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Burger Quest 

Searching for the Holy Grill

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Christian Pennington

Ask somebody where to get a good burger in Humboldt and you'll likely get his or her opinion on a place that used to be good but went downhill, a place that's overrated and the place that's amazing. Ask somebody else and you'll likely get the same places in a different order.

Let's not fight. We just want different things.

Back when hamburgers first became an American staple, things were simpler — your doctor prescribed cigarettes for a sore throat and your burger came with lettuce, tomato and ketchup. But modern times find us with a vertigo-inducing variety from the retro to the artisanal, the greasy to the gourmet.

Eating your way across the county in search of your kind of burger would take a chunk of time and put a blockage in your arteries. No worries. The Journal team packed up the mobile defibrillator and hit the road for you. After chewing over the results, we broke down our findings into three categories: the Hole-in-the-wall Classic for those who want an old-fashioned burger that could have come from a waitress on roller skates; the #YOLO for all-out, last-meal, everything-on-it, indulgence; and the Wholesome burgers, for those of you who salivate at happy cows, homemade bread and ripe veggies.

Hole-in-the-Wall Classics

No Brand Burger Stand

1400 Main St., Ferndale

This is the quintessential hole-in-the-wall in our county, and it predates all the fuss over food politics and online reviews. Its screen door slams on change of any kind, really, with the sweet tang of mustard and relish on a flattened patty that's blanketed with American cheese and spreading out from a partly mashed white bun and a fistful of chopped iceberg lettuce. The Cajun seasoning is as exotic as it gets. Die-hard patrons appreciate it, use the word "greasy" glowingly and keep their cardiologists on speed dial. The crinkle-cut fries are the crispiest you've had since you were a kid and they come with a ketchup and mayo sauce you'll be nostalgic for later.

V&N Burger Bar

460 I St., Arcata

The hours at this 1966 legacy are ornery: Monday through Friday, breakfast and lunch only. But the fact that you can get a Jolly Giant 1/2-pound burger when it opens at 7 a.m. is the right kind of ornery ($6.79). (Arugula, artisanal bread, bean patties — you have no power here.) The hand-formed beef patty with pleasingly crusty brown edges comes on a soft, pale yellow bun with mustard, relish, ketchup, onions, pickles, lettuce and tomatoes. It's the same unfussy, American drive-in classic, (but bigger) the owners have been flipping on the flattop for 20 years. Can't make it over on your lunch hour? Get your priorities straight and call in sick. Given that the double is only $9.59, closing shop for evenings and weekends is probably saving lives.

Mike's Drive-up

637 Broadway, Eureka

If you haven't been in for a while, the absence of right-wing propaganda might be disorienting. In fact, the factionless, multi-team sports memorabilia on the walls (is that a Lakers jersey?) is more Swiss neutral than American jingo. The slim beef patties on soft buns with dollops of bean-less chili, mayo, mustard and chopped onion, however, remain the same ($4.40). They are a tasty, guilty pleasure, but move quickly, as the bun will not hold up to slow-food eating habits against the sloppy-Joe-esque chili. Mike's has been open since 1943, and the current dynasty of owners is three generations deep. It's a trip back to a time before cholesterol counts and supersizing. OK, the chocolate malt is kind of big, but it's dreamy ($4.75). And the famous garlic fries ($2.80)? Soft and greasy, which people love or hate. But the real reason you get them is to make other people jealous with the aroma or to take revenge on your dentist.

The Peg House

69501 US Highway 101, Leggett

Eventually, when Humboldt County marches across the border and annexes Leggett Manifest-Destiny style, it will be for the Sunset burger with bacon ($10). After all, its generous patty is made with our county's grassfed beef, and that thick, crisp, smoky bacon smells familiar. Right? The patty is lightly seasoned, but not enough to interfere with the old-school meat and cheddar flavors or the trinity of lettuce, tomato and onion. And you can feast among the flowers in the garden or under the shade of a tattered parachute over the backyard stage. (The public restrooms are being renovated, so if you don't love a port-a-potty, make a rest stop elsewhere before you turn in at the be-stickered cop car out front.)

