East Village Tavern and Bowl
930 Market Street, San Diego CA 92101 (map); 619-677-2695; bowlevt.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A great bar for happy hour, but the burgers are nothing special
Want Fries With That? Yes. Sweet potato fries are tasty, but ask for the aioli instead of the too-sweet caramel sauce
Price: Tavern burger, $9; The Spare burger, $9
Downtown San Diego's East Village has undergone an impressive transformation over the past few years. A condo boom and an influx of new residents has been matched by a spate of dining options that cater to a young, professional, and urban-dwelling crowd. One such eatery is East Village Tavern and Bowl, a bar/restaurant/bowling alley that has a hopping happy hour and, so I was told, great burgers.
The menu at EVT features six different half-pound Angus beef burgers, most of which are charmingly named after bowling terms. I chose the signature burger (with bacon and cheddar), while my dining companion opted for The Spare, a Mexified burger topped with guacamole, salsa, jalapenos, and cheese. When our server didn't ask how we wanted the burgers cooked, I interpreted it as a serious red flag. Throughout my tenure with AHT, my experience at restaurants that don't ask this crucial question is almost always disappointment, with the result usually being an overcooked burger—typically somewhere between medium and well done. When we asked the server how they cook the burgers (since we weren't given an option) he answered, "Medium. That's the only way we do them."
Though I prefer my burgers medium rare (especially when they're half-pounders), I decided I was fine with medium. I hoped that EVT's interpretation of medium leaned toward medium-rare, and that the burger would still be juicy. However, medium burgers was not what we received. The burgers were well done, without even a blush of pink. What moisture was present had no depth, which made the meat taste more wet than juicy.
Unfortunately, having the patties spend too much time on the grill wasn't the only oversight. Both patties were too tightly wound and unevenly seasoned. The end result was a patty that was salty in some bites and bland in others, and sadly lacking in the cornerstones of a good burger: moisture and flavor. Easily corrected missteps continued with the toppings, most notably the bacon on my Tavern Burger. The thick cut bacon's dominant flavor was salt, which overpowered all of the other ingredients, rendering them tasteless. The texture of the bacon was also all wrong. Instead of being crispy and flexible, it was soaked with grease and hard, like a tile.
Fortunately, the toppings on The Spare burger were much tastier. Hot pickled jalapeno peppers, refreshing guacamole, and tangy salsa gave the burger complimentary textures and enough flavor to somewhat compensate for a flagging patty. However, if the best thing that can be said about a burger is that it would have been better without the beef, that's never a good thing. Both burgers were served on a bland Wonderbread-esque bun that, by virtue of not being toasted, was completely annihilated by the guacamole on the Spare burger. Halfway through eating it, the bottom of the bun was soaked through and felt like a wet sponge.
The crispy and fluffy sweet potato fries were the best thing on the plate, particularly when dipped in the garlic aioli (which we noticed was a condiment on some of the other burgers, and asked for on the side). The bold and creamy aioli was so satisfying that it wasn't until the end of the meal that I noticed the sauce the sweet potato fries are traditionally served with. My first guess was it was something in the plum sauce family because of the viscosity and caramel hue. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that the mystery sauce was indeed caramel—the same type you'd put on a sundae, if I'm not mistaken. Honey or maple syrup would have worked, but the caramel sauce was too thick and sweet. It was a mismatch with the savory spuds because it completely overpowered their flavor, turning a tasty side into a bizarre confection.
Despite my disappointment in both of the burgers I tried, East Village Tavern has the ingredients in place to make a satisfying bar burger. Cooking the patties to medium rare (or at least giving diners the option), seasoning more precisely, and toasting the bun would improve both burgers tenfold.
I was surprised that an eatery whose chef/partner Kevin Roberts, a local food celebrity who is owner/executive chef of four sports bars and host of BBQ Pitmasters on TLC (among his many accomplishments) could put out such lackluster fare. Part of me wants to give the East Village Tavern a shot at redemption, but with so many other restaurants nearby serving dependable, tasty meals, I'm in no hurry to return.