Cheap Steak Serenade

Riviera Supper Club & Turquoise Room

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.

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.

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Comments

How very special that you put down La Mesa and everyone who lives here. Don't you know that there are plenty of SDSU profs and teachers and successful artists living in these here hills? And we can read! And, traveling on business, we have been to some of the finest restaurants in New York and San Francisco, just like you!

If you ever come back here -- and I hope you don't -- why don't you venture off University? Are you skeered, Naomi Wise ("not her real name")?

Haven't you noticed that Naomi usually takes shots at all things San Diego in here poorly written, pretentious reviews? Thank God she is here so she can remind us rubes weekly of what a back water town we live in.

wtf is wrong with tattooed waitresses??????????

I prefer my servers have a minimum of three tattoos, which is one more than I have currently. After I get my next one, I'll up my preference. ;)

WTF makes you think I had anything negative to say about tattooed waitresses? They're tattooed: Observation. Fact. Neutral. No judgment. You defensive or something? Everybody in La Mesa is so tetchy, can't take minor teasing? Boy, if that's La Mesa there must be lynch mobs waiting for me and Bill in El Cajon, out the other side of the "Here Be Monsters" sign!

Why don't you all go take your pitchforks and torches and burn a bank or two?

And yes, like Ahnold, I'll be back. To La Mesa, anyway. (I think I'll leave El Cajon to stout-hearted Bill.)

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