Visited the Loop lately? The iconic stretch of Delmar Boulevard is undergoing a seismic transformation, and I mean that literally: Our offices here sometimes shake with all the pounding and drilling of new construction. Washington University has torn down an entire block of old apartment buildings and in their stead will build an $80 million retail and student-housing development. As hard as it might be to imagine as the weather warms and the throngs descend upon the Loop's restaurants and shops, that means even more foot traffic in the future — and even more bellies to feed.
Restaurateurs have taken notice. After the Delmar Restaurant & Lounge shuttered last summer, the block immediately east of the new construction essentially became a ghost town, with two Thai restaurants bookending vacant window after vacant window. Now, seemingly overnight, the corner of Delmar and Eastgate Avenue is thriving. Adam and Jason Tilford (Barrister's, Tortillaria and Milagro Modern Mexican) have turned the erstwhile Delmar into Mission Taco Joint, with plans to open a bodega in an adjacent space. In another storefront several local coffee experts are developing Blueprint Coffee.
Yet the smartest new restaurant on this block might be the most unassuming. Tucked between the storefronts that will become the bodega and Blueprint, you wouldn't notice the joint were it not for its goofy name: Chubbies. Yet you don't need to step inside the place to understand its potential brilliance. Just read the words printed across the windows — burgers, wings, frozen custard — and envision the hordes of hungry students walking back from campus to their new Wash. U. digs.
Or stumbling back after a night on the town.
Chubbies' interior cultivates a dorm-room vibe, minus the reek of unlaundered track pants and spilled bong water. The décor includes Cardinals and Sopranos memorabilia and a poster advising what steps to take in the event of a zombie apocalypse. (Avoid shrubbery? OK.) A basketball backboard with net hangs on one wall. For college students (and restaurant critics) on deadline looking for a way to procrastinate, there's even a DVD-rental box.
Tables, plus a counter along the front window, accommodate seating for two dozen. As is practically mandatory in the Loop with the arrival of spring, Chubbies has added patio tables. You order at the counter, usually from Wally Othman, the friendly, smiling owner, himself. On my visits the food took a bit more time than at a fast- casual spot, as your meal, as basic as it is, is cooked to order. The space is small enough that when Othman calls back to the kitchen to drop an order of wings in the deep fryer, you hear the oil sizzle and pop.
Slideshow: Inside Chubbies in the Delmar Loop
The burgers feature a "secret" blend of three cuts of fresh (not frozen) ground beef formed into a thin, quarter-pound patty. The burger's size necessitates that the kitchen cooks the patty to a medium-well temperature, undercutting some of the appeal of the fresh beef blend. (You can add a second patty to your burger for a couple bucks more, but it is just that, a second patty, not one patty twice as big.) Still, within the context of thin patties cooked on a flattop grill, this is a good burger, juicy and beefy.
The burger menu ranges from the bare-bones burger to constructions like the "Loco," which pairs the patties with jack cheese and thick slices of raw jalapeño. Several burgers come topped with the can't-say-with-a-straight-face "Chubbie Sauce," a tangy, Thousand Island-esque concoction.
As a burger joint, the one area where Chubbies falls short is its french fries. These are the foodservice-standard crinkle-cut variety. Fried to order, they arrive at your table crisp, hot — and utterly bland. Your best option is to order the cheese fries. The fries might be flavorless, but they are the perfect delivery vehicle for the guilty pleasure of thick "cheese" sauce.
A section of the menu entitled (ahem) "Chubbie Chasers" offers beef and chicken cheesesteaks. A classic cheesesteak brought thinly sliced and finely chopped steak mixed with grilled onion with provolone cheese. My sandwich was much too dry, the cheese unmelted, the steak too well done at the edges. Given that the restaurant already employs Cheez Whiz-esque cheese for the fries, why not go for a true Philly cheesesteak?
Chubbies is back on surer footing with its wings: plump and fried to a crisp, with just enough residual oil to be a bit sinful. Flavors include both Buffalo and "hot" Buffalo. The latter is strongly tangy but no hotter than any other Buffalo sauce I've ever had. The "Asian Sweet Chile" sauce conveys a touch more heat — enough, at least, to balance out the sauce's simple sweetness.
Frozen custard is available in basic vanilla with six toppings (crumbled candy bars in five varieties, as well as classic sprinkles). Don't bank on a grab-and-go dessert, though. When I ordered frozen custard, the mixer needed ten minutes to warm up.
That said, frozen custard will likely be an afterthought after a double Chubbies burger or a dozen wings. The only thing the restaurant is missing to secure its success with the imminent Wash. U. invasion is pizza by the slice.
Hope no one realizes that before I put the finishing touches on my business plan.
Slideshow: Inside Chubbies in the Delmar Loop