Bee all that you can be

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Rob DeWalt

Bum­ble Bee’s Burg­ers, for­merly Bum­ble Bee’s Baja Grill on the south­side, is sit­u­ated on Cer­ril­los Road next to a be­he­moth Olive Gar­den restau­rant (which re­gion of Italy is renowned for its never-end­ing bread­sticks and salad? — I can never re­mem­ber) and in front of a brand-spank­ing new hole-in-the-wall café spe­cial­iz­ing in tra­di­tional Caribbean fare. The build­ing is the re­cent re­cip­i­ent of a slight in­te­rior/ ex­te­rior re­model and a ma­jor shift in edible of­fer­ings.

Changed over to its new menu con­cept in Jan­uary, Bum­ble Bee’s Burg­ers will have a hard time win­ning over devo­tees of the restau­rant’s for­mer “fun, fresh, fla­vor­ful, friendly, fast-ca­sual” and rel­a­tively healthy Mex­i­can fare, which is still served at the small lo­cal chain’s down­town Bum­ble Bee’s lo­ca­tion. (There is also a Bum­ble Bee’s Baja Grill in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill, which is test-driv­ing the burger con­cept along­side its reg­u­lar menu.)

The restau­rant’s lay­out, brand­ing, and color scheme are eerily sim­i­lar to those par­tic­u­lar places that trade in plas­tic toys and some­thing called a “value menu” that may or may not be su­per. Car­toon­ish bum­ble­bee-shaped piñatas dan­gle from the ceil­ing; it’s one of the restau­rant’s few play­ful touches. The staff was, on all three of my vis­its, full-on se­ri­ous busi­ness with cus­tomers, but all smiles with one an­other. The cashiers just weren’t in the mood to smile at pa­trons, much less muster di­rect eye con­tact with them.

The menu at BBB’s is greatly ab­bre­vi­ated com­pared to that of the restau­rant’s for­mer con­cept. No more pork car­ni­tas, bur­ri­tos, or roasted chicken tacos. And no more sig­na­ture sal­ads and tongue-tick­ling sal­sas, ei­ther. It’s burg­ers, fries, onion rings, hot dogs, grilled­cheese sand­wiches, gar­nishes, shakes, bot­tled beer, and fountain so­das. Two sig­na­ture com­po­nents are its Bee’s Burger sauce, a not-so-se­cret and de­li­ciously ad­dic­tive (but not spicy) com­bi­na­tion of Thou­sand Is­land dress­ing and smoky chipo­tle sea­son­ing, and a side of “Bee Stings,” a combo of tasty bat­ter-fried mild jalapeño spears and sweet-onion juli­enne.

Burg­ers, served wrapped in a light foil wrap­per whether you’re eat­ing in or tak­ing away, range in price from $4.69 for a ba­sic quar­ter-pound sand­wich to $7.69 for a Boca-brand ve­gan burger. Ex­tras for sale in­clude roasted New Mex­ico-grown green chile, pro­cessed Amer­i­can cheese, and ba­con. The base price of the burger in­cludes stan­dard gar­nishes (let­tuce, tomato, pickle, rel­ish, onions, ketchup, and mus­tard) and a few hat tricks: that yummy Bee sauce, sautéed diced onions, and jalapeño slices. Mus­tard, ketchup, soft drinks, uten­sils, and sea­son­ings are serve-your­self.

The 100-per­cent-cer­ti­fied An­gus beef pat­ties at BBB’s are spat­ula-flat­tened (se­verely, I might add) on the grill. The ones I or­dered were cooked to well done. Hot dogs are made with He­brew Na­tional kosher franks and can be had with ba­con, cheese, or both with your choice of the free gar­nishes. A ba­con dog was great with all the fixin’s, and the bun was bet­ter be­haved. French fries are a chopped-and-formed frozen-potato prod­uct that mim­ics the fries found be­neath var­i­ous arches of gold and in queen­doms of dairy, but the house-cut potato chips are su­perb: crisp, lightly sea­soned, and not too oily. A nearly $4 or­der of onion rings — also from the freezer — was dis­ap­point­ing. Six small (tiny, by most burger-joint stan­dards) breaded-and-fried rings were barely hot. At nearly 65 cents per onion ring, they were a sad sight. Shakes and malts come in ho-hum chocolate, straw­berry, and vanilla fla­vors, but are hand-mixed at the counter on an elec­tric ma­chine. It can get noisy for cus­tomers when there are a lot of shakes on or­der; but it sure is de­li­cious noise.

Af­ter each of my meals, I found my­self think­ing, Well, it is what it is, which is ex­actly what I used to say to my­self af­ter so-so meals at larger burger chains. Din­ing at BBB’s is much like do­ing so at a more rec­og­niz­able fast-food en­tity but with a lit­tle more trans­parency about the ori­gin and com­po­si­tion of its beef. With stiff cor­po­rate competition and lower prices just up the street, Bum­ble Bee’s Burg­ers needs to gen­er­ate some buzz of a dif­fer­ent tune, be­gin­ning with mak­ing more of the food worth the spend.

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