A&E

Love and burgers

J Love Burger: Enticing, but not without identity crisis

Romance is a funny thing. Customers are showing a lot of love for J Love Burger on Castro Street in downtown Mountain View. I didn't fall for her -- not at first. I noted her flaws before I appreciated her qualities.

Outwardly, she was plastered with cocktail posters, one advertising a $5 shot of Irish whiskey available every Friday from 9 to 11 p.m. Yet adjacent the lurid libation ads were posters of delicious Japanese-style menchi-katsu (ground beef and pork) and yakiniku (grilled beef with onion) burgers. I was getting mixed signals.

She isn't exactly homely, but she'll never be called chic. Inside, she has plain Jane sports bar decor with nondescript furnishings in grays and beiges.

Down a corridor that leads past the bar is a door that connects to Mervyn's Lounge, which opens at 3 p.m. While it was not quite 3 p.m., I stuck my head in. It had all the qualities of a dive bar: appropriately dark, a tad rundown, secretive. The front door is in an alley. J Love Burger had a shady side.

In reality, Mervyn's is a storied lounge, the remnant of a once locally famous restaurant whose history has been well documented. I couldn't quite reconcile a Japanese burger place and an old-fashioned watering hole. Could it be a case of multiple personality disorder?

Adding to the confusion was the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the establishment. One day, the restroom wasn't clean -- never a good sign. Yet walking past the open kitchen gave me some relief. Chef Kanako "Katy" Shimazu's cooking space was spic and span, as was the dining area.

The midday menu is a build-your-own burger concept with options on meat, buns, salad, fries and non-alcoholic beverages. The basic charge is $9.95 with certain up-charges depending on the combinations. At dinner, there are a few more snacks and sides available, but burgers remain the anchor.

The laminated menu comes in both English and Japanese with miniature photographs of the finished products. That was a good idea for those of us not steeped in Japanese techniques, mixtures, condiments and expected results. Except for the brioche buns, everything is made in house from Shimazu's recipes, according to supervisor Una Lee.

My first date with J Love didn't go well. I chose the marinated ginger pork burger with Japanese barbecue sauce and grilled onion on rice buns -- two slider-sized burgers, although I wouldn't call them burgers. It was sliced pork with grilled onions atop. The rice buns were hockey-puck sized discs of rice with threads of seaweed.

The pork was just OK, although I couldn't detect a smidgen of ginger. The "burgers" were half wrapped in paper for easy handling and to keep the rice pucks from disintegrating. It was messy: more a collision than a harmonic fusion of east meets west.

There was a second date. This time, I was enchanted by the menchi-katsu burger. Menchi-katsu roughly means chopped or minced cutlet. In this case, it translates to a house-made blend of ground beef and pork, topped with deep-fried cabbage and drizzled with chef Shimazu's special tonkatsu sauce: a mix of ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, oyster sauces and sugar.

I chose the brioche bun to go with my menchi-katsu burger, and got an over-sized and lightly toasted roll with the letter "J" stamped on the top. The burger was delicious and tangy with many levels of flavor, no additional condiments necessary. The French fries were good and the sweet potato fries worth the 50 cent extra charge. My heart was warming.

On our last date, I opted for an unusual combination -- the fried fish fillet with tartar sauce on a ramen bun. The waiter raised an eyebrow but gave me a knowing nod. The ramen bun -- wrapped in paper and sandwiched around the fish -- instantly disintegrated. It turned out to be a great combination, though. The crunch of ramen noodles juxtaposed over the hot crisp fish was a revelation. There was sufficient tartar sauce to keep the sandwich somewhat together.

For lettuce lovers, the J Love salad -- composed of romaine, avocado and tomato -- was given life by a wasabi mayonnaise dressing.

The more interesting tofu salad of cherry tomatoes, cold tofu and lettuce with ribbons of seaweed in a spicy sauce revved up the appetite. There was loads of flavor packed in this small salad.

J Love Burger offers two dozen beers, the standards by the bottle ($4-$5). The tap beer ($7-$8) is where the interest lies, with options like Heretic Brewing Company's Evil Cousin, Eye of the Hawk from Mendocino Brewing Company, Irish Red Ale and others.

Though I still believe she's suffering from an identity crisis, J Love Burger won me over. I'm looking forward to our next rendezvous.

J Love Burger

236 Castro St., Mountain View

650-938-2968

jloveburger.com

Hours: lunch, daily, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday-Saturday, 5:30-9 p.m. and

Sunday, 5-9 p.m.

Comments

6 people like this
Posted by Max Hauser
a resident of another community
on Sep 18, 2015 at 6:50 pm

Max Hauser is a registered user.

