San Diego Gay & Lesbian News has a regular dining-out column written by The Taste Buds, SDGLN's resident foodies. Today's review is by Salty, Sweet and Sour, three of our staffers who plan to keep his/her identity the best-kept secret in San Diego.
Open: Sunday-Thursday 11 am - 9 pm; Saturday-Sunday 11 am - 11 pm.
Happy Hour: 3-7 pm daily; 9 pm till close on Friday & Saturday; and all day Monday
You may have driven by this old building on the northeast corner of Howard and 30th Street in North Park for years and never stopped in. Well, it’s about time you did.
Although opened in 2006 by two guys the staff still refer to as "the Germans," Tioli's Crazee Burger changed ownership last year and the two longtime friends who made the purchase are bringing welcome change to the restaurant, starting with the decor.
Garrett Bernard and Peter Cortese, both 28, grew up in San Diego County and graduated from Mountain Empire High School in Pine Valley. Although this is the first ownership for either of them, Garrett studied business management at SDSU and has been in the restaurant business for 14 years, and Peter has been in the casino business. Together they seem to make a great team and could not resist the opportunity to own their own restaurant.
Crazee Burger started when the two original owners decided to create a "new concept by combining American tradition with a European bistro atmosphere," but the real draw was the exotic meats. Crazee Burger boasts more than 30 "burgers," from traditional Angus beef, to lamb, pork, salmon, venison, buffalo, wild boar, alligator and even kangaroo, just to name a few.
The restaurant became nationally known three years ago when Guy Fieri from the Food Network's "Diners Drive-Ins and Dives" paid a visit.
After a three-month "apprenticeship," the two younger men officially took over last June and are about to celebrate their one year anniversary on May 1.
Although from outward appearances it looks the same, they are definitely making a lot of changes, all for the good. They want to keep some of the customs of the former ownership, since after all, the restaurant has quite a history and it harkens much further back than the two Germans and an Italian restaurant that's name was an acronym for This Is Our Last Investment (Tioli).
In fact, Garrett informed the Taste Buds that the building was originally a pharmacy back at the turn of the last century.
When you walk inside, there is an L-shaped bar to the right and seat-yourself tables to the left. You still order and pay at the counter, then grab your silverware (PLASTIC????) from a common area (which the new owner is not fond of, by the way).
A fresh start on a North Park staple
Not all the changes can be seen, but many of them will be soon. A complete demo of the bathroom was already underway during our visit. Soon, the old carpet that has probably been around for decades will be ripped up and replaced with wood floors.
Garrett said they've decided to invest money to become more quality-oriented and more customer service based. They even revamped the staff and only kept the best of the best on board. The wait staff was certainly friendly.
As for the changes you can taste, many are already in place. The owners upgraded the buns and now source them from Bread and Cie in Hillcrest, which prepares its baked good daily with no preservatives. They've upgraded the pickles from a bland, thin flimsy kind to a thicker, crispier type with a tastier, more noticeable flavor.
They've added more beer taps (now eight, with plans for more) and have a much bigger bottled beer selection, focusing on local and foreign craft brews. They've increased their burger sizes from 5½ ounces to 7 ounces, and all their exotics went from 6 ounces to 7 ounces.
Open up your mind and your palette will follow
Garrett, who is on hand during the evenings while Peter keeps an eye on daytime operations, said they are serving close to 8,500 burgers per month these days, and will reach numbers close to 11,000 in the summer months. That's a lot of exotic meat for one little burger joint.
Our Taste Bud named Salty was a little hesitant to try anything too exotic, but we managed to get a good sampling and get some additional feedback from Garrett about other meats on the menu. Sweet is more adventuresome but quipped, “No Joey (kangaroo) for me!”
Crazee Burger cooks all meat "medium" or "well done" (pink or done on the take home menu). Two of the three of us like ours well done but Sweet was the lone holdout so they allowed us to go with medium well. All burgers were cooked perfectly.
Most burgers come with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle, and many burgers have their own specialty sauce, especially the exotic meats, and we were told they are all made in house. "I hate horseradish, but I love our horseradish sauce," Garrett told us.
