No search for the best lunch in town would be complete without a hamburger. I say that even though I, personally, never eat burgers for lunch.
That may change after a recent trip to Urban Solace (3823 30th St., North Park). Its signature burger features Niman Ranch chuck along with aged white cheddar, a terrific smoked-tomato jam, house sauce (essentially PED-juiced Thousand Island dressing) and bibb lettuce. A grilled egg bun that somehow manages to be downright sexy completes the dish.
Owner and chef Matt Gordon's idea of serving a gourmet, upscale (and accordingly priced) hamburger is nothing new. Lots of restaurants do upscale burgers. Lots of restaurants get it wrong. Perhaps San Diego's highest-profile upscale-burger train wreck is Slater's 50/50. It's everything that's wrong with the upscale burger: ingredient upon ingredient upon ingredient and fat upon fat upon fat. When you start with a patty that's 50-percent bacon (pretty much fat), do you really need avocado (fat) and fried egg (fat cooked in fat) and a brioche bun (that oozes fat)? By the time you've quadrupled down on the fat, you can't even taste the flavor of that "signature" meat mixture.
What Urban Solace knows is that the star of a burger is the patty. The essence of a good patty is a good lean-to-fatty meat ratio (70/30 is an oft-cited sweet spot). Gordon also recognizes that the patty should be hand-packed just enough for it to stick together, entirely unlike the pre-packed discs I used to fry up at Jack-in-the-Box (when we weren't out back using them as Frisbees). Gordon, too, demonstrates a keen understanding that a great burger is just like any other great restaurant dish: More is not necessarily better, and all of the garnishes have to serve a purpose.
At Urban Solace they do. What makes Gordon's entry in the high-end-burger derby different is that it's everything a hamburger should be and nothing it shouldn't. It's savory, sweet and umami with contrasting textures, but at the end of the day, it's all about that deliciously oozing meat.
Urban Solace is, of course, more than a single burger dish. Our sweetbreads appetizer was terrific: creamy sweetbreads with a mustard crust, wilted pickled greens, little bacon lardon bombs and mustard seeds offering both heat and textural pop. On a prior trip, it was a farro sauté with seasonal vegetables, smoked tomatoes and parmesan that played like a risotto (they now do the dish with barley) that opened my eyes to a new grain. The braised beef cheeks with brown-butter mash, garlic purée and that same smoked-tomato jam may be my favorite treatment of one of my favorite cuts of beef.
But on this trip to Urban Solace, it was all about a different beef dish: the burger. And it may well be the best lunch in town.