If you’re going to go camping, you better have a plan.
This mantra fuses the backbone of our family’s annual camping trip. Normally, our plan involves hiking trails, exploring sites of natural wonder, and enjoying the company of the other family we’ve camped with the last five years. This year was different. This time around, the plans included eating a burger. It turns out this is practically mandatory when you plot to camp at Jalama Beach.
Our collective made the decision to try our hand at beach camping not too long after soaking in three days of desert weirdness at Joshua Tree National Park last October. We didn’t know where to go. All we knew is that we wanted to go north of Los Angeles. Research ensued. Jalama Beach sold us for several reasons. It’s flush against white sand and turquoise waters, a pocket of flatland whittled between dramatic rocky seaside cliffs. It’s about 60 miles north of Santa Barbara and 40 miles west of Solvang, giving us day tripping options. Its showers make it possible to enjoy said day trip without looking like a vagrant. People we know seemed to love the place. Hell, even my barber extolled its virtues between scissor snips.
Then there was this burger – the Jalama Burger, served up on the campground site at the appropriately named Jalama Beach Store. It kept revealing itself through online chatter and in-person recommendations. Some called it delicious. Others practically framed it as a near-mythical creation. The consensus tended to sway toward the latter sentiment, and the photos some of its fans shared made such radical sentiment at least slightly plausible. We didn’t discuss the burger in great detail during the trip’s planning stage despite these ravings. We knew it would be there for the taking, and we would indeed take it at some point, but that was about all the chatter we could muster on the subject. This changed on the drive up to the campsite.
I’m riding shotgun in a cargo van. David, the other family’s patriarch, is doing the driving. Behind us is the framework of tradition. He and I always drive up to the campsite in a cargo van the day before everyone else shows up in their own rental van, partially to set up camp and partially to self-reward our hard work with a few beers. During this trek, somewhere on U.S. 101, David engages in burger theory.
“Jalama’s campsite is pretty remote,” he says. “When you’re there, they have you captive.”
“You could still drive into town, though, right?” I ask.
“You could, but town’s about 45 minutes away. Most people probably won’t want to drive that far if they’re camping unless they have to.”
“That makes sense, I suppose.”
“That may be why everyone loves the Jalama Burger. They’re the only game in town. If you’re camping for a few days, you may want a break from eating stuff you packed in your cooler. That burger is the only place nearby where you can take that break. Everything else is about an hour away. It could be a decent burger, but it’s possible that you could think it’s the greatest burger on earth because it spared you from driving into town or digging through your cooler for food again.”
My brain starts weighing his theory against the collective Jalama Burger fandom I recall from my social media feeds. Some of the biggest burger advocates I remember are friends and fellow journalists equipped with trusted palates. Their aggregate high praise makes leaves me cynical toward David’s postulation, but it doesn’t shut it out completely. I do know I’ll get the chance to put his theory to the test. We’ve scheduled to try it for lunch on Tuesday.
Eating on-site is a rarity for us. Other than taking the occasional day-long excursion to a nearby town or village, we cook when we camp. We also cook well. This year’s menu includes biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, and skirt steak. We have campfire-ready hot dogs on hand, but they’re for the kids or the random late-night snack – they won’t pair that well with the bottles of wine we’re planning to kill during steak night. There would normally be no need for us to order food from an on-site restaurant. However, the burger’s lore forces an exception. My colleagues have told me it’s ridiculous, so it must be tried, lest they remind me about what I missed out on by refraining. Besides, it’s a burger. I’m genetically predisposed to like burgers, so I’ll probably enjoy eating it as long as I don’t get a charcoal briquette masquerading as a piece of meat. But why will it be enjoyed? Will David prove to be right?
