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Burger Friday: Vacation isn't complete without Tyler's

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: April 17, 2015 - 7:44 PM

The burger: “Has it really been a year?” asked Roxy, recognizing us as we walked through the screen door and into Tyler’s, the most-excellent burger joint in downtown Palm Springs, Calif.

Let me backtrack for a moment. Twenty minutes earlier, my husband and I had just stepped off the airplane, picked up our rental car and made a beeline for what has become a daily winter vacation ritual: Lunch at Tyler’s. Here’s a telling indication of how much we love the place: During our recent eight-day stay in Palm Springs, we found ourselves at Tyler’s seven times. Trust me, it would have been eight, but the restaurant is closed on Sunday.

That figure may seem, well, extreme. After all, there are other restaurants in Palm Springs. This was not the case when we first began making annual escape-from-winter visits to the California desert more than a decade ago, and today there are a surprising number of decent options, including Birba, Workshop Kitchen + Bar, Matchbox, Tinto and Jake’s, to name a few, and we avail ourselves of them at dinner (or, in case of Cheeky's, breakfast). But for lunch, we somewhat religiously set aside an hour in the afternoon, every afternoon, for a full-on Tyler’s immersion.

And why not? For 20 years, owner Diana DiAmico has vigorously embraced a keep-it-simple approach to burgers (and to the rest of her highly appealing menu), and the strategy works, big time.

Fresh is this kitchen’s mantra. Particularly when it comes to the burgers, the house specialty. Every morning, the beef gets a coarse grind, is sparingly seasoned and then loosely formed into whopping 7-oz. patties. Each one is expertly grilled on a well-worn flattop until they hit that sweet spot just above medium-rare, and the beef exudes a slight sweetness and plenty of juices. It’s the kind of patty that fuses itself to the bun’s bottom half. DiAmico sources a first-rate bun from a local baker, a rich, sturdy, golden thing, and it gets a gentle toast before meeting that sizzling, slightly charred patty.

The pile-ons don’t stray too far afield from well-trod Burger 101 territory: Swiss, American or Cheddar cheese (skip the Swiss). Raw or grilled onions (get the latter, they’re nudged to a soft sweetness). Several pert layers of iceberg lettuce. A decent tomato slice and a few does-the-trick pickle chips. A criss-cross of first-rate bacon. Half an avocado, thickly sliced and creamy. Generous swipes of Heinz ketchup and French’s mustard.

It all adds up to a pinnacle burger experience, primarily because its beauty lies in the absence of modern cooking techniques and fancy-schmancy toppings. Instead, there's just time-tested, supremely confident, wrapped-in-white-paper burger engineering. No wonder we’re regulars, right? Well, as much as one-week-a-year visitors can be. "Goodbye, guys," said Roxy after our final lunch. "See you next year, right?" Right.

Price: $7.50 to $9.50, depending upon extras. Three-ounce sliders – a fine Mini-Me version of the standard version, suitable for more modest appetites – are $3.25.

Fries: Extra ($3.50 and $4.50), and a familiar, universally distributed frozen product. They’re treated well in the Tyler’s deep-fryer, yanked just as they achieve a crispy, lightly golden timbre. One quibble: Not enough salt. But hey, it’s health-conscious southern California, right?

In other words, they’re fine. But anyone craving starchy tubers should turn their attention to DiAmico’s life-affirming potato salad ($4.50).

To say that I adore it is an understatement. Just like the burgers, this addictive concoction reflects what Tyler’s is all about. After all, this is the place that abides the following motto: “Sometimes it’s food that jogs the memory – that’s the best food of all. We call it comfort food. When life threatens to overwhelm, its goodness and simplicity are a reminder of childhood and it offers the most satisfying emotional nourishment.”

Exactly. My goal for the upcoming summer is to do my level best to replicate the formula, which DiAmico based on her mother’s recipe, or least what she can remember of it. Of this much, she’s certain: it’s simplicity itself. Russets are boiled in their skins, then cooled to room temperature. They're peeled and the cooked potato's flesh is broken into bite-size pieces, with a texture that hovers somewhere on the continuum between mashed and baked.

From there, out comes thinly shaved white onion, tiny snips of crunchy celery, bits of hard-cooked egg whites and a dusting of finely minced chives. Holding it all together is a generous wallop of mayonnaise that exudes a slightly pale golden cast; the color comes from hard-cooked egg yolks and a dash of Dijon mustard.

DiAmico prepares it fresh, daily, and the effort shows. My suggestion is to arrive well before 2 p.m., or facing the highly distressing possibility of a sellout.

When it’s gone, the usual alternative is coleslaw ($3.50). This is not a second-best kind of situation. Like the potato salad, DiAmico's coleslaw embraces simplicity, just a small mountain of crunchy coarsely julienned cabbage, liberally finished with chives and a punched-up dressing that doesn’t slavishly follow the usual (and frequently off-puttingly sugary) slaw formula.

