Bee all that you can be
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.