised short ribs, foie gras and black truffles.

While McDonalds may be responsible for the worldís perception of the hamburger as the national dish and Boulud may have taken it over the top, the burger's true domain is the backyard. And that's exactly what Halphen Red (1550 E. H St., is all about. It grew from a sauce that the Lapid family developed for their own barbecues. From backyards to Tupperware distribution to bottling and farmers markets, it was only a matter of time before Halphen Red sauce begat Halphen Red Burgers.

The sauce is good, but the burger is better. The cheeseburger is perfectly cooked with a nicely caramelized crust and juicy interior. Offered with lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, cheese (American, cheddar or pepperjack)—and the Halphen Red sauce—Halphen Red's burger is handmade and loosely consolidated. The sauce, which, ironically, is not red (the name references a rare diamond), sits somewhere between ketchup, mayonnaise and Thousand Island dressing on performance-enhancing drugs. 

Halphen Red Burgers also offers turkey, salmon and a chipotle black-bean burger. While the latter is particularly tasty, none of these are handmade products and basically serve as delivery systems for the sauce and an excuse to eat some very good french fries. 

At the end of the day, though, the real reason to go to Halphen Red Burgers is the cheeseburger itself. It's the very embodiment of the backyard-barbecue burger served in a neighborhood joint. It's the kind of hamburger that reminds us why burgers are our national dish. 

Write to and Michael blogs at You can follow him on twitter at @MAGARDINER


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