4201 30th Street, North Park
Our great national spokesman, Chuck Berry, pictured our country as one "where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day." He wrote those words back in the pre-Golden Arches USA, when burgers didn't come from chains -- they came from the soda shop on the corner. And now a couple of Germans have brought the all-American burger shop to a corner in North Park -- but they've done it with a twist.
Tioli's, the sad shack of North Park, has been through a lot of owners. Even during a brief recent spell as a good Italian restaurant, everybody thought it was still a bad Italian restaurant and stayed away. Under its new owners, it remains funky-looking, right down to the bentwood chairs with red Naugahyde cushions and red-checkered plastic tablecloths, but nobody would mistake it for a spaghetti joint now. Large signs trumpet its new incarnation as "Crazy Burger."
The name is well deserved. For some crazy reason, the numbers on the menu start at #11, which is a "good old plain" beef burger, followed by #12 "cheeeeeeeseeey burger" (I'm short a few es there), but they're also selling buffalo, ostrich, and gator burgers. And guess what? Nearly all of them are delicious, each in its own way. Every burger is individually seasoned and has its own special garnish -- the opposite of mass-manufactured fast grub.
The drill here is, you snag a menu -- both takeout and eat-in menus are at the order counter, where there's also a board listing any specials of the day. Catty-corner is a little wine bar, all the choices laid out. When you've decided what you want, you return to the "Order Here" counter. For takeout, there are chairs and small tables nearby to wait at; if you're eating in, you choose a table in the dining room, where the walls are covered with local artists' works, price tags attached. When your food is ready, someone will bring it to you -- it's a small place, they won't forget who ordered what. Your server may be one of the friendly Latinas from the order counter, or it may be the manager/owner, Wolfgang Peter Schlicht, a skinny, middle-aged German from Munich with (guess what?) a wry sense of humor. The third time we came in, he recognized us and twitted, "You are still hungry?" Or it may be the chef, Lothar Manz, a stocky, middle-aged German from Ulm, who takes frequent breaks from the kitchen to come out and socialize during lulls. They're all charmers.
I'll start out easy here, with the meats everyone's accustomed to eating. Juicy half-pound hamburgers are made of lean Angus beef, charbroiled to a turn on a gas grill, with medium-rare as the default doneness. They're served on large, soft Kaiser rolls made of a faintly sweet egg dough (like a coarser challeh or brioche), accompanied by dark-green leaf lettuce, tomato, sliced red onions, and mild dill pickle rounds. If you order one plain, you can dress it with regular ketchup, house-made chipotle ketchup, and/or the strong, house-made mustard (made from Coleman's dry English mustard) that's somewhere between Dijon and Düsseldorf in strength, with horseradish for extra piquancy. The basic burger costs just $4. If I can't hope that these guys will put Mickey D's and its kin out of business, I do want them to survive so I can get good takeout when I don't have time to cook. The difference in quality and service is beyond measure.
If it's a cheeseburger you want, you have a choice of Swiss or cheddar, or "Hamburgeeerrr Française" with Brie (pronounce it with a soft g and roll those rs like a Parisian!), or Hamburger Dansk with blue cheese.
As you move further down the menu, the choices become even more fun. First there are beef burgers topped with various house-made sauces and relishes: The Mexicana has tomato-cilantro salsa, the Ciao Bella has homemade pesto, the delicious Croatia is topped with roasted bell peppers and garlic spread, the Forestière has a mushroom ragout, and the Texas Burger has a house-made hickory-smoked barbecue sauce -- a gringo-style sauce that's sweet and mild. The latest addition is the Aloha Burger, and you can guess what's on it.
There are some conventional alternatives to beef. The Tonka Burger features bison (buffalo) meat, which tastes even "beefier" than beef. Raised as a premium meat -- free-range, fed on grass and alfalfa pellets -- buff are unlikely to carry the diseases of crowded feed-lot beef and can safely be eaten rare, as their leanness demands. Chef Lothar crowns the Tonka with a discreet daub of creamed horseradish. Some want it stronger, but I like it just as is, highlighting the flavor without overwhelming it.
Gobble-Gobble Burger is the first ground-turkey product I've ever found worth eating. The low-fat meat is seasoned just right and has a juicy mouth-feel because of Lothar's "secret" recipe -- he mixes in a mousse of onion, shallots, and poultry stock, then tops the cooked patty with a zippy glaze that combines orange marmalade, mustard, and corn kernels, a flawless complement. I liked this so well, I ate it with a fork and knife and didn't even bother with the bun. Some other "normal" non-meat choices include the Charlie Burger made of fresh chopped tuna topped with wasabi, the Chinook Burger of fresh chopped salmon and tartar sauce, and a grilled chicken breast sandwich with green peppercorn aioli. For vegetarians, there's a veggie burger with chipotle sauce and a grilled portobello mushroom with tartar sauce.
I didn't especially care for either of the lamb burgers. The Moroccan is all lamb, topped with minted yogurt; the Santorini is a burger version of gyros meat, half lamb and half beef, with tsatsiki sauce. In both, the flavor of the lamb was too muttonish for my taste. There's also a half-pork, half-beef Hamburg Burger with onions and the same meats in a Kraut Burger with sauerkraut; I didn't try either of these.
When the Food Police prescribed low-fat diets, fatless ostrich was supposed to become "the next red meat." Hundreds of Texas ranchers lost their shirts on it. First problem: Them's ornery beasts, hard to handle. Second: Their meat is lean -- too lean and tough to make a satisfying steak. It turned out that nobody really likes ostrich, alive or dead. Best ostrich I've eaten before this was a carpaccio at the exalted Milles Fleurs. The Big Bird Burger at Tioli's beats Milles Fleurs' rendition, because grinding the meat and then mixing it with the onion mousse (as in the turkey burger) solves the whole lean-tough problem. I can't quite describe Big Bird's taste -- it's closer to beef than to poultry. The tangy topping of lemon chive cream sauce suits it well. While Tioli's menu states, "Don't ask for RARE," we requested our ostrich RARE and Lothar went along with it -- not bloody-rare, of course, just nice and rosy on the inside. "We never cook the ostrich well-done," Wolfgang told me later. The result was as splendid as ostrich will ever be.