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
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.