Chain Reaction: Bison Burger at True Food Kitchen
Of course we love our mom & pops, and our favorite burger joints around the country are pretty much all independently owned, but there are certain times in life—overnight layovers, hungover Sunday mornings, all-day shopping trips at the outlets—that the only options around are the chains. Chain Reaction is here to help you decide when to go for the burger, and when you're better off sticking with the chicken fingers.
True Food Kitchen
7007 Friars Rd, Ste 394 San Diego, CA 92108 (map)
5 locations, all in Arizona and California, full list at truefoodkitchen.com
The Schtick: A restaurant serving "great food that just happens to be good for you", based on Dr. Andrew Weil's anti-inflammatory diet
The Burger: An absolute disaster of a bison burger
Want Fries With That? Burgers come with sweet potato hash or kale salad, neither of them are good
Setting: Soaring ceilings, modern furnishings, and servers in yoga gear. Feels very LA
Price: Grass-fed Bison Burger, $16
True Food Kitchen recently moved into Fashion Valley Mall in San Diego, right across from The Cheesecake Factory. It's the 5th location in a small chain of health focused restaurants operated by Fox Restaurant Concepts, with a menu developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, based on his anti-inflammatory diet. Weil is somewhat of a controversial figure, and has been criticized by the skeptic community for promoting "quackademic" medicine. I found out about this after sampling True Food Kitchen's burger, when it was much too late.
Among healthy choices like fresh-pressed vegetable juices, kale salad, and shiitake and tofu lettuce cups are two better-for-you burgers: a turkey burger with provolone and avocado, and a grass-fed bison burger with mushrooms, onions, parmesan, and "umami." The answer to what that final ingredient is should have been my cue to hurdle over the plant barricades and run at top speed to the car, but I stayed, keeping an open mind that a spread made of "nutritional yeast flakes" could be delicious. I assure you, it was not. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of the issues with this neutron bomb of a bison burger.
I'll start from the top, with the flax seed bun, which was malty and sour, and so dense that it overwhelmed and dwarfed the meat. Both sides of the bun were spread with the aforementioned "umami", a nutritional yeast flakes and olive oil spread. According to Wikipedia, the flakes are often used in vegan cheese substitutes, and have a strong flavor that's described as "nutty, cheesy, or creamy," but I'd describe it differently: funky and foul.
There were also problems with the patty. It was undercooked, with parts of it downright rare (I requested medium rare). The meat was too finely ground, too tightly packed, and had no char whatsoever. Any chance for the flavor of the meat to shine through was wrecked by the umami spread, which obliterated everything in its path. The toppings were also a miss. Rubbery mushrooms and a few particularly pungent flakes of parmesan—a strange choice, since parmesan doesn't melt—were no improvement. This was easily the worst burger I've ever had at a chain restaurant.
Fries aren't an option, but you can get sweet potato hash, kale salad, or a bit of both. I tried both options, and neither were any good. The hash was served at room temperature (which quickly turned cold) and was dry, bland, and awkward to eat without using your fork as a giant scoop. There were little bits of cold caramelized onions mixed in with the sweet potato, but overall, a side of sweet potato fries would have been a marked improvement. The first few bites of the kale salad, topped with a lemony dressing spiked with garlic, bread crumbs, and parmesan were tasty, but after a few bites, the cumulative effect of the kale and lemon juice started to taste too acidic and bitter.
It's possible to make a really great burger from bison that's (relatively) healthy while still being delicious. Cowboy Star, for one, does it well. True Food Kitchen doesn't. I'd say stick with the chicken fingers, but it looks like the closest thing to that is an open-face Moroccan chicken salad sandwich.
About the author: Erin Jackson is a food writer and photographer who is obsessed with discovering the best eats in San Diego. You can find all of her discoveries on her food blog EJeats.com. On Twitter, she's @ErinJax