The Jalama Beach campsite briefly materializes past a ridge as the road weaves left and downward. It reveals a tantalizing glimpse of deep blue water crashing white sand, several feet past grounds packed with cars and RVs. The railroad tracks we cross as we descend adds instant rusticness, especially when the first passenger train rolls by on a wooden bridge just north of the about an hour later. We notice two payphones steps from the camp’s main entrance when we arrive at its gate. They’re essential according to the gatekeeper – cellular service is indeed as bad as our research led us to believe. A rotation of young surfers, grizzled camping vets, and the occasional skateboarding teen block our path as we inch toward our campsites, but we don’t mind. The ocean is enveloping our senses. We’ve landed in a slice of paradise. This is good. This also ends up being a highlight of the trip.
The wind starts whipping around a few minutes after camp gets established. We were warned Jalama Beach was subject to strong gusts. These warnings undersold things. It’s a powerful wind. A vengeful wind. The kind of wind that makes you feel like doom is eminent. It delivers a “holy crap” moment roughly every 20 minutes, where we literally looked at each other and said “holy crap.” (We may have said something else, but let’s just go with the PG version). It bends the frame of David’s shade canopy in two places before we take it down. It shreds the protective, privacy-bestowing covering on my tent. It picks up a prep table we set up and chucks it twenty feet, missing us by about a foot. We need solace. In this case, “solace” comes in the form of French fries and onion rings we order from the Jalama Beach Store’s compact, crowded quarters. Rather than waiting for a table in the store’s dining area, we seek shelter in our rental cargo van, where we get rocked like a cradle. We’re supposed to set up other tents for our wives and kids sometime before sundown, but this would be pointless. This turns out to be a wise decision. When the rest of the crew arrives, most of them immediately claim sleeping spots in our respective rental rides.
Temperatures in the high ‘80s accompany the nasty winds on day two, effectively turning our campsite into the business end of a blow-dryer. We take turns huddling in the meager shade cast by the vehicle, following its dark beam as it shifts like a sundial. The fried chicken we’re planning on making later that evening is declared a dangerous impossibility. We also call another food audible. We’re getting Jalama Burgers for lunch. We practically head there the moment the wives and kids step out of their rental van. It’s evidently time for some food philosophy.
The Jalama Burger is good. Damn good. The beef has the perfect char and juiciness that can only come from a grill that’s been operational for decades, where you can practically taste the souls of the burgers grilled long before yours. There’s an ideal level of cheese melt going on, allowing it to merge with the buns’ edges. Its secret weapon, though, is its shredded lettuce topping, which functions as a sort of alternate universe version of cole slaw. The zippy sauce binding the ribbons together exists in the space between thousand island dressing and freshly made hollandaise sauce, and it slowly oozes out of the bun and into the burger’s waxy wrapping with each bite. The residual splatter makes an excellent dipping sauce for fries. In that fifteen minute space where lunch is consumed, every “holy crap” camping mishap experienced in the last 24 hours feels irrelevant. The burger makes me happy, as a good burger should.
We step outside afterward and step into a blast of hot, powerful wind. My moment of Zen is gone, replaced by nature’s harsh realities. Talk of leaving the campsite a day early start to happen. By the next day, we agree to turn such talk into action. I think about David’s Jalama Burger theory that night, after the warm winds transform into mighty blows of cold discomfort. Its deliciousness justified its cult following. More importantly, it delivered a brief yet succulent respite from the trip’s wind-blown, weather-blasted chaos one bite at a time. I spend the rest of the trip tempted to get another one, although temptation is ultimately resisted.
I come to a conclusion as we pack up and leave. It doesn’t matter why the Jalama Burger is so popular. When you have that juicy burger with its melted cheese and tangy slather of sauce-soaked lettuce wrapped in your hands, all theories and hypotheses fly away, apparently like a prep table caught up in a particularly concentrated wind bluster. It provides a moment of blissful joy even in the face of quasi-apocalyptical conditions. That’s the only thing that counts, and it’s the primary takeaway from my Jalama Beach experience. Of course, the secondary takeaway is that if I ever return, I’ll be in an RV.