Jim and the Volcano

Bully's East

2401 Camino del Rio South, Mission Valley

After nearly nine years in San Diego, I’d never been to any of the Bully’s restaurants and felt a tad guilty about my ignorance of a local institution. The mini-chain was established back in 1967, when I was still hanging around the Haight, festooned with beads, eating brown rice, and inhaling. A few weeks ago, Samurai Jim and Michelle had lunch at Bully’s East and reported positively. “Did you know it’s not all red meat but lots of seafood, too?” Jim asked. Michelle had been captivated by a special of tender salmon steak. We made a date to eat dinner there during Restaurant Week, when the menu was $30 and included three choices of both appetizers and entrées and four options for dessert.

The decor won my heart immediately: woodsy, comfortable, cozy — minus any hint of high-class steakhouse snootiness, no ermines and pearls. The long list of cheap (mainly $8) cocktails further warmed the spirits. Somehow, steakhouses have become associated with classic cocktails, so a little purely recreational drinking during the first course, especially at people’s prices, seemed apropos. Michelle’s Blue Mojito (splashed with blue curaçao) was the best and brightest; Jim’s elaborate Mai Tai was mellow. My Hurricane was just okay, a mere tropical drizzle.

Our waitress was a brown-haired “blonde” — cordial, sweet, clueless about the wine list, and thrown for a loop by the concept of eating “family style.” No, we weren’t ordering one dinner to split between three of us, we were ordering three dinners, but it didn’t matter who got what dish, etc.… Don’t panic, girl. Relax. Take a breath.

One of the three appetizers offered on the Restaurant Week menu, the “prime rib bits,” was basically a downsized duplication of one of the mains, but as substitutions weren’t allowed, we decided to add an inexpensive extra appetizer from the regular menu, crab-stuffed mushrooms “with Bully’s own American cheese sauce.” With this, we received five medium cremini (“baby ’bella”) mushrooms, each stuffed with a little blob of crab meat swathed in the wet papier-mâché of a thick béchamel sauce (that is, butter, flour, and milk). All around the mushrooms there was more of the pasty white sauce, amended with bland cheese. “Béchamel, béchamel mucho,” I started to sing. “Darn, I really had hopes for this dish.” Then I said, “As my late buddy Artie Traum used to sing, ‘All my prayers have been answered, and the answer was no.’ ”

The first official Restaurant Week appetizer offered sesame-crusted seared ahi. Not much searing, but nice ahi, and a light scattering of gomen, Japanese black sesame seeds, which have a darker and nuttier flavor than the white ones. The fish was plated over an amiable Asian coleslaw, alongside a ponzu-like dip. Too bad this isn’t on the regular dinner menu, it’d be a “pick hit.”

That’s more than I can say for our other appetizer, a choice of either a chicken or shrimp Volcano (we went for shrimp). This proved to be a mound of “roasted garlic-mashed potato” resembling wallpaper paste in its weighty, dairy-free purity, topped with a handful of whole medium-size grilled shrimps swamped in “our own volcano sauce,” which seemed to be a vinegary bottled hot sauce diffused with something milder, possibly chicken stock. It resembled buffalo-wing sauce, but with no indulgent sign of the requisite melted butter.

As expected, the “prime rib bits” appetizer (which, since it came with the meal anyway, I took it home as my next night’s dinner) was a miniature of the prime rib entrée — but with the beef chopped into inch-size chunks, most pieces prominently displaying ribbons of fat. These “bits” came from the outer edges of the roast, which is where the fat is. They’re not on the regular menu, which is good because I don’t think chefs are legally allowed to send out a side of Lipitor with the appetizers.