A great review, Dale, though I wish you'd also picked up on the big name-ambiguity story, rather than just describing the restaurant as "J-Love Burger." It isn't as simple as that by far, and the background to this was already on the Embarcadero website a month ago (some of it in comments): Web Link

Mervyn's Restaurant was a landmark longtime downtown-MV gathering place with a Lounge behind it (that name, of course, predates the Mervyn's department-store chain). The building's current owners, who last year closed their former front restaurant Chef Liu, avowedly sought to honor Mervyn's restaurant's memory in reopening it to rejoin the bar under unified ownership and management. "J Love" (a name that arrived later) was described to me by Ruddy Wang as a branding or sub-identity for the kitchen and its distinct menu. But "J Love" isn't the name on the business card he gave me ("Mervyn's Lounge and Restaurant"), nor on the banner sign out front, which says Mervyn's Lounge and Japanese-style Burgers. Clearly "J-Love" is a name worth knowing here (not to mention its food, I commented already after Elena's article; I find the ramen "bun" goes best with burgers, the rice version with the Yakiniku stir-fry) -- but the whole business is also sometimes identified as "Mervyn's," and that too is the venerable restaurant name that will resonate with the longtime MV residents or hangers-around.


11 people like this
Posted by Lived There
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 18, 2015 at 9:05 pm

It isn't a Japanese Burger unless the meat is Kobe Beef, from Hokkaido, which cost $128-150/pound.

This is why the Japanese flock to McDonald's, which is cheaper than buying groceries in Japan. Even beef imported from America is cheaper than Kobe beef!

I have my doubts about this place.


Like this comment
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 18, 2015 at 9:13 pm


The legacy no-frills interior burger joints have my support. They have
been vetted by time and honestly developing their customer base.

I am very suspect about the quick little burger and pizza places that
have sprung up ... and down in the recent past, because most of the
just seem to be rip-off joints ( I won't name names ) and do a poor
job for very high prices.

There used to be some really great burger places in Palo Alto and
Mountain View as well. The StarBucks on El Camino near California
a long time ago used to be the home to the Amber Lantern that had
the best burgers I have ever to this day eaten.

Then in Mountain View I think Clark's Burgers still exists, but it is a
pales shadow of what it once was.

Both real flame broiled real good sized patties. You just cannot
get that anywhere that I know of today, and most of the burger
places that are new are just playing at it.

I'll try it out and see though for sure.


Like this comment
Posted by Slow Down
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 18, 2015 at 10:17 pm

Slow Down is a registered user.

@Plane Speaker - I like J Love Burger, but I'll warn you now, they aren't at all traditional hamburgers. Deep fried pork patty on a ramen bun? Their most burger like burger is beef blended with a pork pate. It is very flavorful, but more like a meatloaf sandwich than a classic burger. So do try it, but don't go in expecting a like a Clarke's.


10 people like this
Posted by Lived There
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2015 at 8:43 am

In the six years I lived in Japan, I never once saw or heard of anyone even touching pork. Most Japanese nationals think pork, turkey, and fish from rivers ( as opposed to oceans) are dirty and have an offensive texture.

I really doubt anyone from Japan would eat at J-Burgers. It seems it is not at all authentic.


5 people like this
Posted by Funny
a resident of Triple El
on Sep 19, 2015 at 9:21 am

Doesn't sound like the hanbagahs I had in Japan, but they ate pork all the time when I was there. For example katzudon was a fairly popular dish; chashu in Korean style restaurants was popular, pork was popular in curry dishes and ramen dishes etc.

Kirk's, in my opinion, provides good old style burgers. It somehow surprised me but Denny's provides quite good burgers as well. The Counter is also OK but expensive and pompous with a commercialized Aquarius edge.


4 people like this
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2015 at 11:54 am

Nayeli is a registered user.

@ Lived There: That is interesting. Thanks for sharing that!

I was born and raised in Mexico (until junior high) and still visit fairly often. I never saw a "burrito" until we immigrated to the United States. In fact, even in Texas (where I was also raised), you almost never see a "burrito" at authentic Mexican or Tex-Mex/Tejano restaurants.

I am from the east coast of Mexico, so maybe it is a regional? Then again, I have a brother-in-law from Oaxaca and friends from Sinaloa and Nayarit and they never found burritos there either.

Is it possible that this is something that Americans brought to Japan following WW2 and is only regional? I suppose that it could also be a completely Japanese-American thing.


4 people like this
Posted by Slow Down
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 19, 2015 at 1:49 pm

Slow Down is a registered user.

@Lived There - Are you sure the country you lived in was actually Japan? :) Because Pork is the most popular meat in Japan, from fried cutlets, to curry, to ramen stock, pork is ubiquitous. Maybe a shady travel agent booked you to Malaysia and told you it was Japan. Anyway, here is an article from the Japan Times, "Pig in Japan: the nation’s most popular meat"

Web Link

"The most popular type of meat by far in Japan is pork. Nearly as much pork is consumed as chicken and beef combined. "


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