Epicurious Eating: Station Tavern and Burgers
The orchid of South Park
Published Thursday, 25-Feb-2010 in issue 1157
If it was New Year’s Eve, 1918, you could leave your Model T at home for safety’s sake and party hardy along an accommodating trolley system serving parts of Hillcrest, North Park, Golden Hill and South Park. Today the tracks are gone, but a map of the rail line from that date is laminated onto the menus at Station Tavern and Burgers, which marks the footprint of a trolley depot that saw the comings and goings of South Park’s earliest dwellers.
Situated on a triangular parcel, the building’s revival from trolley station to burger tavern recently earned a prestigious Grand Orchid award for its sustainable design of mixed wood that pays homage to a slice of San Diego history many of us wish never disappeared. Grabbing the honors was architect Lloyd Russell, known for his “handmade modernism,” and developer Sam Chammas, who launched the 60s-style Riviera Supper Club in La Mesa after operating The Turf Club for several years.
Station’s appealing layout also embraces our gentle climate. The outdoor patio is equal in size, if not bigger, than the interior. It offers a park-like setting filled with jumbo picnic tables, plus a corral designated by a half-scale street car that calls to young, small passengers. (Yes, this tavern caters to rug rats!) Retractable garage doors open to the street, and another panel keeps the air flowing between bar and patio.
When asked about Station’s child-friendly component, which could potentially chase off those who believe diaper bags and martinis don’t mix, Chammas replied with a chuckle: “We welcome well-mannered children. But they have to stick with their guardians.” Visiting with a friend on a midweek afternoon, we saw only one toddler, quiet and obedient. I’m told by others who have visited pre-sunset on weekends that we picked a good time to go.
For behaved adults longing to feel like freewheeling kids again, the menu features none other than tater tots to at least nudge them into culinary nostalgia. Taters are back in vogue – cylindrical-shaped grated spuds fried to a toasty bite-size finish, and introduced to mass consumers in the early 1950s by Ore-Ida.
Here they’re served generously on a large plate and dusted with house seasonings – a dandy come-on to the effervescent banana notes inherent to the Lightning Hefeweisen we tried. Once in reach, there is nobody on the planet who could resist eating at least one. Couple them with Station’s paprika-feta dip served normally with the sweet potato fries, and it’s impossible to eat less than six.
Burgers are available in five varieties – all served on fresh challah buns with standard picnic fixings. We tried three and voted the spicy black bean patty as the supreme leader of the pack. Blended with savory spices and bell peppers and smeared with frisky lime-cilantro sauce, it’s the kind of “burger” you can eat with gusto seven days a week and live to tell about it. Request cheese, and the loosely formed patty is less apt to crumble in the devouring process.
Our turkey burger escaped common blandness due to semi-subtle seasonings in the meat that we couldn’t accurately identify – perhaps garlic and cayenne pepper. Made with mostly white meat, it was a little dry, but nothing that a condiment or two couldn’t fix.
A third-pound cheeseburger was typical in comparison, yet fully capable of placating the cravings of diehard beef eaters. The kitchen uses an 80-20 ratio of meat to fat, and the cows supposedly start off on grain diets before moving to grass in their final days. The result is juicy, gristle-free flesh with all-American flavor that doesn’t exclude the pickles. To those wondering if flames are involved, sorry to say, these are griddled.
Other burger choices include cheese-less beef and a second veggie burger made from chickpeas that is served with smoky paprika spread. The lone salad on the menu is colorful and fresh. For only $4, you get mixed greens piled with string-cut carrots, beets and a garden patch of other veggies.
Station’s libations cover all bases, with beer and cocktails ruling over a meager, unexciting wine inventory that is more obligatory than serious. From the taps, however, you’ll find connoisseur choices such as Anderson Valley Oatmeal Stout, New English Brown Ale, Stone IPA, Stella Artois and the aforementioned hefeweisen, for which we did not have to ask for the customary lemon wedge. Extra brownie points to the bartender for knowing that.
Now if only more architects and developers would continue gracing our neighborhoods with welcoming watering holes offering simple menus, San Diego’s lack of mass transit wouldn’t require long crawls home after such relaxing alcohol soakings. In a perfect world, there’d be an orchid every few blocks.