Michelle and I were conspiring to share a couple of wines by the glass as we headed into the entrées, from a rich array of choices, until boozehound Samurai Jim decided he’d like wine, too, so we switched to choosing a bottle. The list of reds was no thrill — affordable supermarket choices like Clos du Bois and Murphy-Goode, and then a great leap upward in price. (Corkage is just $10. Worth bringing your own, especially if you’ve got some Rhônes in your hall closet that would flatter this food.) But then I spotted a list of “Other Reds,” which included a $38 Rutherford Ranch Rhiannon Meritage, mellowly mingling Merlot, Syrah, and Zin. It was a serendipitous guess. Had our roast beef or steak been sublimely great, this choice might have been too mild-mannered — great beef (that is, well-aged USDA Prime grade) craves the dark underlying tannins of serious aged Bordeaux or top California Cabs — but the meats here proved to be lightweights as well.

Horseradish-crusted prime rib (ordered very rare, arriving medium-rare) was a thin slab (about eight ounces) of pink meat with a white topping, a creamy, slightly sweet horseradish crust — gentle, not challenging. The meat tastes like USDA Choice, and it is tender and decently flavorful, but this is not the roast beef that thrills men’s souls — or women’s either. (I’ll go over this one more time until y’all finally get it: A prime rib is a particular cut from the rib-loin section just under the backbone of the steer — no quality implications in the name — whereas USDA Prime is the government’s top grade, a congratulatory judgment of the quality of the steer, based on how tender and rich-tasting the meat is likely to be, according to the proportion of fine wisps of fat marbling the muscle.)

The roast beef came with nice grilled asparagus and a “loaded baked potato.” Michelle said, “This isn’t loaded. Where are the chives, sour cream, bacon, and so forth?” “I mashed in all the sour cream,” I answered, “a whole teaspoon’s worth. Whatever butter it has was already in there.” This is when we noticed that we hadn’t received bread and butter with dinner, to furnish extra butter for the thirsty spud. “Do you think they’re skimping for Restaurant Week?” asked Jim. “But that’s when they’re supposed to be luring new customers,” said Michelle. “You’d think they’d do everything as best as they could.” I said, “Especially with the baked potato. I bet a lot of people go to steakhouses as much for the potato as for the beef.”

A smallish (seven-ounce) Teriyaki top sirloin was thick, rare, tender, and tasty. Good meat, good glaze, good horseradish sauce. I also liked the delicate fresh green beans almandine and appreciated Bully’s offering different veggies with each main course. But the “cheddar-bacon” mashed potatoes served with this steak tasted too much like the abominable Volcano’s “roasted garlic-mashed potato” sludge. Using water rather than milk in the mash is a commonplace in moderately priced restaurants and among impoverished peoples the world over, but our ancestors came to America yearning to put loads of butter and milk in their mash and their children’s mash. Later, we added other ingredients. Mashed potatoes are sluts, they’ll take almost anything you want to put into them — but you still need to caress them first with sufficient dairy products before they’ll swallow your fancier culinary fetishes.

Trying out the seafood choice on the fixed menu was saddening. Pan-seared scallops in a pomegranate glaze tasted like ordinary, commercial-grade wet-pack scallops (meaning, flown from back east in tourist class, surrounded by a protective liquid bath heavily loaded with potassium, which prevents spoilage but doesn’t do the flavor or texture any good). Had they been day-boat or diver scallops, the menu would have boasted about it, and the price would be considerably higher. They were also overcooked until rubbery and opaque all the way through, not opalescent. The glaze was light and savory, at least. “After the salmon I had at lunch,” said Michelle, “I’m so disappointed. I really thought they’d be better with seafood than this.” The scallops came with caramelized baby carrots and yet another replay of the Volcano mash.

With four desserts to choose from, we skipped the crème brûlée. The “mud pie” turned out to be a great kiddie indulgence — mocha-almond ice cream piled atop a chocolate fudge crust, with whipped cream and nuts on the side. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll be happy.

