You're still with me? Then let's talk about gator. Many people describe any reptile or amphibian meat as tasting "like chicken." It doesn't. I've eaten gator at Cajun restaurants in Louisiana and San Francisco; I wouldn't want it every day, but the white tail meat has a tight grain and a clean, interesting, almost piney flavor. Lothar tops his coarse-ground, salty gator burger with a piquant "curry fruit tapenade," meaning, a curried chutney. It's the right stuff for the critter. If you're curious about croc, this is a good introduction that respects its flavor but softens it with an ingratiating garnish.
The restaurant has already won a bit of notoriety for serving Rattlesnake Burgers with "antitoxin serum gravy." Alas, just one day before my first visit, the S.D. Health Department came and confiscated all the snake meat -- not because it's unhealthy (you don't eat the head!) but because in California it's an endangered species. The restaurant's supply came from Las Vegas, but never mind -- they said it's still illegal to sell here. Very few people were ordering it anyway, but I'm regretful because I have eaten rattlesnake before and rather liked it. It doesn't taste like chicken, it tastes like frog legs. I hoped to try it again as a burger, instead of finger food, so I could chomp it in real chews without navigating all the tiny bones. It may yet return, if Wolfgang talks the government into allowing the farm-raised snake meat that he was buying.
The choices for dinner extend beyond burgers. As the clientele ceased expecting pasta, the owners dropped the poor-selling thin-crust pizza from the menu and replaced it with very long, very savory bratwursts, from a serious German sausage-maker in L.A. They're not on the printed menu (they're usually listed at the chalkboard behind the order counter), but they're always available. The veal brats are soft, tender, full of flavor. The smoked brats are stronger, coarser, irresistible to a sausage-lover. Some days there are unsmoked pork bratwursts as well. Tioli's serves the brats with toasted baguette slices and with the strong, house-made mustard.
There are two classic burger-house sides: French fries are much like McDonald's, but that smoky house chipotle ketchup makes them a treat. Lothar makes the Texas-style beans from scratch, starting with dry beans, adding onion, bacon, dark brown sugar, jalapeños, and spices. Smoky-sweet, they're easily worth the buck they cost.
Five salads round out the printed menu. The house salad is a pleasing mixture of greens, cukes, tomatoes, red onions, and mushrooms, with your choice of ranch dressing or the house red-wine vinaigrette, served on the side. The Caprese has tender buffalo mozzarella with fresh large-leaf basil, garlic, and olive oil over pale slices of Florida-grown tomatoes; I hope that when local tomatoes come into season, the kitchen will use them instead. There's also a Caesar, a Greek, and an interesting-sounding arugula salad with fresh fennel. Some evenings, the chef offers a soup, and there may or may not be a couple of outsourced desserts.
To drink? The taps include two lagers (one from Munich, one from Boston), a Czech Pilsner, a Scottish ale, a Bavarian wheat beer, and Irish stout, while the canned beers are regular American stuff. The wines, about a dozen of them, are international and inexpensive. The best choice, to my taste, is the Sicilian Nero d'Avola, a dark red that's smooth but gutsy. It's Wolfgang's favorite too, and if you go to the website, that's probably what's in his glass in the photo.
A burger joint is, by definition, a restaurant of modest ambitions. But this burger joint is special -- not just for the adventurous meat choices and quality ingredients, but because genuine craftsmanship, imagination, and tongue-in-cheek wit inform the cooking. Here are a couple of European restaurant professionals who obviously enjoy their work, and they're glad to share the fun with the rest of us.
ABOUT THE OWNERS
Wolfgang Schlicht runs the front of the house, and chef Lothar Manz runs the kitchen. "I went to school in Germany in hotel and restaurant management," says Wolfgang. "I first came here in 1969. I wanted to see the world, so I hopped a boat in Italy for New York. Then I went all over the world. I opened restaurants -- this is number 13 -- in Australia, Canada, United States. The last four, in Colorado, were my own. When my father passed away, I moved to Spain. The weather there was too cold for me -- in Málaga, the mountain caps are all white in winter; it was like Julian. So I came here for the weather. Now I'm 60, I'm done running around.
"Lothar and I fell in love with this old brick building in North Park and decided it would be a good place for us. I saw Tioli's menu, and it had pasta for $15, $16. But this is a more blue-collar area, and there's nothing wrong with a burger for four or five bucks. We remodeled it extensively and made Crazy Burger out of it. Our concept was to get away from the frozen patties, which you can have in every burger joint, and create a fresh burger. The burgers are all charbroiled on an open flame on a gas grill, where the fat drips off and burns away, and the smoke gives it that good flavor. When you put a burger on a griddle like most of the fast-food places, it swims in that fat. We can tell by our repeat customers that we're on the right track.
"You know, we used to have rattlesnake until the game warden came in and confiscated it all. I told him, I've eaten it in the desert, barbecued by the Indians, and it was very delicious," he says. "So the Indians can eat rattlesnake here but the white people can't? And look at all the rattlesnake boots and belts and headbands -- and the heads sell for lots of money to companies that make pharmaceuticals from them. So I told the game warden, 'We're going to put in a Texas Road Kill Burger as our next dish. And at Christmastime we'll have reindeer burger from Lapland.' We got the snake meat from a Sysco company, and they're digging into it to see if the game warden was wrong, because this was farmed meat, not wild."