475 Hotel Cir S, San Diego CA 92108 (map); 619-298-6515; bunzsd.com
Short Order: Heavily seasoned burgers made from premium beef. Build your own, or go with one of the inventive, pre-designed options
Want Fries With That? Yes. Fresh-cut fries are golden brown, lightly seasoned, and tasty
Price: South a d'Border burger (with a grab of fries), $8.50; vegan burger, $7.95; concrete shake, $4.95
The press release for Bunz came to me at the perfect time. AHT'ers were engaged in a discussion about a New York Times review of Shake Shack, and I'd looked at Kenji's accompanying collage of Shake Shack burgers so many times that it might as well have been stamped on my retinas.
In it, the latest burger joint opening was likened to none other than Shake Shack. Comparisons were made between the two projects, since they are both side, or "sister" projects of chefs who also own fancier establishments (in the case of Bunz, owner Jeff Rossman is also the executive chef/owner of Terra American Bistro). With a burger review due, I took it as a sign.
Bunz gets a few important things right: the selection of pre-designed burgers is creative and well formed (and you can also build your own), the beef is premium Angus, the veggies and buns are locally produced, and prices are reasonable, especially considering the quality. But one thing is very strange: the location. Instead of being located in a busy plaza or commercial hub, Bunz is in Hotel Circle, a real dead-zone. Being there as a local felt odd.
On to the food. Of the eight options for pre-designed burgers, I opted for the South a D'Border, a Southwest-inspired burger with melted jack cheese, chipotle aioli, pickled jalapeños, crushed avocado, and house pickles (plus the standard veggies). Other tempting options included the All About Garlic with mushrooms sautéed in garlic and Caesar-dressed baby greens, and the Three Little Pigs with pulled pork, ham, and bacon. My dining companion, in a surprise twist, had the vegan burger.
You can immediately tell that a chef of notable caliber designed the burgers. The aioli has real bite, the beef is heavily seasoned, and the bun is properly toasted and thoroughly buttered. Still, it wasn't perfect. The patty was cooked past my requested medium rare, and the pickles didn't work. Cut too thick, and tasting too strongly of cloves (my best guess), they were too distracting as topping. With the pickles removed, the double-hit of jalapeño was the dominant flavor. It was tasty, but the thinly pattied beef was just one of many strong elements, not the star ingredient. For burgers like this, a double is the way to go (and will only cost you an extra $2).
Spice was also a major component of the vegan burger. While it was a bit mushy, the black bean, quinoa, and roasted poblano patty had a ton of flavor, due largely in part to generous amounts of roasted garlic, onion, and cilantro.
For an extra buck, you can get a "grab" of fries. The thin cut, skin-on spuds were lightly seasoned and ever so slightly greasy, in a good way. For the price, the portion size is excellent.
Unfortunately, the concrete was a bit off. Instead of a smooth, custardy mixture, it tasted like slightly melted ice cream with oreo chunks mixed in. Not bad...just not quite right.
That was basically my feeling about the whole experience. On a whole, the burgers are ok, but not exceptional, and the location and restaurant set-up is puzzling. It's a boon for burger-loving tourists, but whether or not Bunz can attract the locals to the dead end of motel alley is to be determined.