Surprisingly Good Burger at Springbok Bar & Grill in Van Nuys, California
Springbok Bar & Grill
16153 Victory Blvd, Van Nuys CA 91406 (map); 818-988-9786; thespringbok.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A solid bar burger with some slight twists
Want Fries with That? Sure; these steak fries are ordinary, but perfectly cooked and nicely salted
Prices: Springbok Bar Burger, $8.99; $1 extra for cheese
Notes: Want to watch some rugby live? Here's your place. Also, there's a surprisingly hopping live music and/or karaoke scene most nights.
I grew up thinking of South Africa in predictable and purely political terms. I came to know the country through news pieces and movies narrating an ongoing struggle of a nation in transition. I even marched against the Apartheid government as a high schooler. Their moral arc has been long, but has begun to bend toward justice.
As an adult my understanding of the country has broadened and I've learned a lot about this nation in becoming. Two of my favorite aspects of South African culture is their obsession with rugby and their love of meat. The South African barbecue tradition called the braai (pronounced "bry") is one part socializing two parts grilled meat. Sound familiar?
When I happened upon the Springbok Bar & Grill in Van Nuys, I was intrigued to see what a South African-themed sports bar feels like—and, more importantly, what their burger tastes like.
First things first: the name. A springbok is a small antelope found in Western and Southern Africa, but that's a reference once removed in this case. The South African national (and reigning world champion) rugby team has the springbok as their mascot. To give you a sense of where the word ranks in order of importance to a South African, their first impulse is to capitalize it. The Springboks initiate a kind of national fervor for which it's hard to summon an American analogue. It's akin to the passionate support a country gives their soccer teams during the World Cup.
The Springbok Bar & Grill is the collaborative effort of four South African buddies who love a beer, a burger, and rugby. (Full disclosure: I played rugby all through college and have a soft spot for this particular brand of meat-head.) They opened one Springbok Bar and its success led to a second.
The Van Nuys outlet (the other is in Long Beach, California) is a standard issue sports bar except the football jerseys are replaced by rugby jerseys. It's dark and smells of stale beer. Considering I came for the sticky, sports bar atmosphere, along with my burger, I really couldn't have been more pleased.
I ordered the Springbok Bar Burger medium rare. It comes with a side of fries and I added a slice of cheddar on top of the included lettuce, tomato, and onions. They offer a South African twist that, at first glance, is confounding: monkey gland sauce for an extra 50 cents. Apparently my knowledge of South African culture is less developed than I'd thought. The server informed me that monkey gland sauce is basically a barbecue sauce with chunks of veggies in it—it's a common choice for South Africans when they are having steak. I ordered it...on the side.
The burger arrived looking a bit disheveled, but I can't say that it was bothersome. I see so many perfectly manicured numbers that use attractive buns to hide their lack of substance that there is a straightforward appeal to a rustic presentation. It's like I'm at a barbecue, or a braai for that matter.
The burger ate like it looked: uncomplicated appeal. The bun resembled a Kaiser roll, but had the even-textured softness of the commercial variety. The vegetables snapped with freshness and didn't make for the salad-atop-the-sandwich mistake that the can so often afflict a burger.
The patty was full of that clean chuck flavor that popped with char from the grill. Interestingly, they decided to flatten the eight(ish) ounces of beef into a thickness more commonly found on its six-ounce cousin. This is a great choice to me as I sometimes find that the traditional thickness of a bar burger resists proper cooking unless the restaurant has a grill that gets some serious temperature on the meat. The Springbok burger also won me over with a loose grind and generous seasoning. Can we make loose grind and salt a burger law?
I can't say that my burger was perfectly cooked, as I was looking for a little more pink, but the overall effect was really tasty. Although the meat was probably under 20 percent fat content, the cheese added the needed mouth-feel. The fries, on the other hand, were perfectly cooked and heavily (i.e., properly) salted. They are the frozen steak fry variety so they could never send me into paroxysm of hot, starchy pleasure, but they were welcomed next to my burger. As for the monkey gland sauce, let's chalk this one up to a cultural difference. It was as cloying as the name is unappealing and reminded me of Westernized teriyaki sauce.
The Springbok was a bit of a surprise. I had headed there as much because I was curious to see what it looked on the inside as I did out of curiosity about the burger. What I was met with was a predictable looking bar with an unpredictably tasty burger. Maybe I'll dust off my old rugby spikes and start playing for the team that The Springbok sponsors. I wonder if they'd give away burgers for a good scrum-half.