624 E Street, Downtown San Diego
So here I was, walking the Gaslamp one night, minding my business, when this dude thrusts a flyer in my hand. “Burger, fries, and draft beer, $5,” it says. Wow. And that’s just the first of a bunch of deals on the page.
Something’s familiar. Aha…Bare Back Grill. The glasses of beer in the flyer’s photos show an outlined kiwi bird. Could this be the P.B. Kiwi crowd?
Two minutes later, I see it sure is. They’re still in business up there, but now they’ve started something down here too, in the beer belly of the beast, at 624 E Street.
The first thing you see is the flaming torches outside. A whole row, and behind them, cool-looking cats sitting at a curbside counter. The Bare Back in one of those old downtown buildings that has been, like, scrubbed clean. Rosy-colored ancient brick, white window frames. But wait a minute…didn’t this used to be Larry Flynt’s Hustler Lounge? What happened to all the plush upholstery and bevy of heavies guarding the door?
“Seat yourself anywhere, mate,” says a sign, right at the spot the heavies had stood. So I sit next to the inside straight of the race-track-shaped indoor-outdoor bar.
And lay down my flyer.
“These prices for real?” I ask.
“For sure,” says the bartender, Pile. “Which one you want?”
I go for the burger, fries, and beer offer. Five buckeroos. Beautiful. Beery beery beautiful.
“How would you like the burger?” Pile says, fingers ready to stab a computer screen. “Well-done, medium, or rare?”
“Except you can’t do rare, right? All those bacteria?”
“Oh, yes we can,” he says. “We only use 100 percent organic, grass-fed beef. And it’s ground up every morning, right here. So if you want rare, you’re legal, and safe.”
Now I’m remembering — the Kiwi place in P.B. was one of the pioneers of the organic-burger thing. Less fat in their beef and lower cholesterol than turkey, they said, with more good omega-3 than salmon.
“You the P.B. Kiwi guys?” I ask Pile.
“That’s us,” he says. “We opened here just last year. So, well-done, medium rare…?”
“All right!” says Pile, like I’m the first to use the R-word in a while. “And beer?”
“There’s a choice?” At the most, I expect him to say Bud Light, Coors Light, or Bud, for this five-buckeroo package.
“Any of the draft,” he says.
Wow. I can see ten, maybe a dozen taps back there. From, yes, Bud Light — but on through Kona, Stella Artois, Stone, Bass, Guinness, to Steinlager, the Kiwi brew itself.
’Course this decision takes a while. I end up choosing the Bare Back Amber, a house brew, because I like the stronger flavors of amber beers. And it’s good, kinda fruity. As I sip away, I glance around the inside from my perch here at the entrance. Spot a giant poster of the New Zealand All-Black Rugby Team doing a Maori haka (war dance). There’s a picture of a kiwi bird on a surfboard. Then I notice that the whole place seems to be held up by pillars that have been turned into coppery metal palm trees. The walls are exposed brick or brown stucco. They have signs such as “Wellington, 6705 miles,” and “Notice: If you’re drinking to forget, please pay in advance.”
A gal in the crew’s brown uniform turns up with my burger. It’s a big ol’ slab, split in two, with fries, and a tray of yellow, orange, and red sauces. “Wasabi-mayo, red pepper, and ketchup,” says Pile. The fries are fine, but the shock-surprise comes with the burger. It’s really, really rare, blush-pink, cheesy. Only crunchy things are the red onions and lettuce (all veggies are locally grown and organic, the menu says). After every bite I’m wiping my mouth with the big cloth napkin. But once you get used to the idea of no seared skin to the patty, it’s pretty darned delicious. You can taste more of the seasoned meat. Plus, there’s a sauce in there. Dee-lish. Slightly sweet, a kind of tomato relish with aioli, Pile says. Now I remember something from the P.B. restaurant: The sauce is the secret part of the recipe that the founder — American, not Kiwi — got from the owner of a li’l ol’ burger trailer he discovered in Queenstown, New Zealand (7513 Miles away, says another sign).
Five minutes later, I come up for air. Stuffed, but I’ve spent only five bucks. This is where greed comes in. It’s still happy hour, so I ask for a “Kal Maori” — heh-heh — calamari with wasabi mayo and red-pepper sauce, usually $9, but during happy hour, half-price. It’s good, but I didn’t need it. I pack most of it to go.
Next time, I’m coming back for Sheilas Cracked. That burger comes with a fried egg and another Kiwi fave, beet root ($9.99). Oh, and the Bare Lil Lamb lamburger (with bleu cheese crumbles, mint dressing, and yes, that sweet red beet root, $9.99).
“Moms don’t say, ‘Eat your veggies’ back there,’” says Pile. “They say, ‘Eat yer beet, or I’ll beat-a yer eater.’”
624 E Street, Downtown San Diego
Type of Food: American/New Zealand
Prices: Kal Maori appetizer (tempura calamari), $9; Hot Young Tenders (chicken tenders), $7.50; Bare B’rger (organic beef with BBG — Bare Back Grill — sauce, lettuce, tomato, red onion), $8.50; Hogs & Heffers (beef patty, bacon, avocado), $9.90; Sheilas Cracked (beef patty, fried egg, beet root, cheese), $9.90; Meso Tasty (teriyaki grilled chicken breast, grilled pineapple, onion chips), $9.90; Bare Lil Lamb burger (New Zealand lamb, bleu cheese crumbles, mint dressing, beet root, fixin’s), $9.90; “Feelin’ Randy” salad (spinach, tomatoes, candied walnuts, goat cheese, bacon bits), $8.50
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–midnight, Sunday–Thursday (till 2:00 a.m. Friday–Saturday); happy hour, 3:00–6:00 p.m., Monday–Friday
Buses: all downtown
Nearest Bus Stop: Fifth and Broadway