Jimmy's Famous American Tavern
4990 North Harbor Drive, San Diego CA 92106 (map); 619-226-2103; j-fat.com
Cooking method: Grilled
Short Order: Over-priced, poorly executed, and sloppily constructed burgers
Want Fries With That? Sure, why not? A handful of seasoned spuds come with the burger
Price: Spicy California burger, $15
Notes: On Mondays from 3-9 p.m., get any burger and a draft beer for $12
Reviewing burgers is usually a pleasure. The good times, like getting blitzed on tiki drinks and basking in burger greatness, are awesome...but the lows can be terrible. I've been scathed by salt-bombs, crippled by chili burgers, and stunned by the persistent suckitude of fast food offerings, but my latest experience could be the craziest yet: a three-peat burger disaster at Jimmy's Famous American Tavern.
J-FAT is known for having good burgers, which is why I kept the restaurant in my back pocket as a reliable option for when an especially powerful burger craving hits, and I don't want to take any chances. That happened last weekend, after a few stressful deadlines and way too much time in the gym. The Spicy California burger ($15), with jack cheese, avocado, pickled jalapeños, and herb aioli sounded like the perfect prescription, but my fallback fell flat, when three attempts to deliver a properly cooked burger failed.
The first attempt arrived so quickly that when I cut into it and saw it was completely cooked through, the most reasonable explanation was a kitchen mix-up. I assumed some other diner was having their world rocked by a medium rare burger while I was stuck with their overcooked one.
My hunger made a strong argument to just eat it anyway, but my heart said to hold out for a properly cooked patty, so back to the kitchen it went. After apologies from the waitstaff and the manager, attempt #2 arrived, looking similar to the first burger, until closer inspection.
The patty was mis-shapen, and hung off one side of the bun, but cutting into it revealed another problem: it was capital-R Rare, and cool to the touch. It, too went back to the kitchen, with another apology, at which point, a third guest joined my party of two: an audibly growling stomach.
I wish I could say the third time was a charm, but it wasn't. Attempt #3 arrived a mere 5 minutes later, almost equally undercooked and so poorly formed that it broke into several pieces when I cut it in half. Things only got worse when I picked it up. One half of the burger broke into three pieces before I could even take a bite. Ingredients were also unevenly applied, with the avocado in one big clump, an over-abundance of aioli, and the cheese mostly to one side, which caused the jalapeños to tumble out. In internet parlance, this qualifies as an epic fail.
Without knowing what happened in the kitchen, I can't say for sure, but the poorly formed patty and hastily applied toppings struck me as an angry retort from the cook, after having one too many burgers sent back. The patty was such a mess that it looked like someone palmed a handful of beef and threw it on the grill without even the smallest pretense of trying to properly form it. Compared to the first burger (which was constructed with obvious care, minus the over-cooked patty), the second and third burgers looked like they were slopped together poorly, on purpose.
Burgers come with a side of fries, mixed greens, or a peanut coleslaw. If you brave the burger, stick with the fries, which were light and crisp, with a shake of seasoned salt.
I left J-FAT stunned, shaking my head. Even with the three-peat bust, it's clear that they have all of the ingredients in place to make a great burger. The beef has a rich, savory flavor, the toppings are tasty, and even the buns are better than most. But, in the wrong hands, that hardly matters. If you're going to spend this much on a burger, do it somewhere where the quality and grillmanship are more reliable, like The Red Door or Leroy's. As for J-FAT, I've got to abide by baseball rules: three strikes and you're out.
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