Beyond burgers: Vacationers cannot live by burgers alone (had I consumed seven Tyler’s burgers over the course of eight days, I would have questioned my ability to squeeze into my coach-class seat for the flight home). Fortunately, DiAmico has a knack for soups, and prepares a different one every morning from a wide repertoire, skillfully nurturing flavors out of a kettle. One day last week I made a meal out of hearty, stew-like lentil soup fortified with Israeli couscous, and the next day I found myself equally impressed by an intensely colorful carrot puree, each spoonful teased with a dash of sweet curry. In hindsight, I should have sampled DiAmico's every-Friday clam chowder. At least I now have something to toss on my 2016 to-do list.

I also once made the mistake of ordering a whole egg salad sandwich ($8.25), a terrific less-is-more exercise that’s little more than coarsely chopped hard-cooked eggs (enough to conduct a smallish Easter egg hunt), mayo and maybe some green onion. Never again. I can barely finish a gargantuan half-order; the same is true of the equally impressive (and similarly bell-and-whistle-free, in a good way) chicken salad sandwich ($9.50).

Where to sit: In my nascent encounters with Tyler’s – we’re talking maybe 2004 -- I played tourist and followed the crowd, penciling my name to the ever-present list and then waited – and waited – for a table on the canvas-sheltered patio. And I did it without complaint. After all, it’s a quintessentially southern California kind of setting, nicely shaded and usually brimming with all kinds of people-watching potential. 

Even so, I’m an impatient diner, no more so than when I’m on vacation. Eventually I discovered an alternative, and I’ve rarely returned to the patio. (Truth to tell, I’m not sure if I was the one who stumbled onto it, or if it was my husband, who loves Tyler's even more than I do; naturally, I’ll take the credit). Our strategy involves a trade-off, but it’s worth it. We skip the fresh air and take a seat indoors (the modest structure, with its distinctive pointed-arch windows, dates to the 1930s and once served as the city’s bus station) at the counter, an eight-seat perch just opposite the postage stamp-size kitchen.

Doing so suits our needs for several reasons. First, it’s a front row seat to a fascinating, break-neck show, an improvised ballet with a cast of three – and sometimes four – cooks laboring in a space no larger than my office cubicle. Watching their near-wordless teamwork never grows old, and DiAmico – who grew up at her mother’s boardwalk burger stand in Venice Beach, Calif. -- is usually right in the thick of things, acting as expeditor and keeping the food flying out to diners, of which there appear to be hundreds on a daily basis.

Second, the service is astonishingly good, thanks to a pair of longtime Tyler’s vets. The counter is Judy’s domain; the half-dozen stools set against the wall – and the handful of tables on the adjacent front patio – are Roxy’s territory.

Both appear to possess more energy than the standard-issue whirling dervish, and they know their stuff. Judy (she's pictured, above) has logged 19 years at Tyler’s, Roxy is in her 11th, and their multi-taskers-to-the-nth-degree expertise is a wonder to behold.

Observing them go about their workday has a kind of In-the-Presence-of-Greatness aura. They keep the counter so sparklingly spotless that the staff at nearby Desert Regional Medical Center could use the place to perform day surgery; I fully expect to walk in one day and see Judy and Roxy wearing t-shirts that proudly read, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”

Third, the counter is a reliably no-wait situation, at least as the afternoon stretches on. Our routine is to hang out by the pool until our sunblock cries "Uncle"  – that’s usually by around 2 p.m. – and then we head downtown, hopefully avoiding the brunt of the lunch rush. It usually works, and we're seated immediately.

Dessert? Sure: The nostalgia-inducing shakes and malts are something of a must-order. They’re prepared using a fantastic vintage Hamilton Beach milkshake mixer (its mint color is reminds me of every 1960s Woolworth’s store) that I covet ever time I see it. DiAmico has two of them – one came from Hadley, the nearby landmark orchard, famous for decades for its dates, and date shakes – and she worries about a decided lack of spare parts. I would, too; I can’t imagine Tyler’s without them.

An alternative is a pair of palm-size cookies. They’re delicious, but also enormous, and after one of those artery-clogging burgers, the password, at least for me, is moderation. For a more modest crack at something sweet, there’s always scooting over to Palm Springs' adorable See’s Candies outlet (hello, Cashew Brittle!), located just down the block.

Palm Springs improvements: After years of slogging through some of the dreariest baked goods imaginable (which makes sense, I suppose; when the default attire is swimwear, no one wants to come near a complex carbohydrate, right?), the city has recently sprouted two first-rate bakeries. Hurrah.

