When you design a new restaurant with a high-school clientele in mind, opening in April can be a little rough.
"We didn't take as big of a hit as I thought we were going to take," says John Ra, whose Burgers and Bowls location stands just a block away from now-closed Palmer High School. "But right now, the last week, week-and-a-half's been pretty slow."
January was the original target date for B&B's debut; construction setbacks in Ra's remodel of the former home of Taste of New Orleans pushed the date back farther and farther. The finished space projects something of a universal appeal, with lots exposed brick, and accents in sherbet orange, lime green and eggplant purple.
But Ra, who's created successful concepts at Tomo Sushi and Miyake Sushi & Mongolian BBQ, essentially spells out the plea for young diners right on the Coca Cola-style menu board: Prices are on the low side, and offerings are nonthreatening variations on a few burgers and rice bowls with equally benign sides.
Take the chicken ($5.59, large) and beef ($5.99, large) teriyaki bowls. Topped with the standard sweet-and-tangy teriyaki — though the chicken is marinated in it first, then glazed and cooked over an open fire — both are mixed with a lightly oily stir-fry of cabbage, onion, carrots and broccoli over a bed of white rice. Chopstick-free and textbook as a spelling bee, both benefit from added Sriracha.
A beef yakiniku bowl ($6.59), described by Ra as a Japanese-Korean hybrid, follows basically the same path, except the less-sweet meat is marinated in a soy-based mixture of ginger, garlic, sesame oil, black pepper and sliced onions for 24 hours. Again, nothing wrong with it, but nothing memorable, either.
Burgers offer just a little more for the imagination. A teriyaki avocado cheeseburger ($5.99) packs thick slices of avocado, lettuce, tomato and onions onto a slightly burnt, sauce-glazed, 1/3-pound patty. The soft brioche roll, used for all the burgers, is great, while the cool avocado complements the Asian notes perfectly. The buttery patty melt ($4.29) is also good, the grainy, toasted Jewish rye standing out among the grilled onions and blend of American and Swiss cheese.
Less impressive are a Swiss mushroom burger ($5.29), where a thick layer of lettuce washes out the flavor of grilled mushrooms; and the cheeseburger ($3.29), whose quarter-pound patty arrives puck-ified.
B&B's sides would look right at home in any cafeteria. The house-made pork egg rolls ($1.50 each) come off best, with tender, slightly salty ground pork filling a lightly fried wrap. There's nothing wrong with the sweet potato waffle fries ($2.59, small), and the cream cheese won tons ($1.99 for four) could be eaten like candy. The chili cheese fries ($2.99, small) disappoint, though, bombed as they are with boring canned chili and yellow cheese.
In the end, it all seems fine for an audience of cash-poor teens, but school's out and business is slow. Ra plans to later add lo mein bowls and sushi specials, and rework some of the burgers using marinated skirt steak. It couldn't hurt: In the absence of teen spirit, some gustatory pizazz could do a lot for longevity.