“Girl Scouts Go Gourmet” is a spin-off of a Restaurant Week promo this year, where Girl Scout cookies are used in restaurant desserts. Here the Trefoil cookies were crushed for the crust of a key lime cheesecake pie. It was an odd combo — the richness of cheesecake, the tartness of lime, the sweetness of cookies, plus whipped cream on the side. It was odd and heavy but likable in small doses.

Warm bread pudding studded with cranberries was dense, weighty, and elusively familiar as we tried to figure out what bread it was based on. (Hawaiian? Wonder? Baguette?) We all liked it, vaguely. “Good for breakfast” was my verdict.

Nearly every time I’ve played catch-up and tried any of the city’s older favorite restaurants (particularly those charging moderate prices), I’ve been disappointed. (Is this why San Diego has a bad food reputation?) Bully’s East is better than some, but as someone palate-propelled, it’s not where I’d spend my own money. I found the food decent rather than delicious but can see why lots of locals love this institution: You don’t have to dress like a stiff or pay like a bailed-out bank exec making whoopee but can come as you are and enjoy a few good drinks and a warm and friendly cholesterol-raising session. If you want lots of red meat — and care less about inventive cooking or fabulous quality than the conviviality of the surroundings — Bully’s fits the bill.

Bully’s was founded in the Bird Rock area of La Jolla in 1967 by George Bullington (nicknamed “Bully,” of course), a jockey agent at Santa Anita Racetrack, and Lester Holt, a thoroughbred horse trainer. Bullington had tended bar with J.D. Dahlen at the Courtroom in La Jolla, and George brought in J.D. to manage Bully’s bar.

Even now, few restaurants routinely serve roast beef except at buffets, but Bullington had a different idea. Bully’s won rapid success, mainly by offering roast prime rib in various sizes every day as the centerpiece of the menu. Bully’s also became a pioneer of late-night dining, taking its place as one of a scant few local restaurants to serve dinner until past midnight every night.

The Bully’s concept quickly expanded. Bully’s North in Del Mar opened in 1968. In 1971, Bullington and Holt brought in a new partner, Frank Sanchez, and converted an A&W root beer stand in Mission Valley into Bully’s East, with J.D. Dahlen as its managing partner. Eventually, Dahlen bought this branch outright, and today he and his family (wife Ginny and son Derek) are the sole proprietors.

Bully’s East
2401 Camino del Rio South (at Texas Street), Mission Valley, 619-291-2665, bullyseastsd.com.
HOURS: Monday–Friday, 11:00 a.m.–12:15 a.m.; Saturday–Sunday, 10:00 a.m.–2:00 a.m.
PRICES: Dinner appetizers, $6–$16; burgers and sandwiches, $9–$19; entrées, $14–$70 (most in $20s); sides and sauces, $3; desserts, $5–$9. Early-bird specials (4:30–5:30 p.m.), $11–$15. Deep discounts on appetizers and snacks at happy hour (weekdays 4:30–6:00 p.m., 10:00 p.m.–12:15 a.m.).
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Steaks, roast prime rib, smoked-pork baby-back ribs, and seafood, American mainstream–style. International wine list, mainly well-known California bottlings, wide price range. Full bar, affordable cocktails.
PICK HITS: Keep it simple and meaty.
NEED TO KNOW: Comfortable, casual ambience. Free parking. Wine corkage $10. No vegetarian items except side dishes and Caesar salad.

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Once a year or so we go to Bully's to satisfy our rare beef craving. One thing that has always been the case (since the '70's) is that if the meat is over or under done, the waitstaff will bring you another portion to suit your liking. Further, if you want more "stuff" for a baked potato, you can get it. This is an "ask and ye shall receive" type of joint. By the way, some people swear by the Bully Burger, saying it's the best in town.

Lemme guess: New York native? Grouch much?

I have learned to avoid all restaurants described as a "local institution". The chefs at such places have as much flare and originality as a machine shop worker turning out engine castings. "Local institutions" build up a dedicated clientele of diners hooked on "value for money" and murky menus of "local favorites" that never change.

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