The battle for burger supremacy rages on.
The ferocity of the fray recently intensified when a pair of look-alike competitors appeared upon the field of combat.
Bonkers and Fuddruckers, both scions of mighty nationwide chains, are fighting to capture significant shares of the hefty hamburger market. Their common strategy is to offer an adult alternative to the ubiquitous fast-food eateries. They are attempting, in fact, to reap the crop sown by Ronald McDonald by luring the generations conditioned to frequent burger-biting with such enticements as better quality food, lively environments and alcohol.
Fuddruckers, with outlets in Grossmont, Escondido, Mira Mesa and Chula Vista, has numerical superiority over Bonkers, whose sole local outpost is in Mission Valley. But Bonkers has a slight edge in terms of menu and atmosphere, and though the two places are remarkably similar, Bonkers could be said to be the better.
Bonkers is the result of a shift in the corporate strategy of the Victoria Station chain, which is remodeling many of its old railroad car restaurants into ‘50s-themed hamburger palaces that offer tasty, convenient and inexpensive fare in an atmosphere spiced with nostalgia.
But there’s a clever twist to Bonkers’ approach (the same adopted by the Fuddruckers chain) that may come to be regarded as the restaurant marketing coup of the ‘80s. Guests are turned into participants in the ongoing drama of burger building; the place is set up to make patrons feel as if they are present at the center of creation. Work always is going on around the edges of the food-service area: over in one corner, bakers busily pull racks of fluffy hamburger buns and trays of cookies from the oven, while at the ice cream counter, workers mix thick shakes and dispense ice cream cones and sundaes. Guests waiting at the counter can watch as the cooks in the open kitchen flip hamburgers on the grill.
Once the customers have gained possession of their meals, they proceed to a garnishing station. In addition to vats of ketchup and mustard, there are caldrons of sauerkraut and gooey cheese sauce, both plain and powered with jalapeno peppers. A supermarket-style produce counter, flanked on all sides by crates and sacks of vegetables and greens, offers sliced tomatoes, lettuce, relish, pickles, onions and more.
The hamburgers are available in three sizes, a teen-sized half-pounder, a more easily managed third-of-a-pound version, and a half-sized burger (actually a full-sized sandwich cut in half) for kids. Prices range from $1.85 to $3.75.
These hamburgers are so precisely fashioned (and so good, to put it simply) that one suspects the Bonkers masterminds of creating detailed blueprints for their various kitchens to follow. The meat, nicely crusted, is juicy and flavorful, and has an essential, satisfying, slightly greasy taste resurrected from the days when hamburgers were taken seriously. The yeasty, grill-toasted bun definitely adds to the pleasure of this sandwich.
Bonkers offers such necessary side dishes as french fries, onion rings and cole slaw. The latter is a touch milky, and perhaps too sour for some tastes, and the french fries, though good, are not the equal of the pencil-slim pommes frites popularized on this side of the Atlantic by McDonald’s. The onion rings, though, here called onion “crisps” in deference to their skinny circumference, are a masterpiece of greasy self-indulgence, and are gloriously good.
The menu continues with frankfurters, a grilled teriyaki chicken sandwich, a taco salad, a steak sandwich, a salad bar. The most expensive item costs $4.95.
Bonkers offers beer, wine and cocktails, but the beverage of choice may be one of the thick, rich, custom-made milkshakes or malts. This is another food item that has been put on the endangered list by the fast-food purveyors, who squirt nasty synthetic “shakes” from metal tubes. Bonkers makes a very fine malt from hand-dipped ice cream, milk and flavorings.
Fuddruckers does not serve malts, which is one strike against it. It also refrains from offering onion rings, which could be taken as strike two. There are points in its favor, however, including a basic hamburger that is pretty much the equal of Bonkers, and an interesting decor that takes the participatory-eating theme to its logical extreme.
A glass-walled butcher shop occupies a space between the entrance and the order counter; it is filled with hanging sides of beef, and the hamburger meat is ground here several times daily. Guests may watch the work in progress. As at Bonkers, workers bake hamburger buns, cookies and brownies in full sight of the clientele, and the kitchen also is open to view. And guests garnish their burgers at fully-stocked produce and condiment islands that offer exactly the same items as at Bonkers.
What sets Fuddruckers apart is its decor, which consists of crates, boxes and sacks of all the food items used and sold in the restaurant. The scene is either enjoyable or distressing, depending upon one’s point of view, but an orderly-minded person might go bonkers looking at the jumble of boxes and crates.
Fuddruckers’ burgers are very good, grilled until they obtain a flavorful crust that seals in the meat’s fresh-tasting juices. And the grill-toasted buns complement the hamburgers perfectly. As mentioned earlier, however, there are no onion rings, and the french fries are of the thick-cut sort that have not been peeled. French fried potatoes of this sort seem always to be tough and soggy, as were these.
In addition to several sizes of hamburgers, the menu offers a chicken breast sandwich, a steak sandwich, hot dogs, German-style wurst, and a build-your-own taco salad. Beer, wine and cocktails are available.
The prices are low; two people should be able to enjoy a relatively large meal for no more than $10, including tax and beverage.
7919 Mission Center Court, San Diego
Open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Grossmont Center shopping mall, and other locations
Open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; until midnight weekends