3993 30th Street, San Diego
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.
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."
Chef Lothar Manz came from a small town near Ulm in Schwaben. In Germany, at age 14, you have to decide whether you're going to continue through high school and college or enter a trade school. (Even a chimney sweep or a waiter has to study his field for three years.) "When I was young I always helped my mother cook," says Lothar. "She made great food, so I decided to become a chef." He spent four years at cooking school, including a six-month stage making nothing but sauces (which certainly contributes to the variety at Crazy Burger!). He worked at restaurants in Switzerland and Paris. He finally "won the lottery" to get green cards for himself and his family and emigrated to Anaheim five years ago and worked in a European restaurant there, and then in a catering company where he learned to make Texas barbecue sauce and beans. He and his crew helped out at Anaheim Convention Center. "I went on the burger station. Everything must taste the same, look the same. One time we had to cook in two hours 2500 hamburgers....
"But I like to cook my own style, where everything is fresh. I don't like to do everything the same, so here we change the meat, change the tastes. I need more action. Everything that's different and new is what I like. Now I'm planning on a cinnamon burger with a ginger glaze."
How did he and Wolfgang meet? "I'd been working in San Clemente in an Austrian restaurant. The newspaper called it the best kitchen in San Clemente, but the owner was not the best man, so I canceled the job and went looking for something else. I went to a restaurant to look for a job, and Wolfgang was there eating a bratwurst. He's from Germany, I'm from Germany, so we talked together and decided to become partners. We looked together for a restaurant, first in Santa Barbara and then here. I really love San Diego. I love it here."