By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Two graduates of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) just took over the kitchen at Garlic Shack, a peculiar but alluring little eatery that makes no apologies for messing with your breath.
Garlic in one form or another finds its way into about 75 percent of the dishes across an American-Asian menu from which you’ll discover steamed burgers, the item that mainly led me here because of its obscurity — at least within San Diego.
“Steamed burgers are becoming a thing and we were the first and maybe still the only place locally that has them,” said David Hyun, who purchased Garlic Shack earlier this month from its original owner and brought in fellow CIA alum Connor J. Sterphone as assistant chef.
The steamed burgers and other dishes such as “spicy bomb” french fries, garlicky meatballs and zesty Korean-style beef sandwiches and are among the carryovers Hyun tweaked to his liking. In doing so, he trimmed the menu from four pages to one and introduced new sauces and garnishes for certain items. Judging from some reviews before he bought the place, he probably toned down the garlic levels a couple notches as well.
Even a bucket of “wet” french fries studded with sweet, crumbled garlic and cooked to a pleasant well-done crisp didn’t necessarily send us running home to our toothbrushes right after eating them. A glass of craft beer or bottle of Kickapoo soda will effectively cleanse your palate.
Garlic Shack’s atmosphere is more cohesive than its menu. It is indeed a shack, but with clay-tile flooring, a semi-open kitchen and a decent outdoor patio.
The walls are goth-y black, except for one that’s paneled in corrugated metal. Hovering over the tight cluster of wooden-bench tables are pro-garlic statements scrawled in chalk. One of them reads: “See what happens when you eat garlic on an empty stomach.”
We did and couldn’t figure out the answer except to say we filled up quickly from the generous food portions.
While plowing through the wet fries, we also savored an appetizer of chicken pot stickers made lovable by the accompanying ginger-pineapple dipping sauce. Titillating hints of garlic resided somewhere in the dish.
Then the steamed burger and “K-beef” sandwich arrived. Both were monstrous in size. Hyun explained that the burgers are cooked in a stockpot with broth and then finished on the grill under metal steamers just until the Muenster cheese on top melts.
Though lacking caramelization and color, the patty was exceptionally moist and adopted meek garlic flavor from the “house spread” smeared inside the bun. My only complaint was the excessive amount of wilted spinach bursting out of all sides, which created textural redundancy to the much-softened puck of meat.
Our second sandwich featured a concentration of flavorful sliced beef, similar to bulgogi but accented with Provolone cheese and grilled peppers and onions. Think of it as a Korean cheese steak fully wrapped in nice bread and with the additions of crispy bean sprouts and a little of the garlic spread.
Customers can also opt for spicy pork in the sandwich or request most of the menu’s proteins in rice bowls or noodle soup instead.
Other dressed-up dishes include a soft shell crab burger, turkey sliders, poutine, and an over-the-top bratwurst dog bedded with sauerkraut, mozzarella, grilled onions, a fried egg and spicy mayo and mustard. Maybe next time, maybe never.
Garlic Shack’s sweeter offerings include frozen macarons by Brick, various craft sodas and free parking in a modest-size lot next door.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.