AA Bar and Grill

929 Fourth St., Eureka

Once you press through the jail-facing doors of the "double-A" and take your seat/stool in the dark bar, it's hard not to order the steak. Be strong. The mushroom Swiss comes out like the Platonic ideal of a diner burger beside fries and/or rings with a flurry of salt ($9). The tender patty, melted cheese, sautéed mushrooms, crunchy pickle slices, shredded lettuce and tomatoes are stacked on a crisp-edged, toasted sesame seed bun like somebody in the kitchen minored in architecture. Take a moment to appreciate this lost art before you dive in. There is no gimmick here. Just as the AA's steak is for purists, so, too, are the hefty round of charred beef and classic toppings of its hamburger, which tastes like a burger, not just the sum of its parts.

#YOLO

Surfside Burger Shack

445 Fifth St., Eureka

The Shack has a strong record in the Journal's Best Of Humboldt voting, and its décor, its bacchanalia of toppings over grassfed beef and its mountains of dark, hand-cut fries speak to a beachy hedonism. (Think of a surfer's hearty post-wave appetite and/or iffy decisions made on sunny vacations.) Aside from the four-patty burger and fries Tsunami Challenge, Surfside's charms have managed, Jedi-like, to even distract us from the mysterious lack of milkshakes. You want a fried egg, bacon, jack cheese and maple syrup on that? Sure. The Surfside Sunrise is $7.95.

The Trailer

Seventh and I streets, Arcata

On a sunny day, you can snag a picnic table and fool yourself that the parking lot is a backyard cookout. The standard cheeseburger, gently hand-pressed Humboldt Grassfed, comes with iceberg lettuce and tomato on an old-fashioned bun, and it's got solid grilled flavor with just the right char ($5). But for $6.25, the Oh Yeah burger comes with pepper jack cheese, pickled jalapeño slices and chipotle aioli for a nice balance of spice and creaminess. (Additional hot sauce available for those of you not wearing makeup or with something to prove.) Look, you might be over chipotle because of Food Network overexposure, but if you get stubborn about it, then Bobby Flay has won. The smoky mayo is lovely with the meat. Fold back your paper wrapper and partake of the juiciness before the clouds roll back in.

Arcata Pizza and Deli

1057 H St., Arcata

Put away your pricey smartphone — this could get messy. The Out 'n About double with cheese is a thing you need to grab onto and eat until you're done ($6.75). It's literally a tall order, with two fat patties stacked over shredded iceberg lettuce, grilled red onion and tomato on a firm white bun with swipes of mayonnaise and thousand island dressing. Only the wrapper keeps it from tipping over. APD takes the Humboldt Grassfed a step further, grinding it on the premises for a loosely packed and dripping-down-your-forearm-screw-it-I'll-get-a-new-watch juiciness. And the joint is open until 1 a.m., when you care a little less about clean sleeves. Can you unhinge your jaw like a snake? Do you only have 24 hours to live? The quad with cheese is $11.25.

Alibi

744 Ninth St., Arcata

The variety of burgers topped with everything from pastrami to peanut butter is dizzying. Among them is the Mad River ($14.25 on a 10-ounce "Gary" patty). The grilled wheat bun is ironic atop a pair of golden-fried, tart and thickly crusted jalapeño poppers, along with green chiles, chipotle mayonnaise and salsa. Take a bite and the melted cream cheese floods out from the poppers because to hell with Dr. Oz. And here is where the substantial bun keeps disaster at bay. On its own, the meat is hand-formed, wonderfully lumpy and crusty but not a bit dry. That the sauces come on the side is good news for control freaks and fry dippers alike, and neither is terribly hot, so ask for hot sauce, too, if you need to feel the burn.

Eel River Brewing Co.

1777 Alamar Way, Fortuna

Sit out on the patio or inside, but give yourself some room. The chili burger's 1/2-pound charbroiled patty is like a manhole cover smothered in tri-tip chili and Loleta Cheese cheddar ($13.99). But it feels like the whole pound. There's a wheat bun under there somewhere, but forget assembling it and eating with your hands. You need tools. Maybe a helper. And a pair of smocks. Hunks of smoky tri tip mingle with kidney beans in the dark, smoky and not overly salty chili. (Bonus: The fries are crispy and firm enough to dip into the hot mess.) For a chili burger that looks this much like a 10-car pile-up, it's not greasy, either. Still, order a light beer.