Peninsula Pastries, located about six blocks south of Tyler’s and the work of a husband-and-wife team of French expats, turns out gorgeous  croissants, pain au chocolat and other skillfully prepared indulgences. Just walking in and gazing was a joy.

Then there’s Townie Bagels, which is performing boil-and-bake miracles in this bagel-starved region. They’re currently available Saturday mornings at the Palm Springs Farmers Market (and Wednesday morning at the nearby Palm Desert Farmers Market), as well as via delivery (Cost is $26 for 15 bagels with cream cheese, or 18 without). Owner Andy Wysocki also bakes a few breads – DiAmico relies upon his dense cranberry-walnut, sourdough and multigrain loaves for her sandwiches – and the friendly guy behind the table at the farmers market told me that Wysocki’s plan is to open a retail outlet just south of downtown Palm Springs, hopefully by early May.

One more happy surprise: Ernest, a coffeehouse/wine bar hybrid which takes a serious approach to coffee (the beans are from third-wave kingpin Stumptown) and baked goods, but doesn’t appear to take itself too seriously.

Cash is king: Forget about plastic. Tyler’s operates on a strict cash-only basis.

If you go: Tyler’s, 149 S. Indian Canyon (in the Plaza), Palm Springs, Calif., 760-325-2990. Open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com

What's your favorite new Target Field fare?

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: April 16, 2015 - 11:24 AM

It's a banner year at Target Field, new foods-wise. Fans will find a number of impressive new options, including the chicken Tikka rice bowl from the Hot Indian Foods stand, pictured above. Find my summary here.

If you've been to Target Field this week, what did you try, and what made an impression, favorable or otherwise? Share the good, the bad and the ugly in the comments section below.

Burger Friday: It's a Good Friday for a fish fry

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: April 3, 2015 - 5:30 AM

Burger Friday has given up hamburgers for Lent, and is diving headlong into the Friday fish-fry ritual (find previous suggestions here, here and here). Burgers return next week, but in the meantime, here are five final suggestions:

Enthusiasts have one more opportunity to get in on this year's fish-fry action at the Minneapolis location of the Blue Door Pub. The fish is beer-battered cod (served in the all-a-person-could-possibly-consume style), with a choice of a single side dish: French fries, Tater Tots, onion rings or deep-fried green beans. It’s served all day, and the cost is $11. And, no, this final iteration of Friday Fish Fry 2015 is not available at the Blue Door's St. Paul location.

At friendly, supper club-ish Gulden’s Roadhouse in Maplewood, owners Mike and Brenda Gengler host a year-round Friday fish fry, and it’s a doozy. The fish is hand-breaded Alaskan pollock, and it’s an all-you-can-eat situation. From there, the Genglers pile on the sides: a choice of potato (baked, mashed, hash browns or waffle fries) and either a cup of soup or unlimited trips to the salad bar. Cost: $13.95, and it runs all day, every Friday.

Consider the fish and chips at the lively Town Hall Brewery. The kitchen prepares beer-battered cod (using brewer Michael Hoops’ German-style lager) and tosses in a mountain of crisp fries. Cost is $12, and, no, we're not talking all-you-can-eat. Wash it down with Hoops’ nicely crisp IPA.

At the Little Oven, which pledges (accurately, in my opinion) “biggest portions, smallest prices,” this is the last week for its Friday fish fry special. There are options, so listen up: Three pieces of beer-battered cod go for $10.99, five pieces runs $12.50 and the all-you-can-eat option is $13.50. All are served with a soup or salad, vegetables, a choice of potato (fries, mashed, baked, hash browns) and a freshly baked popover. It’s served all day Friday, starting at 11 a.m.

I've mentioned this option in a previous post, but it bears repeating: My favorite Friday fish fry, non-all-you-can-eat version, can be found at Sapor Cafe and Bar. I love sitting in the restaurant's cozy bar, watching barkeep Toph Heubach go through his paces, bask in the welcoming warmth of co-owner Julie Steenerson's hospitality and then dig into whatever expertly prepared delicacy chef/co-owner Tanya Siebenaler has up her sleeve, fish-fry wise (that's Siebenaler, left, and Steenerson, right, pictured above in a Star Tribune file photo). This week's plan is Baja-style fish tacos: housemade flour tortillas stuffed with fried catfish (dipped in a batter built with a lager from Fair State Brewing Co-op) and finished with cabbage, salsa and lime mayonnaise. Dinner only, starting at 5 p.m. Cost? $17.

