Don Bauder 7:45 a.m., Dec. 11
Fact: I once witnessed a brown bag full of burgers and fries flying from behind a bar before it nailed a blonde lady in the side of her head. Seconds earlier, this rookie to San Diego’s legendary local burger establishment had complained about the service and extra long wait for her order-- which had finally been brought to her after a full hour of waiting. In her frustration, the customer snootily rejected the first offering of her bagged order, grabbed the closest plastic bottle of ketchup, and threw it at the unsuspecting bartender. The bartender then turned with vengeful eyes, wide open in surprise, picked up her bag of food, and threw it at her head! My opinion: Though some consumers might be turned off by such a scene, this was perhaps one of the most entertaining, beautiful, and satisfying dining experiences I’ve probably ever had in San Diego.
I couldn’t help but reminisce about this ketchup and burger fight as I biked my way back to this burger mecca the other day. You just don’t see scenes like that anymore. Our society has become so litigious and corporate-minded, that fair, (dare I say) natural ideas of “an eye for an eye” and “you get what give” have been reserved for Babylonian history and Beatles song references. I locked my beach cruiser up to the nearest pole and headed in for the best burger in town. How many times had I been back since the burger fight? It’s really hard to count. I sat down at a table and checked my phone to see if this first date had called while I was riding. The fact that I was early for a date was unusual. However, that I chose to meet her at this corner pub in Crown Point on a Thursday evening was not unusual at all. In fact, not only did I consider a female’s burger eating ability significant and telling, I also would value her opinion of this particular burger. I mean, it was a burger of substance—not the kind that depends on being dressed up with assorted vegetables, bacon and guacamole. The burger patty tastes good in and of itself, and I am always curious about other’s opinions on the topic. But I also consider this place good for a first date because of how one responds to the micro-culture. The burger-throwing incident was surely not the first, nor the last act in this establishment that would make the Better Business Bureau cringe. Actually, the last time I was here, after a few terse and impolite exchanges, I heard the bartender being called a “Burger Nazi.” He didn’t hear that comment. If he had, he’d certainly cuss them out, or kick them out-- or both. I, personally, would advocate all of the above. It keeps people honest. It forces one to check their expectations and adapt.
Minutes later my date arrived. She seemed to be unfamiliar with the place, which made it a better testing ground. She asked where the menu was and I pointed to the small chalkboard behind the bar. The options were clearly presented: 1/3 and ½ pound burgers, with or without cheese, with or without fries. She turned back to me, puzzled. “That’s it? Not many choices,” she said. “When it’s that good you don’t need many choices,” I replied. She sat at her high table barstool and looked around the bar. At first I thought she was just checking out the décor, but I soon realized she was waiting for service.
“Ready to order?” I asked. She smiled and nodded, and it dawned on me that she should be prepped. As I walked her to the bar to order, I reminded her that we weren’t at Chili’s or Gordon Biersch. They didn’t do special orders and they didn’t take kindly to the lackadaisical speech patterns of many southern Californians. I’d learned to order quickly and simply—the way they like it—and I did. The bartender responded with a kind nod and turned his attention to my date. He didn’t open his mouth. He just looked and waited for her order. Not as ready as she’d thought, she stared over his shoulder at the chalkboard, squinting in indecision. “Ummmmmmm” she moaned. I looked back at the bartender. He half rolled his eyes. It wasn’t too busy so he could afford a second or two, but really, what was there to decide? You either want a burger or not! Cheese or no cheese! Fries or— “I’ll have the smaller burger with… grilled onions, no tomatoes, or mayonnaise,” she said.
The bartender laughed and shook his head, as if to say, ‘I don’t give a sh-t what you want us to put on it or not, because we don’t do that anyway.’ Instead, he saved his breath. He simply asked, “Cheese or no cheese?” Unfortunately, she hesitated, hemming and hawing again before answering: “Cheese.” The bartender said, “Okay,” straight-faced, then promptly walked away to deliver the order to the kitchen. “Okay?” she repeated his line. “Just ‘Okay’?” “Well they don’t give points for flare here,” I said. “I told you it wasn’t Chili’s.” “Are these guys burger Nazis or what?” she asked. Apparently everyone has seen that Seinfeld episode. It troubled me that the word “Nazi”—a group directly associated with the worst atrocities and most heinous crimes against humanity—was being used to describe service that was short and to-the-point at an establishment where the food spoke for itself. Sure, it could be considered impolite, but only in contrast to the effusive smoke that’s blown up every consumer keister from San Diego to New York. My date didn’t seem to like that I defended the bartenders and the burgers which excused their lack of charm. As I explained my position on spoiled and entitled consumers, as well as the negative potential psychological side effects, my date scanned the table for cleanliness. It didn’t pass her test. She asked for it to be cleaned. I cringed. They didn’t roll that way here, but she didn’t get it. Then she looked around impatiently and complained that the food was taking too long. I wondered if she’d be the next patron to get a burger aimed at her head. No, I couldn’t imagine her provoking such a thing. She didn’t seem to have a feisty temperament.
Our burgers arrived after our second beer and they did not disappoint. Even my date reversed her entire outlook on the place—or at least momentarily forgot about her complaints. With each bite she made enthusiastic noises. Her facial expressions were borderline orgasmic.
“Oh my God,” she said, “What’s the secret?” “I don’t know,” I said. I’d often asked myself the same question. I assumed that real, local insiders must know, but I hadn’t reached that status yet. Even if I did know, I thought, I wouldn’t tell her the secret. Anyone who spends an hour bad-mouthing my favorite place and its employees doesn’t deserve to know the secret of their success. After wolfing it all down, her satisfaction seemed apparent. However, it just wasn’t meant to be. She soon returned to the topic of why she wouldn’t recommend the place—the service was bad and intolerant, the menu offered no choices, the seating was limited and not kept clean, etcetera, etcetera. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was done apologizing for and defending the bartender. I was done explaining why this was the best burger in the world and the atmosphere was enjoyable and authentic. I was done listening to the veiled, adult version of a spoiled brat. We bid each other farewell and I waved kindly to her as she crossed Ingraham. While I turned and walked toward my locked bike I overheard two smokers outside the bar. I glanced sideways at a mustached beach bum type with a crusty old baseball cap as he said this to his friend: “Duck fat. That’s the secret. They cook the burgers in Duck fat sauce, man.”