2204 Fern Street, South Park
Ain’t it funny how things happen in strings? Maybe that’s what string theory’s all about. But one week after chew-chewing gourmet burgers downtown at Neighborhood, I’m being tempted by another hip joint (heh-heh) that sells burgers as, like, urban delicacies. This one sits smack-dab on a railroad track.
Place is called Station Tavern & Burgers. Outside, it’s a big, dark-gray timber building with small windows. But once you’re through the door, you’re in a trendy triangular bar area, all varnished wood and varnished tables, which opens onto a way-big patio. Main difference from last week’s place is, instead of your hip downtown crowd, here you get the cries and laughs of kids, dogs leaping around in the giant outside sandpit, and the buzz of parties of 30-something folks drinking and eating — some even smoking — at long, campground-style wooden tables. Half the tables are planted out in the sandpit itself, among kid-size make-believe trolleys and train signals, all under strings of lights. In the deepening dusk, beautiful. Sigh.
You want to start humming The railroad comes through the middle of the house… Remember that song? This used to be Snippy’s Tavern, a dark li’l old triangular bar that had been around forever. The building’s shaped as it is because, 100 years ago, the San Diego Electric Railway Company’s trolley cars, heading up from downtown to North Park, couldn’t do 90-degree turns, so the rails angled through this block to get them down to 30th. This crazy dogleg’s been here ever since.
The ancient green “Snippy’s Tavern” board hangs on the red-painted eastern wall now. This time of night — six, seven — there’re lots of kids playing in the sand and aboard the trolley wagon. Moms can relax because a big board fence stands between us and the street. Some moms and dads and singles hang out around a log fire roaring from a bowl-shaped hearth. Man. A lotta thought’s gone into this. You can tell from the laughs and the general murmur, people are relaxed.
I take a stool at the open side of the bar, pick up a map of the trolley’s 1918 route. Ah… Other side’s the menu. It’s pretty simple. Five burgers, plus “side cars” of four types of fries and a house salad. And two items for “li’l riders,” grilled cheese or hotdog.
The basic hamburger’s a third-pounder “elevated with house spice blend,” for $6. The cheeseburger’s 50 cents more. The turkey burger — “This bird is ready for flight!” — is also $6.50. So are the “spicy black bean burger” and house veggie burger, “made from chickpeas with a smoky paprika spread.” The sides cost a bit. French fries are $2.50, and sweet-potato-and-garlic fries and Tater Tots are $3.50 each. The house salad is $4. But if you have them with the burgers, they’re only $1.50 (for french fries or salad) or $2 (for Tots and sweet-potato fries).
The barkeep, Jimmy, is kinda on the run, so when he turns up, I cut to the chase. “What beer grabs you most?”
“We have six draft beers,” he says.
“But I really dig AleSmith X.”
“Okay. AleSmith X it is.” Beer’s $4.60. He pours me one straight away.
“And a black bean burger,” I say. The burger ($8.50 with the sweet-potato fries) doesn’t take too long to turn up either. And here’s the thing: I thought this was going to be a meat patty with black beans splotted on top, but no, the black beans are the patty. It’s another veggie burger. Hey, we’re in the Vegan Republic of South Park. Say no more.
Confession: I didn’t realize it was just beans until after I was halfway through, when Jimmy told me. I guess it’s the patty shape, plus those black beans have the feel of ground meat. All I know is it tastes Cuban, spicy — they have jalapeños and chipotles in there — and truly, it goes perfectly with the sweet-potato fries. But what I like best is it doesn’t just taste beany. There’s deep flavor — smoky, sweet, maybe even chocolatey (must be the chipotle), and rich flashes (bursting jalapeño seeds?) happening as you chew.
“I picked up a few ideas in Belize,” says this guy Jason. He runs the kitchen. “The base for the black bean burger is onion, garlic, chipotle, and fresh jalapeños. And I use ground flaxseed as a binder, not egg. So it’s cool for vegans.”
He says something about toasted cumin that rings a bell with what I was tasting. A nutty, peppery thing going on. He says he’s expanding the meat choices as well. “We’re looking at adding bison, ostrich, whatever’s affordable.”
Sam, who started this, is the same guy who resurrected the Turf Club, the cocktail and grill-your-own-steak joint up in Golden Hill (though he lost control of that after ten years and has now used the same idea for his new supper club in La Mesa, the Riviera). “But I always wanted a classic beer/burger place with open space where everybody feels welcome,” he says, when I run across him later. “You know, singles, families, moms, kids, smokers [in special areas outside], dogs. I grew up in North Park. That’s what this part of town is all about.”
“Mind if I sit next to you?” Gal’s name is Merete. Originally from Denmark. She works here promoting art in the schools. Man, good luck to that. She orders a cheeseburger, fries, and an AleSmith X ale. We get to talking. “I feel comfortable coming to a place like this,” she says. “It’s cool, but it doesn’t have that sports-bar come-on thing.”
She’s so right. Here, there’s a new-old feel. I take a slurp of my AleSmith X and stare out across the sandpit where the tracks used to be. That song my dad used to sing comes drifting back.
They let us live in the front of the house/ They let us live in the back / But there ain’t no living in the middle of the house/ ’Cause that’s the railroad track.