A final note: It's not exactly a Lenten season fish fry (although it does fall, in part, on a Friday), but it needs to be noted that the 53rd-annual (fifty-third!) Brooklyn Park Lions Club smelt fry -- billed as the world's largest -- is scheduled for April 22, 23 and 24. The menu includes all-you-can-eat breaded-and-fried smelt, served with tartar sauce and cocktail sauce. Sides, too: coleslaw, pork and beans, a dinner roll and a beverage. Beer and ice cream are available at an additional cost. The smelt fry runs from 5 to 8 p.m. each night at the Brooklyn Park Armory, which is part of the Brooklyn Park Community Activity Center. Tickets are $12 adults ($10 in advance), and kids ages 12 get in for $5 (advance tickets are available at the Brooklyn Park Community Activity Center and Godfather's Pizza in Brooklyn Park).

Friday fish fry: Five ideas

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: March 27, 2015 - 10:50 AM

Burger Friday has given up hamburgers for Lent, and is diving headlong into the Friday fish-fry ritual (find previous entries here and here). Although none of the following five suggestions adhere to the all-you-can-eat tradition, they certainly embrace the fish-fry spirit.

If you haven't tried the fish and chips at the Freehouse (pictured, above), you should. The kitchen dunks cod in a batter made with its house-brewed golden ale, serving the deep-fried results with thick-cut fries, a wonderfully lumpy tartar sauce and a side of mashed peas laced with mint. Huge portions, $17.

At its 29 Twin Cities locations, Culver’s, the Wisconsin-based fast-fooder, batters and fries North Atlantic cod, serving it with a warm dinner roll, a lightly-dressed coleslaw, a generous handful of crinkle fries and a tartar sauce flecked with olives, capers and sweet relish. A single piece of cod is $7.85, two pieces run $10.75 and three are $12.69.

The fish and chips at the Gold Nugget Tavern & Grille include beer-battered haddock (with malted tartar sauce), served with hand-cut fries and a side of coleslaw. Cost: $14.95. Another draw: The bar’s tap beer list, which includes craft brews from two nearby breweries, Badger Hill and Lucid.

Birchwood Cafe chef Marshall Paulsen is sort-of embracing fish fry mania, but on his own creative terms. This week he’s offering (gluten-free) fried halibut and monkfish, served with the kitchen’s (superb) organic French fries and a kimchi/Key lime tartar sauce, pickled cucumbers and apple-cumin coleslaw. Sounds great, right? It’s available for $15 after 5 p.m. As for dessert, don’t miss the kitchen's signature Key lime pie.  

How about a 3 a.m. fish fry? (remember, Friday commences at 12:01 a.m.). Every day – not just Friday -- the we-never-close Nicollet Diner serves four pieces of battered and fried cod (or sometimes Alaskan whitefish) with fries and house-made tartar sauce, all for $11.99.

Friday Fish Fry: Five ideas

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: March 20, 2015 - 8:56 AM

Burger Friday has given up hamburgers for Lent, and is diving headlong into the Friday fish-fry ritual. Here are five suggestions:

Glockenspiel offers a Friday fish fry year-round, but the restaurant goes into overdrive during Lent, with all-you-can consume portion of beer-battered cod (plus a single serving of fries and coleslaw) for $12.95 (from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.), and $14.95 (from 3 to 9 p.m.). Here’s another Lenten bonus: The restaurant accepts reservations for fish fry-eating parties of four or more at dinner.

For its year-round Friday fish fry, the Groveland Tap taps swai. “It’s similar to catfish,” said kitchen manager Steve Johnson. “Everyone has cod, or pollock, so it’s nice to do something different.” The beer batter-fried fish (Johnson relies upon Grain Belt Premium) is an all-you-can-eat situation, and the fries and coleslaw are not, “but if someone wants more of either one, I am happy to make that happen,” he said with a laugh. Cost is $11.25, and it’s served all day, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Johnson’s tip: Show up at lunch. “People sometimes have to wait an hour, an hour and a half for dinner,” he said. “Lunch is the best bet for getting in without having to wait.” As for beer pairings, Johnson suggests going light, something along the lines of the Freehouse No. 1, a crisp, golden Kolsch produced at the Tap’s sister restaurant.

At Stella’s Fish Cafe, the formula is simple: fried Alaskan cod, golden fries, coleslaw and tartar sauce, an all-you-can-eat situation priced at $14.95. 

For its all-you-can-eat Friday fish fry, the Machine Shed offers three Atlantic cod choices: rolled in bread crumbs and fried, beer-battered and fried, or broiled. Side dishes include vegetables and a choice of potato (baked, sweet, mashed, garlic mashed, French fries or sweet potato fries), served from 3 p.m. until the kitchen closes for the night. Cost: $12.99.

All day, every Friday, year round, for $11.95, fun-loving Harry’s Cafe offers up four pieces of Alaskan pollock, serving it pan-fried, deep-fried or broiled, and pairing it with a choice of mashed potatoes, baked potatoes or fries. Tartar sauce, too.

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