On a swath of Van Nuys Boulevard more commonly associated with car dealerships than big game preserves, Billy's Grill offers a menu of exotic burgers belied by its decades-old strip mall decor. Remember when turquoise and pink was a hot color combo? Don Johnson does.We don't need to be persuaded. We are unrepentant omnivores who require no cognitive dissociation to enjoy the taste of charred animal flesh. If, however, you do, there's a helpfully titled story posted near the register: "Bambi & Bison? Delicious!" Wait, is Billy's trying to sell people on venison or ensure they never go near it? We're not sure. We do know Billy's is very, very proud of their burgers, as evidenced by the banners in the windows, and locals keep coming back.
Meat & Bun: Billy's is semi-famous for its bison burgers, but the menu also includes ostrich, venison, lamb and ahi ($6.95-$7.95). Touted as healthy alternatives to beef, these "exotic meats" seem positively mundane on a formica countertop in the middle of a Sherman Oaks strip mall. These meats may be uncommon, but despite their rarity and healthfulness, they don't taste very good, at least not at Billy's. (You can find ostrich and bison burgers at The Fix Burger in Silver Lake.)
The lower fat content is the basis for most of the health claims, but it makes these burgers dry, chewy and exceptionally bland. Regardless of the meat's provenance, the burgers at Billy's all have that undeniable "freezer" tinge we associate with mediocre cafeteria burgers.
It doesn't help that they're cooked well-done. Or that they're served on the sort of thick wheat bun that's meant to connote "whole-grain health" but tastes vaguely stale even when it's not. (The other option is a standard white bun.)
We have eaten good bison burgers. We have also eaten exceptional grass-fed beef burgers, which with their lower fat content, resemble bison. We know it can be done.
Toppings: The exotic burgers are served with lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, pickles, mayo and a barely noticeable sweet-hot mustard. A slice of cheddar or jack cheese costs an extra $0.35.
Sides: The fries are typical fast-food fries, frozen en masse and dunked in a deep fryer. They're dull, but they're still French fries. The onion rings, also frozen and pre-fab, are better. They're a bit mushy inside, but they're swathed in a tempura-esque batter that's a step above the common breadcrumb batter.
Dessert: Smoothies and milkshakes.
The Upshot: Billy's "exotic" burgers tend to be dry, chewy and under-flavored. Stick to an unexotic beef burger on an unexotic white bun and order a side of onion rings.
Exercise: 60-min. spin class.