On a recent trip to a very posh resort in Baja, my companions and I ate our fill of lobster paella, beautiful fried snapper and grilled sea bass plucked fresh from the ocean, shrimp ceviche, chile relleno in handcrafted mole sauce, and other authentic regional delights.
After several days, we found ourselves at the poolside bar, perusing the lunch menu. We had to have burgers, we decided, nearly simultaneously, and with a touch of guilt. Yet a hefty beef patty was we what we all really craved, since sometimes there is truly nothing so satisfying as a made-to-order burger topped in our favorite cheeses, bacon, and in a nod to our Mexican playground, chiles.
Here are some of Sonoma’s tastiest versions, and for non-beef eaters, there are terrific veggie options, too.
Cotati: MIKE’S AT THE CROSSROADS
You may have seen this somewhat secret place, hidden in a small strip mall off the twisting intersection at Old Redwood and Gravenstein highways. But plenty of diners know about it, since the dark, casual hangout is always packed. The draw? More than a dozen burger options, each loaded with a half pound of chuck (or go for the gusto, the double burger, bringing a full pound of meat. Build your own, or get a tempting combo, like the Stinky Breath with sweet roasted garlic, the Great Western with homemade barbecue sauce and bacon, or the Krush of sautéed mushrooms, onion and garlic in a Zinfandel glaze. And prepare to use plenty of napkins.
7665 Old Redwood Hwy., Cotati, 707-665-9999, mikesatthecrossroads.com.
This new restaurant from two former general managers of the Guy Fieri empire knows how to make a playful, mouthwatering patty. Get a bite of this: 8 oz. of spice-rubbed coarse-ground beef grilled to order with smoked Gouda and homemade barbecue sauce, topped with lettuce, onion, tomato on a sesame ciabatta bun with your choice of spuds. Or maybe the Y.B.C. Burger calls your name, griddled on the flattop and buried under melting cheese. Spuds are another signature –presented in your choice of garlic fries, Parmesan fries, sweet potato fries and sweet potato tater tots.
740 McClelland Dr., Windsor, 707-837-7546, kinwindsor.com.
Sonoma: HAPPY DOG
This cash-only roadside stand has been around for decades, luring passers-by in with its cheerful yellow and white, chef hat-wearing hound painted on the front of the building. He’s got lots more choices than hot dogs on his menu, including big cheeseburgers, rich milk shakes, hot mealy fries and crisp-sweet onion rings, all offered at low, road stand-style prices. Whatever you order, get a side of signature barbecue sauce, delicious for slathering or dunking.
18962 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma, 707-935-6211.
Sebastopol: SLICE OF LIFE
It seems like a new, trendy concept, but this shrine to healthy eating has been around since 1974, showcasing flavorful vegetarian and vegan alternatives to your favorite foods. That means no animal products except dairy cheeses, and many fat-free, low-fat, dairy-free and lactose-free choices. Burgers, for example, come on organic whole wheat buns, topped with grilled onions and mushrooms, sprouts, dairy-free mayo and pickles. Inside the bun, you can tuck into patties fashioned from nuts, seeds and grains; tempeh, wild rice and barbecue sauce; sunflower seeds, brown rice and carrots; or a surprisingly tasty blend of wheat gluten and soy protein best topped with “fakin’ bacon” and guacamole. Be sure to get “Hot Airs” – they are French fries, but oil-free, fat-free and guilt-free – served sweet potato style, too, or coated in fresh garlic.
6970 McKinley St., Sebastopol, 707-829-6627, thesliceoflife.com.
Bodega Bay: DOG HOUSE
If you can find the Post Office, you can find the Dog House, which for three decades has sat right next door to where people buy their stamps. But don’t lick envelopes, save your lips for fresh ground chuck, mountains of hand-cut French fries, and hot dogs. You can get a third-pound or half-pound burger piled with what you like for fixin’s. If you’re feeling healthy, there is a turkey burger or a garden burger, and it all tastes even better paired with a thick, creamy, honest-to-goodness real milkshake in classic chocolate, strawberry or vanilla.
537 Hwy. One, Bodega Bay, 707-875-2441, doghousebodegabay.com.
Sonoma/Carneros: THE FREMONT DINER
This super cute farm-style café sits on Hwy. 121/12 amid fields and vineyards, and more important, it boasts chef-owner Chad Harris in the kitchen. He’s obsessed with using only the best ingredients, so burgers are crafted with Marin Sun Farms grass fed beef, like the Fremont Burger, a 7oz. monster smothered in secret sauce and fennel-red onion pickles, plus fries on the side. Or there are Fremont Sliders, sprinkled in grilled onions on Parker House rolls, that are must alongside hush puppies, served up hot and dotted with green onions and Vella Daisy cheddar.
2660 Fremont Dr., Sonoma, 707-938-7370, Facebook.
Tip: Burgers may be ultra casual, but why not plan a burger picnic to remember? Rent a private limo from Pure Luxury, take a chauffer-driven trip to your favorite restaurant and get your burgers to go. Add in some wine and a gorgeous Sonoma park setting, and bliss.