Note: I’m on vacation, so I’m replaying a previous Burger Friday installment (with a few updates, culled from my experiences there this week), from the California desert. Burger Friday returns next week, with a pre-Ordway visit to Meritage in downtown St. Paul.
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 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 (a convertible, because, well, Palm Springs) and made a beeline for what has become a daily winter vacation ritual: Lunch at Tyler’s. Here’s a telling indication of the near-and-dear status this place has in our hearts: During our recent six-night stay, we found ourselves at Tyler’s five times. Trust me, it would have been six, but the restaurant is closed on Sunday.
That figure may seem somewhat 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 more than a decade ago – the dreary dining scene was something of a shock, given the city’s reputation as a tourist Mecca and its proximity to food-obsessed L.A. – but today there are a welcome number of decent options, with more appearing during this year. At dinner, anyway, and breakfast. Don’t ask me about lunch, because we somewhat religiously set aside a post-pool hour in the late afternoon, every afternoon, for a full-on Tyler’s immersion.
And why not? For two decades (the restaurant’s 20th anniversary is next week), 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 classic 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 consider 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 radiates uncomplicated goodness. 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 (don’t quote me, but I’m pretty sure that I spied the familiar yellow-and-blue Best Food label, which is the west coast version of Hellmann’s) 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 version of coleslaw is a blessedly straightforward affair, 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. Seriously, had I consumed five Tyler’s burgers over the course of six days, I would have questioned my ability to squeeze into my coach-class Delta 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. (The portions are, naturally, enormous. Skip the bowl and stick with the cup, which will more than suffice, trust me).
One day earlier this 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 (pictured, above), each spoonful teased with a dash of sweet curry. Friday’s selection is set in stone: a rich, hearty clam chowder.
I also once made the mistake of ordering a whole egg salad sandwich, 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 consume a gargantuan half-order (pictured, above), they're that plentiful; the same is true of the equally impressive (and similarly bell-and-whistle-free, in a good way) chicken salad sandwich, the thin slices of tender, juicy chicken meat seemingly stacked halfway to the ceiling.
Where to sit: Knowing what to order is critical, sure. But developing a strategy for coping with this always-packed, no-reservations restaurant should be an equal priority. 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, whose energetic enthusiasm for Tyler’s is beginning to make me wonder if it’s the sunshine, or the burgers and malts, that draw him to Palm Springs). Our strategy involves a trade-off, but it’s worth it. We skip the fresh air and take a seat indoors at the counter, an eight-seat perch just opposite the postage stamp-size kitchen. (The modest structure, with its distinctive pointed-arch windows, dates to the 1930s and once served as the city’s bus station. It’s at the center of a charming, Spanish-style complex called the Plaza, and I’ve always thought of the two-block shopping and dining development as the heart and soul of downtown Palm Springs.)
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 (she's pictured, above); the half-dozen stools set against the wall – and the handful of shaded tables on the adjacent front patio – are Roxy’s territory.
Both appear to possess more energy than the standard-issue whirling dervish, juggling duties without breaking a sweat. 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 (and its relatively rapid turnover) is a reliably no-wait situation, at least as the afternoon stretches on. Our routine is to hang poolside until our SPF 30 cries "Uncle" – that’s usually by around 2 p.m. – and then we clean up and head downtown, hopefully avoiding the brunt of the lunch rush. It usually works, and we're seated immediately.
Fourth, it’s where the locals eat. I’ve struck up countless conversations – and received valuable Palm Springs tips – while seated at that counter. On this past visit I even learned a valuable Tyler’s-related bit of menu reconnaissance. Although it’s not part of the official menu, DiAmico quietly caters to the non-burger crowd with a salad of fresh kale, topped with a heaping serving of that memorable chicken salad. Good to know.
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 reminds me of every 1960s Woolworth’s store) that I covet every time I see it. DiAmico has two of them – one came from Hadley, the nearby landmark orchard, famous for decades for its dates, and signature date shakes – and she worries about a decided lack of spare parts. I would, too; I can’t imagine Tyler’s without shakes. They’re served with the frosty aluminum can, of course.
An alternative is the crisp, chewy oatmeal-Craisin cookies. They’re baked elsewhere (DiAmico told me the baker has a connection to Koffi, the local coffee chain, and it's easy to see the resemblance; I’ve always considered a Koffi oatmeal-raisin cookie to be a Palm Springs snack essential) and they’re delicious, but also enormous, and after one of those artery-clogging burgers, the password, at least for me, is moderation (note: the well-made turkey burger is slightly less stupor-inducing). For a more modest crack at something sweet, there’s always scooting over to the Plaza's adorable See’s Candies outlet (hello, Toffee-ettes!), located just down the block.
Cash is king: Forget about plastic. Tyler’s operates on a strict cash-only basis.
Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at firstname.lastname@example.org.