We’d ordered the sirloin in the surf ’n’ turf combo, paired with a teriyaki seafood kebab made with the day’s catch, ahi — small chunks skewered alternately with onion and green pepper. The kebabs, no different than they were at the Turf, didn’t thrill me there or here. A daily market-price fish sounds more promising if you’re a good-enough cook to move it off the heat early. The classic, mainly accurate formula for fish is ten minutes of cooking per inch of thickness. The grills at Riviera seem set to low-medium heat, so it should work. As for steaks, the rule is: touch your face and then your steak, and when the meat feels like your cheek, it’s rare; when it feels like your chin, it’s medium, and when it feels like the tip of your nose, you’re about to eat your shoe. As for burgers: be gentle — don’t squish them down with the spatula (as we saw one biker doing), which only drives out all the juices.
Another menu introduction is a slab of “St. Louis–cut” pork spareribs (16 ounces), precooked to be reheated on the grill. The ribs were meaty, juicy, and lean, probably, we decided, oven-braised with care in a little flavorful liquid (not simmered in water, as so many fake “barbecues” do). They had their full pork flavor intact and came with a ramekin of generic barbecue sauce that, if not great, did no harm. Lower-price choices include a thick puck of a sirloin burger ($7.50), beef or chicken teri-kebabs ($7.50), and a chicken-breast sandwich ($6.50).
Over the communal grill, we met and chatted with other customers. Some were sweet older La Mesans, humbly asking advice from us whippersnappers as they tried to make sense of this novel DIY arrangement. Others came from an exceedingly loud (“DUDE! HowAH ya, how’s it HANGin’?”) group of 12 male and 2 female bikers in partial leathers, whose seven pristine machines I later admired in the parking lot. They were equally friendly as they joined us at the campfire to cook their burgers and sirloins to cindery deaths. When we returned to our table and their genial roars filled the room, now and then I’d yell out, vainly, if safely, “SHUT IT THE HELL UP!” (They were seated at the opposite side of the room and couldn’t hear me.)
Our sides (all $5.50 and large enough for four guys nicknamed “Tiny” or six regular people) showed up as soon as we settled down in our booth with the meats. Top pick: panko-crusted onion rings with a hint of cayenne in the airy batter, accompanied by tasty ranch, bleu cheese, and chili-sauce dips. Seriously good. Don’t miss the great bourbon-and-bacon baked beans — deep, sweet, rich, and loaded with large bacon pieces. Another likely good bet: a neighboring table ordered the wedge salad of iceberg lettuce. It looked great, and we all remembered that the Turf has always served delicious salad dressings.
Dish to avoid: the soggy creamed corn tastes only of reduced dairy, with zero corn flavor. Steve nailed it: drained canned corn. “They must be figuring that here in the suburbs they can get away with serving any kind of junk,” he said. We lamented that the kitchen hadn’t sprung a few extra cents for frozen corn, which maintains some of its native flavor and texture.
Macaroni with four cheeses was a tragic near-miss. The breadcrumb-cheese coating was a glutinous mess, congealing into an ugly skin on top of the dish. The pasta was overcooked, and the sauce too mild and gooey, with no distinctive cheese flavor. “I want more cheddar in this, a good sharp cheddar,” I said. “You’re right,” said Mary Ellen. “This cheese mixture is like baby food, with no personality.”
Desserts are also new since the Turf Club days. We all wanted to try the bacon-chocolate cake. It proved to be a vast slab of dry, ordinary chocolate cake reminiscent of Duncan Hines devil’s food cake mix, topped with a cheap-tasting fudgey chocolate that resembled Betty Crocker canned frosting. In the center, mingled with another frosting layer, was a pile of crisp, chopped bacon, which inspired an addictive love-hate relationship. Bacon and chocolate, chocolate and bacon — sweet and gooey and crisp and salty, flavors and textures sending up their siren songs from the dark cavernous depths of the evil cake. I took the doggie-bag home and, hating myself, kept picking at the bacon-laden center a teaspoon at a time, a bite or two per night, until the bacon was finally gone and the surrounding cake was mummified sawdust. Serious chefs out there: this is a great idea, please pick it up and make it right. And make it too small to doggie bag.
Much better was our waitress’s recommendation of chocolate malt crème brûlée. Not too sweet, it resembled a silky, light chocolate pudding topped with Whoppers malted milk balls and unsweetened heavy-cream swirls. It, too, was way too big — one dessert is more than enough for four. There’s no espresso to go with the sweets, but the coffee is adequate.
And now I’m back to the shock: don’t tell me I’m not losing a daughter but gaining a son. The Turf isn’t going to be the same, so I’ve lost precisely half my neighborhood’s best choices for eating out (and now that Luigi’s Pizza has been “discovered,” there are always long lines). My loss is La Mesa’s gain.
Bargain Bite: $10 “Stimulus Package” Sunday–Thursday at the bar of the Linkery on 30th Street in North Park. You get a plate of two house-made sausage (or portobello) tacos — and the Linkery is good with Mexican food — plus a Session Lager, jar o’ wine, or sparkling water. Sit at the bar and whisper the code phrase “stimulus package,” or something similar, and it’s all yours for ten bucks.
Happy big-deal birthday, Michelle! Please read “Missed Connections” for the rest of this important message from your devoted posse.
Riviera Supper Club and Turquoise Lounge
*** (Good to Very Good)
7777 University Avenue (between Lee Avenue and Maple Avenue), La Mesa, 619-713-6777, rivierasupperclub.com
HOURS: Wednesday–Saturday, 4:00 p.m.–2:00 a.m.; Sunday–Thursday, 4:00 p.m.–midnight. Food served until two hours before closing.
PRICES: Entrées, $6.50–$28.50 (for two); sides to share (serves four to six), $5.50. Desserts to share, $7.50. Most cocktails and wines by the glass, $8.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Raw USDA Choice steaks, pork ribs, burgers, kebabs, and fish, all for do-it-yourself grilling, plus giant-sized steakhouse side dishes. Full bar with classic cocktails, basic selection of wines by the glass, identified by grape (not by label or year). Bottles available but servers not versed in them. Free corkage on first BYO bottle, $8 on additional bottles.
PICK HITS: Sirloin steak, “Kansas City” New York strip steak, “St. Louis–cut” pork spareribs, panko-crusted onion rings, bourbon-bacon baked beans, probably porterhouse steak and wedge salad.
NEED TO KNOW: No reservations for parties smaller than eight. Under 21 restricted to 4:00 p.m.–7:00 p.m. daily in dining room only. One vegan entrée, nine huge vegetarian sides (at least four vegan). Weekends and midweek prime-times, grill may be crowded; best go early or late. (Note very late hours.) Can be seriously noisy. Automatic 18 percent gratuity for parties of six or more.