Wholesome

Stars Hamburgers

2009 Harrison Ave., Eureka; 1535 G St., Arcata

Maybe it's the cheery interiors of the Eureka and Arcata locations or maybe it's the whole wheat buns and grassfed beef, but Stars Hamburgers is downright wholesome. The fries (with skin) are thick and fluffy inside, crisp and salty outside. For $6.75, a cheeseburger with cheddar, a BLT's worth of thick bacon and a dollop of guacamole on top of the usual green leaf lettuce, chopped onion and light touch of mayo, mustard and ketchup can be yours. The patty is pinky-thick with just a little pink in the center. Got $.50? Spring for the little cup of sriracha ranch dip. This is not an orgy of meat, nor is it fast food. This is quality.

Plaza Grill

780 Seventh St., Arcata

Do you hog the cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving? Because if you are into sweet and savory combinations, the brie and jalapeno raspberry jam burger is your jam. There is an option on the menu to upgrade to local grassfed beef for $2. Take it. The hefty patty is topped with light slaw (apple cider vinaigrette, mayo) on a ciabatta bun that can handle the meat drippings and the hunks of melting cheese. And about that cheese — why are we not putting brie on burgers all the time? It's salty-buttery-creamy, offering the same satisfaction as slices of American cheese but all sophisticated. (Mentioning this to the French is not likely to win you friends.) It's also the perfect foil for the smear of sweet berry and its hint of heat.

Café Nooner

409 Opera Alley, Eureka; 2910 E St., Eureka

The Bleu Noon is a big one ($11). Listen for the thud when it hits the table in the little basket. Good thing it comes on a hoagie roll, what with the pile of caramelized onion, the thick bacon, bleu cheese and homemade barbecue sauce. Good thing it comes cut in half, too. Your grassfed burger will be thick enough to order it pink in the middle and surprise — that's where the melted bleu cheese is hiding. The mellow sweetness of the onions is a nice balance to the strong cheese and smoky sauce. Every flavor ever is happening, but the steaky, charbroiled taste of the meat comes through. Roll up your sleeves and get more napkins. Or a small towel.

Lighthouse Grill

355 Main St., Trinidad

Everything on the bacon cheddar burger tastes good on its own, from the grassfed patty to the crisp lettuce to the deep red tomato ($8). And you're by the sea, so even the oxygen is practically artisanal. The soft, pleasingly salty ciabatta bun is made on the premises, so don't do that thing where you leave most of the bun on the plate. Eat the bun. If you need your burger anything under medium, be very clear about it. Either way, the flavor of the patty is good and the cumulative effect of über-fresh ingredients is a winner.

Hum Grown Grindz

Location TBA, Willow Creek (see Facebook)

Follow that trailer. The little sliders that come out of it are fancy as hell ($11 for three). Owner and chef Tyrum Dean used to fire up orders at Folie Douce, and now, between stuffed crepes, he's frying trios of miniature burgers in his mobile kitchen. Each chubby handful of grassfed, organic beef is nicely seared outside and juicy inside. Add blue cheese, baby greens, sweet and creamy caramelized onions and bacon on a dinner roll with a schmear of chipotle aioli and you're at your own swanky party. Even the pick holding it together is uptown. Unlike those catered hors d'oeuvres you always have to chase around at an event, though, three of these babies, satisfying as they are adorable, will set you up and then some.

Fernbridge Market Ridgetop Café and Coffee Barn

623 Fernbridge Drive, Fortuna

The search for my one true burger ends here. Tuck a Humboldt Cattlewomen napkin adorned with county brands into your collar and peruse the options. Whatever you choose, your homemade bun will be branded with a Ridgetop "R." It will also be soft and buttery, like the bread you can't stop eating in a restaurant until you prove your mother right and spoil your dinner. The 1/3-pound grassfed burger is perfectly ground and packed, tender and cooked to a blush in center ($10, $1 cheese). Forget the crowd of condiments you server brings over. The meat is so flavorful with just a dollop of house aioli and smoked gouda (yeah, get the gouda) that you don't need anything else. In fact, the lettuce and tomato are just distractions, too. Eat them separately if Mom is with you (you owe her after the bread thing).

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