804 University Ave.
For months, the Jack-in-the-Box at University and 8th Avenues was under wraps. On a billboard, the Jack-in-the-Box clown stood defiantly beside this announcement:
"I'm not just changing this restaurant. I'm changing the industry." -Jack
Maybe he meant the "Jack-themed art" industry, which must have experienced an unparalleled boom during the renovation. One local commentator suggested that the new JBX restaurant downplayed the clown image. Um, perhaps he did not notice the Jack-logoed T-shirts, boxers and hats. Maybe he overlooked the Jack-shaped keychains, mint tins and "Jack Snacks" cookies on the counter. Ditto the Jack-head spiral above the drive-in, Jack murals on the walls, faux-candid photos of Jack relaxing at home, and so on.
Another effusive writer suggested that the interior looked more like an art gallery or a dance club than a fast-food restaurant. (It has been awhile since I wandered into an art gallery, a dance club or a fast-food restaurant, but the tables and chairs seem like a dead giveaway.) Two cushy leather chairs with built-in trays and a matching ottoman, set in front of a see-through fireplace, do give the otherwise cramped dining room a hint of a coffeehouse feel.
The JBX décor also borrows liberally from next-door-neighbor Chipotle: brushed metal, industrial accents and wacky angles. Taking a few cues from Chipotle makes sense, because, contrary to the billboard boasting, Jack-in-the-Box is playing catch-up, not leading the charge. Chains like Chipotle and Baja Fresh started the "fast casual" trend: still quick and cheap, but with an insinuation of higher quality. Oh, and artwork on the walls. But pushing or pulling, a Jack-in-the-Box makeover was long overdue. Despite years of pithy commercials, Jack-in-the-Box is still best known to many people as the source of a major e coli outbreak more than a decade ago.
All the sparkly newness at JBX seems cheap, however, and short-lived. Dropped fries accumulate under the fryer, and spilled shakes already crust the blender. In the too-open kitchen, rows of computer screens and automated something-or-others blare, buzz or beep. The staff, supposedly the cream of Jack's slave-wage crop, are intermittently effusive, but mostly confused and harried as they struggle to figure out the ordering system, wrestle with special orders and run meals to tables. None of my half-dozen orders arrived in less than 10 minutes.
Still, the JBX menu romances us with the suggestion that this is not the land of double cheeseburgers anymore-except, I suppose, the "double meat & cheese burger"-and as such deserves our patience. Much of the menu is dedicated to salads, lunchmeats and chicken sandwiches. JBX does not serve bacon-they serve applewood bacon. They do not put chocolate syrup on the brownie-they drizzle chocolate ganache. Oh my. Mater! Pater! I'm off to JBX for a spot of din-din!
In all fairness, the food, when it comes, is far from terrible. The hefty sunrise pannido ($3.25), a long ham-and-cheese omelet wrapped in a toasted ciabatta baguette, was the best fast-food breakfast sandwich I have ever eaten. The thick shakes ($2.55), complete with whipped cream and cherry, inspire the kind of jaw-straining straw-sucking I remember as a kid. The tender chicken avocado club ($5.95) had generous slices of avocado and thin slices of tomato. But it came sans fries, and I doubt it was the biggest or best sandwich I could have found for that price. Ditto the pre-constructed Southwest chicken salad ($5.00), a little gray around the edges, a bag of "spicy corn sticks" and a giant packet of matching spicy dressing on top. Underneath, mixed greens turned out to be primarily iceberg lettuce.
The worst part of the menu might still be the quality of the burgers. The applewood bacon burger ($4.95) was a toasted ciabatta roll stacked with tender, smoky bacon, crisp romaine lettuce and grilled onions, all on top of an overcooked burger mixed through with crunchy chunks of I-don't-want-to-know. On subsequent days, salt effectively hid any flavor in the pepperjack burger ($5.25) and the "smaller burger" ($1.55). Not the ideal way to change that bacteria-tarnished image.
But people are probably already well on their way to forgetting. What will eventually bring JBX down are those prices-$5.25 for a fast-food burger, without fries?-and the waiting times. After all, "fast casual" is just newspeak for "fast food," which was oldspeak for "quick and cheap." JBX misses on both counts.
We don't write it until you order it at cityeat@SDcitybeat.com.