Little New Zealand In P.B.

Bare Back Grill

4640 Mission Boulevard, Pacific Beach

It's evening, about 6 o'clock in Pacific Beach. I've been walking around, looking for someplace that isn't either pizza or beer 'n burger. What stops me is this, like, rusty metal seaweed art set around garden boxes, shade ferns sprouting from them. Looks luscious. I see the windows fold back, too, so the big clunky varnished tables inside practically hang out over the sidewalk. Nice. Then I notice a for-real All-Black jersey on the wall inside. (The All-Blacks? Come, now: New Zealand's revered world-beater rugby team.) I have a soft spot for the Kiwis. Determined, independent, declaring their own "nuclear-free zone" around their country, inventing bungee-jumping as a sport, fanatical health nuts.

Can we be witnessing the birth of a Kiwi eatery -- in San Diego?

They have a rusty iron kiwi in the back. And next to it, a declaration of food principles: "All natural! Certified organic...chemical-free beef, chicken, lamb, and chicken...fresh sauces using chemical-free ingredients."

That's it. I'm in. Even if it is a beer 'n burger joint.

Inside's all woody: plank strip ceiling, swamp-green walls, solid, varnished furniture. High chairs and tables, about half full right now. There are women at some tables, bunches of guys at others, most all of them drinking beers from plastic glasses. Definitely laid-back -- reggae's playing -- and the crew, three guys and a gal, stand chatting at the high counter at the back, beneath a plasma TV flashing silent TV news.

Seems it's someone's birthday. "Two-day celebration!" one of the servers is saying. "Today in our time zone, tomorrow, yours. It's gonna be a long haul, mate."

Must be a Kiwi.

I sit up at one of the tables, next to the sign that says "$1 Miller Light, Happy Hour 3--6." Huh. I just missed.

When one of the wait-guys comes -- Chad, and he's American, not Kiwi -- I've decided to have a Sprite ($1.40), just so I can work tonight.

"Is it true the meat's all organic, no hormones here?" I ask.

"You'd better believe it," says the gal, Amanda. "It all comes over from New Zealand, certified. Even our secret BBG [Bare Back Grill] sauce comes from there. We had a lady come in the other week. She hadn't eaten meat for six years. She couldn't stand the chemicals in supermarket meat. Once we'd persuaded her this was chemical-free, she ordered a burger. Her first meat burger in six years! It was pretty emotional."

Chad leaves me a two-sided card menu.

"Gnarly Big Burgers," says one side. They all sound pretty Kiwi. "Bare B'rger [$5.99]: prime NZ Angus [it's used in all the beef burgers], lettuce, tomato, red onion, aioli, and BBG sauce." "Queenstown Fave" ($6.99 same as the Bare, plus cheese, though you can have interesting ones like Edam or Brie).

I like the sound of the last three, "Sheilas Cracked" ($7.99, comes with a fried egg; "Sheila" means "woman" in Kiwi), "Double Down" ($8.99, with two patties, two cheese), and "Bare Big and Dirty" ($9.99, two "huge" NZ Angus patties, two fried eggs, bacon, beetroot, two slices cheese).

Hmm. I'm thinking of that beetroot. Sounds yummy. But $9.99...

On the flipside of the menu, they have various chicken burgers, including "Bare Lass" ($6.99 for a spicy tandoori chicken with yogurt). Also a fish burger ("Wake & Bake"), a tofu burger with coconut dressing ("Holy Roller"), and, aah, "Bare Li'l Lamb" ($6.99), a "prime NZ lamb burger" with blue cheese, mint dressing, beetroot, lettuce, tomato, red onion, aioli, and BBG sauce.

What's not to like? I order one. While I'm waiting I get to talking with Jason, the birthday boy. He's turning 23. "Tonight I'm eating my favorite," he says. "Sheilas Cracked. It's the fried egg. Kiwis love fried egg in their burger."

Turns out it's a couple of Americans who came up with the idea for this Kiwi eatery. PJ was one of them. He's 25. "Two and a half years ago we were touring New Zealand. My friend Matt and I were down in Queenstown in the Southern Alps. And the buzz was that this late-night burger trailer in town, in Cow Lane behind a wine shop, had, like, the best burgers in the world. So we had to go look. It was a place called, uh, Fergburger. And they had these incredible burgers, with this secret sauce. A kind of tomato relish, along with aioli. And way big. Plus only using organic New Zealand beef and lamb. So we got this idea of starting a place up here with the same burgers. Ants, the owner, agreed to sell us the recipes. We spent two weeks writing them all down, and presto, here we are."

And here comes Chad with my "Bare Li'l Lamb" burger. Plus fries with a wasabi dip I ordered for a buck more. The burger's big. I chomp in. First taste, ooh. That rangy lamb taste. Then, the mint. Then the garlicky aioli kicks in. Then the secret sauce from Down Under, a plummy, tomatoey, sweet, tart flavor flashing between the meat and bun. And then -- the beetroot. Velvet. Truly, this is a whole new burger ballgame. And what's so good is knowing you're not swallowing those pesky pesticides or growth hormones. My question is, why did these guys have to chase 7000 miles across the Pacific to find the good stuff?

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