A smallish (seven-ounce) Teriyaki top sirloin was thick, rare, tender, and tasty. Good meat, good glaze, good horseradish sauce. I also liked the delicate fresh green beans almandine and appreciated Bully’s offering different veggies with each main course. But the “cheddar-bacon” mashed potatoes served with this steak tasted too much like the abominable Volcano’s “roasted garlic-mashed potato” sludge. Using water rather than milk in the mash is a commonplace in moderately priced restaurants and among impoverished peoples the world over, but our ancestors came to America yearning to put loads of butter and milk in their mash and their children’s mash. Later, we added other ingredients. Mashed potatoes are sluts, they’ll take almost anything you want to put into them — but you still need to caress them first with sufficient dairy products before they’ll swallow your fancier culinary fetishes.
Trying out the seafood choice on the fixed menu was saddening. Pan-seared scallops in a pomegranate glaze tasted like ordinary, commercial-grade wet-pack scallops (meaning, flown from back east in tourist class, surrounded by a protective liquid bath heavily loaded with potassium, which prevents spoilage but doesn’t do the flavor or texture any good). Had they been day-boat or diver scallops, the menu would have boasted about it, and the price would be considerably higher. They were also overcooked until rubbery and opaque all the way through, not opalescent. The glaze was light and savory, at least. “After the salmon I had at lunch,” said Michelle, “I’m so disappointed. I really thought they’d be better with seafood than this.” The scallops came with caramelized baby carrots and yet another replay of the Volcano mash.
With four desserts to choose from, we skipped the crème brûlée. The “mud pie” turned out to be a great kiddie indulgence — mocha-almond ice cream piled atop a chocolate fudge crust, with whipped cream and nuts on the side. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll be happy.
“Girl Scouts Go Gourmet” is a spin-off of a Restaurant Week promo this year, where Girl Scout cookies are used in restaurant desserts. Here the Trefoil cookies were crushed for the crust of a key lime cheesecake pie. It was an odd combo — the richness of cheesecake, the tartness of lime, the sweetness of cookies, plus whipped cream on the side. It was odd and heavy but likable in small doses.
Warm bread pudding studded with cranberries was dense, weighty, and elusively familiar as we tried to figure out what bread it was based on. (Hawaiian? Wonder? Baguette?) We all liked it, vaguely. “Good for breakfast” was my verdict.
Nearly every time I’ve played catch-up and tried any of the city’s older favorite restaurants (particularly those charging moderate prices), I’ve been disappointed. (Is this why San Diego has a bad food reputation?) Bully’s East is better than some, but as someone palate-propelled, it’s not where I’d spend my own money. I found the food decent rather than delicious but can see why lots of locals love this institution: You don’t have to dress like a stiff or pay like a bailed-out bank exec making whoopee but can come as you are and enjoy a few good drinks and a warm and friendly cholesterol-raising session. If you want lots of red meat — and care less about inventive cooking or fabulous quality than the conviviality of the surroundings — Bully’s fits the bill.
Bully’s was founded in the Bird Rock area of La Jolla in 1967 by George Bullington (nicknamed “Bully,” of course), a jockey agent at Santa Anita Racetrack, and Lester Holt, a thoroughbred horse trainer. Bullington had tended bar with J.D. Dahlen at the Courtroom in La Jolla, and George brought in J.D. to manage Bully’s bar.
Even now, few restaurants routinely serve roast beef except at buffets, but Bullington had a different idea. Bully’s won rapid success, mainly by offering roast prime rib in various sizes every day as the centerpiece of the menu. Bully’s also became a pioneer of late-night dining, taking its place as one of a scant few local restaurants to serve dinner until past midnight every night.
The Bully’s concept quickly expanded. Bully’s North in Del Mar opened in 1968. In 1971, Bullington and Holt brought in a new partner, Frank Sanchez, and converted an A&W root beer stand in Mission Valley into Bully’s East, with J.D. Dahlen as its managing partner. Eventually, Dahlen bought this branch outright, and today he and his family (wife Ginny and son Derek) are the sole proprietors.
2401 Camino del Rio South (at Texas Street), Mission Valley, 619-291-2665, bullyseastsd.com.
HOURS: Monday–Friday, 11:00 a.m.–12:15 a.m.; Saturday–Sunday, 10:00 a.m.–2:00 a.m.
PRICES: Dinner appetizers, $6–$16; burgers and sandwiches, $9–$19; entrées, $14–$70 (most in $20s); sides and sauces, $3; desserts, $5–$9. Early-bird specials (4:30–5:30 p.m.), $11–$15. Deep discounts on appetizers and snacks at happy hour (weekdays 4:30–6:00 p.m., 10:00 p.m.–12:15 a.m.).
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Steaks, roast prime rib, smoked-pork baby-back ribs, and seafood, American mainstream–style. International wine list, mainly well-known California bottlings, wide price range. Full bar, affordable cocktails.
PICK HITS: Keep it simple and meaty.
NEED TO KNOW: Comfortable, casual ambience. Free parking. Wine corkage $10. No vegetarian items except side dishes and Caesar salad.