First we tried the Santorini ($7.49), a half beef, half lamb burger with Greek tsatsiki sauce. Salty is a big fan of Greek gyro sandwiches, so this choice was a no brainer. Salty thought the patty was perfectly blended and seasoned and the red onions were shaved just right, but there is always room for more tsatsiki sauce. Sweet loved the flavors, but thought the meat was too dry and needed more sauce.
Second, we went with the Ebi the Wild Boar Burger ($9.95). This comes topped with a poached red wine pear, bacon, mushrooms, whipped cream and plum jelly. Salty was surprised to like this one so much, but it was really just wild pork, after all. The pear/cream/jelly combination suited the meat well. This dish was right up Sweet’s alley, the gooey sweetness being the perfect match for the pork.
Next we went for the Snapping Gator Burger ($13.99). This comes with a curry-fruit tapenade. Although Salty was uncertain when it came to chowing down on alligator, its texture and flavor surprised. Many expect alligator to be a fried food, but this was a ground white patty, much like what you would expect for a turkey burger. The curry and fruit brought the dish up a notch and it is definitely something Salty will try again. Sweet had enjoyed fried gator when in Florida, where you might discover one paddling in your swimming pool, and found the Indian twist both unexpected and tasty.
Lastly, almost as dessert, we tried the Muddy Pig, a new Angus-based burger, an idea that was a mixture of the owner's favorite flavors (peanut butter, honey, banana, nutella and bacon). An odd pairing, indeed, but Salty felt it was delicious. Sweet feared the worst, but was happily proven wrong.
To get a tasting of some of their sides, we ordered a round of Frings ($2.99) which is half French fries and half onion rings. Their fries are tossed with a salt and parmesan mixture and on occasion, Salty has seen a little more than expected, but this time it was perfect. Salty also thought the onion rings were very good. Sweet liked the Frings, but thought the rings were only a step above ordinary.
Their soup special changes every other week, and they are proud of their soups, so we gave their Potato Bacon Soup ($3.49) a whirl. Salty is a fan of almost all potato soups, but this one stole the cake. The potato pieces were very tender but firm, and you could smell the bacon. Pepper is usually a staple for Salty, especially on creamed soup, but this didn't need anything, as it was perfectly seasoned when brought to the table. Sweet called this the best potato soup ever tried, including that sampled at four-star restaurants.
Crazee Burger also has an array of salads -- Green, Caesar, Greek, Caprese -- (various prices) and even Sweet Potato Fries ($2.99), which also come doused in the parmesan mixture.
We asked Garrett for some input on the other exotic burgers and he was happy to oblige. The most popular is the Wild Boar, and his personal favorite is Buffalo ($11.99).
"If you like crab cakes you will love the crab burger," he said. "The antelope burger is very gamey, so much so, the venison mild in comparison."
One of the best happy hours in town
As mentioned above, they have a generous happy hour schedule, with not only daily happy hours, but also all day Monday and special late night hours on both Friday and Saturday.
You can't beat one of their Angus Burgers for $2.99 (usually $4.99), or a Gobble Gobble (turkey) Burger for $3.99 (usually $6.99), plus discounts on their sausage in a bun, pork loin sandwich, onion rings, and much, much more.
The beer options are even more of a surprise. Where else can you get a pint of Stone Pale Ale for $2.99? When they say ALL drafts are on Happy Hour, they mean it. Pitchers of Stone (and other drafts) are $11.00 (usually $16.00).
On Wednesdays, they also offer happy hour prices on pitchers and pints all day long.
Tuesday is wine day at Crazee Burger, and you can get bottles at half price.
What's up in year two
Garrett said they have already jumped on board to support the monthly "30th on 30th" and plan to participate in more local North Park events and the community they serve.
He also has plans to have organized pairings of craft beer and wine with his many exotic meats.
A remodel, which is well underway (floors, bathroom, common service station, table and chairs, etc) will also include another TV in the dining area (they've already added one behind the ordering station).
As we waited for one of our selections, Salty queried Tori, the cashier, who has been with Crazee Burger for 2 ½ years, about working for the two different sets of owners.
"There has been a big time energy change," she said. "I loved the Germans and I had reservations at first, , but these guys are really doing good stuff."
Watch the old Diners Drive-ins and Dives spot on Food Network:
All photos courtesy of kurtewphotography.com.