Burgers and Hash

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Three eggs cooked sunny-side up occupied one side of the big white oval platter that held my "home skillet" breakfast at Lola, the hip new diner on 11th Street at Yale. The cheese grits came in a bowl in the middle, and the other side was filled with a petite chicken-fried steak with the cream gravy on the side.

First I doused the eggs with Tabasco and sprinkled them with pepper. Then I used the yolks as a dip for the rest of my breakfast. The chicken-fried steak was crunchy on the outside and juicy on the inside, and it tasted terrific dipped in egg yolk and peppery cream gravy. The soft, bland cheese grits made a nice backup. Thick, hand-cut sourdough toast for egg sopping came on the side.

My breakfast companion got the "breakfast Lola," three eggs with thick applewood smoked bacon. (You can also opt for sausage.) She got the home potatoes, which turned out to be boring boiled potatoes. She should have gone for the hash. I wasn't that crazy about her multigrain toast either, but she loved it.

We ate breakfast at Lola a few weeks after the place opened. My breakfast companion was slow to warm to the fast-casual format — she likes her breakfast served by wise-cracking waitresses that call you Hon like the ones at Barbecue Inn. Personally, I'm resigned to the order-at-the-counter thing by now.

The only flaw I noted in the otherwise awesome diner breakfast was the paper Starbucks-style cup my coffee came in. But on a subsequent visit, I noticed that the paper cups had been replaced by the classic thick-walled ceramic mugs that diner coffee should always be served in, so that problem has already been fixed.

The burger at Lola is made with a large certified Angus beef patty, two slices of tomato, a thick, longwise slice of pickle, and a generous portion of good-quality cheddar. The sandwich is served on an excellent moist, sweet bun that has been properly toasted. For a dollar, you can add some applewood bacon. It is important to order Lola's burger medium-rare if you like your burger pink and juicy in the middle. If you are content with yellow mustard, Lola's burger is outstanding.

I have grown weary of the mustard debate. My friend and fellow burger aficionado, John Bebout, who grew up eating burgers in Lake Jackson, pontificates loudly and frequently about how yellow mustard is the one true mustard. The application of deli mustards, Dijon mustards and coarse-grain mustards automatically requires the reclassification of a burger into the fancy steakhouse category, in his view.

I grew up eating burgers in the Northeast, where Gulden's brown mustard is at least as common as French's yellow mustard, so I just don't understand this logic. And since I got my Lola's burger to go, I didn't have to deal with the issue. I applied a thick coat of German Dusseldorf mustard to the top bun when I got home.

I also sampled Lola's boring chicken salad sandwich. The chicken and mayo is mixed with a little candied pecan, sliced grapes and celery, and the mixture is thickly spread on multigrain bread. For all the ­dazzling-sounding ingredients, the chicken salad still tastes bland and dry. But chicken salad is more of a deli sandwich than a diner sandwich anyway. For chicken salad, I should have gone to Kenny & Ziggy's.

The best and the worst sandwich I ate at Lola's was the "wet roast beef debris," an open-faced sandwich made by topping two slices of toast with a pile of moist roast beef and provolone cheese. There was nothing wrong with the toast, and the roast beef was quite good. But after a few bites I lost interest in the plain meat and bread. I told the busboy I was through, and he picked up the plate and started to walk away.

"Did you guys ever think of serving that sandwich with a little gravy?" I asked him.

"It doesn't come with gravy, but you get some if you ask for it," he said.

"Cream gravy?" I said, wincing.

"No, we have brown gravy too," he said.

I asked him to put the plate back down and get me some brown gravy. That snooze of a sandwich was utterly transformed by a monkey dish of brown gravy. I ate most of the rest of it, pouring sauce over each bite. I only stopped eating when I ran out of gravy. I was too shy to ask for more. I recommend that you request Lola's open-faced roast beef debris sandwich with a soup bowl of brown gravy on the side.

Lola's entrance is made from a phone booth that's been welded into a cool-­looking front door. The decor is minimalist and hip, and the oversize plates and glasses are perfect for the modern diner look. The staff is fun-loving, good-looking and helpful. Most of the food is excellent.

Lola veers off track when it tries to be something more than a diner. The only dish I had at Lola that didn't work was the steak frites. It was described on the menu as black angus flank steak marinated in cola and garlic and served with hand-tossed parmesan fries. The flat, chewy flank steak resembled an order of uncut fajita meat, and thanks to a heavy hand on the soy sauce in the cola marinade, it tasted extremely salty and vaguely Asian.

The haystack of French fries the steak came with were beautifully hand cut and perfectly cooked. Then they were covered with a blizzard of parmesan that hung on the potatoes like wet slush. The fries tasted more like cheese than potatoes. It wasn't a horrible flavor. But it didn't harmonize with the soy sauce and cola-flavored steak very well. I wonder if anybody in the kitchen actually tasted this combination.

I hung out in a lot of diners when I lived in Connecticut. There were burger joint diners like the Duchess, breakfast hash diners like the Athena, and classic diners where you went for blue plate dinners, like the late, great Green Comet.

After eating a few meals in diners, you learn what to order and, more importantly, what not to order. Fries, hash browns, eggs, burgers and anything that's cooked on a griddle or in a deep fryer are excellent bets. Meatloaf or roast beef sandwiches covered with brown gravy are pretty safe blue plate specials.

Some Connecticut diner menus also listed dozens of ambitious dishes. After choking down a few plates of bad fettuccine alfredo or shrimp scampi, you quickly learned not to make that mistake again. Steaks, seafood and anything with a foreign name on a diner menu was invariably an invitation to disaster. It's simple when you think about it — real diners are staffed by short order cooks, not chefs.

We have lost track of that distinction because so many great chefs are opening downscale restaurants these days. French chef Daniel Boulud just opened a new joint in New York called DBGB's that specializes in sausages. At Bryan Caswell's Little Bigs burger joint on Montrose, you get top-quality burgers, soufflé fries worthy of a great French restaurant, and a savvy selection of great wines at cheap prices.

DBGB has steak frites too. At $26, it's double the price of the $13 version at Lola. Boulud's steak frites is a ten-ounce black angus ribeye steak with pepper butter, fries and fancy Lollo rosso salad. I bet it's fabulous.

But you can't get chicken-fried steak and eggs or a short stack at Boulud — it's not even open for breakfast. Meanwhile, at Lola, breakfast is served all day.

Chefs and fancy French fries are lovely. But so is top-rate short-order cooking, and that's what I suggest you order at Lola.

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