7777 University Avenue, La Mesa
What is Golden Hill’s edgy Turf Supper Club, along with its tattooed waitresses, doing out in the wilds of La Mesa? Same as it ever was: serving cook-it-yourself steaks. And now, beyond the basic green salad, there are side dishes and even desserts.
The original Turf on 25th Avenue still exists, after a fashion, under new management. Recognizing a potential cash cow, the landlord bought out the restaurant’s owners, who relocated seven miles east to a lower-rent residential zone that’s even more famished than Golden Hill (if that’s possible) for restaurants with more variety than the ubiquitous taco stands.
Riviera Supper Club and Turquoise Lounge occupy a huge space (compared to the old digs), a sprawling 1950s-style blue-collar roadhouse that most recently held Habana, a Mexican-owned Cuban restaurant and salsa dance hall (a branch of a Texas-based chain) that fit the neighborhood about as well as would a UFO from the Andromeda Galaxy. Now, the interior is back to the early ’50s, with dark red walls, low lighting, and sprawl-y tufted black leatherette booths (plus some stand-alone tables), and a large communal grill in the center of the room. If your aim is to drink your blues away, you can go straight into the Turquoise Lounge bar (where you can also eat), but if you’re primarily focused on dinner, choose the Riviera door. Around the edges of the property, awaiting warm weather, are two outdoor-dining patios (including a secret, sheltered, smoking-okay space behind the dining room, on the side opposite the front door, that, in Cuban times, served as a “cigar lounge”). The Turf Club jukebox is famous for its eclectic assortment, played pretty loudly; but the evening’s ebullient crowd drowned out the music.
La Mesa isn’t Golden Hill, and the old ascetic menu probably wouldn’t play out here in the boonies, where the natives expect their dinner to be a dinner — not just a slab of raw flesh and a piece of bread. The meat choices have expanded to five cuts of steak, ranging from an 8-ounce sirloin to a 28-ounce porterhouse for two, along with a rack of “St. Louis–cut” pork spareribs, plus the original burgers and teriyaki kebabs, a chicken-breast sandwich, and several seafood options, including a daily fish catch at market price. There’s always been a huge, luscious portobello mushroom to grill (now it comes with a side of risotto!), but vegetarians and vegans can also choose from several huge new side dishes.
Steve and I arrived early and settled down with cocktails from the list of house specialties. (Cocktails and glasses of wine all seem to cost the same $8.) His Sazerac, a New Orleans classic involving bourbon and anise-flavored Herbsaint (similar Pernod substitutes here in Yankee-land), was a powerhouse, delicious but far from the subtler potion they make at Napoleon House, which claims the invention of the drink. It’s a good cocktail for the designated drinker. What caught my eye was a fad drink of the ferny singles bars of the ’70s — the Harvey Wallbanger, my first (and last) Harvey since 1976. It was the opposite of the Sazerac, a thin, icy, girly-girly drink with not nearly the strength to make any good girl go wild. When the Lynnester and her marvelous mom, Mary Ellen, arrived — the latter escaping the worst of the northern Michigan winter as she does every year — they sampled various red wines by the glass and let us taste. I can’t say I’d want any of them, although the Pinot Noir was, eh, acceptable.
When Riviera first opened, there were choreography problems involving raw meats and cooked sides arriving simultaneously, so the sides cooled while the meat got cooked — that glitch is pretty much solved now, except when it isn’t (some blog posts indicate that slip-ups still happen). We got our meat first, did our grill-time in the center of the room, and when we returned to our table, the sides arrived apace.
The steaks are wet-aged USDA Choice, deliciously seasoned with garlic, olive oil, cracked black pepper, and kosher salt. (There are additional condiments at the grill, including Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces.) When I last reviewed Turf in Golden Hill, the splendid beef came from Iowa Meats. Not long after, the owners changed vendors, and now at the Riviera they’ve changed again — “upgrading,” said our waitress. (The prices have gone up, too, although the steaks are still bargains.) Though you’re given a serious, heavy steak knife, I didn’t think “upgrade” while sawing away at my 16-ounce bone-in Cowboy rib-eye. This is a cut prized for flavor rather than tenderness, but gee-whiz, is their Cowboy a high-mountain sherpa? I’ve eaten beast-of-burden yak rib that was tenderer. Yes, I cooked it very rare — but that was true in Golden Hill, too, where this cut was much more ingratiating. Chewing this one was an aerobic exercise.
On the other hand, there was the terrific sirloin. The restaurant’s cheapest cut (just $8.50 for eight boneless ounces) is wonderful — tender, full-flavored, a classic fine steak. When I was a kid in New York, sirloin was the ne plus ultra of the middle class. (Mom would say, “Who can afford porterhouse?”) Moving out West, I found that the sirloins on this coast didn’t have the same rich flavor, so I switched allegiance to rib-eye and the occasional porterhouse. Well, this sirloin resembles the savory, satisfying steaks of memory. (And here the porterhouse is a 28-ounce slab for $28, a darn good deal to feed two normal people plus a Chihuahua waiting at home, or one ravenous Cro-Magnon. Or, if you’re looking for tenderness, there’s an eight-ounce filet mignon for $17.50.)
A bone-in “Kansas City” New York strip ($16.50), cut from the center loin — a tender muscle less exercised than either rib or sirloin — also hit the spot. At my friends’ choice of medium-rare, it was a smidgen overcooked to the tastes of my inner cavewoman. Saint Steve (after Sab-E-Lee, that’s become his nom-de-Reader) had taken over as our table’s alpha griller and was kind to our civilized tablemates.