A diner accretes character over time, a patina of grease and cigarette smoke and coffee stains. A new diner can only be a "diner" — a travesty of chrome fixtures and the fake front end of a '57 Chevy, a jukebox loaded with tunes recorded before most of its patrons were born.
Or so I always believed. Yet as I lingered over a cup of coffee and a slice of sweet, tart lime-meringue pie at the Southwest Diner on a recent afternoon, I found it difficult to reconcile the fact that the place isn't yet three months old.
Southwest gets the classic diner details just right: Formica countertop with backless stools; metal-framed chairs with vinyl padding; mustard-colored floor that screams institutional linoleum. The décor invests this basic template with personality. Large marble tiles cover the entire length of one wall. Streaks of blues, umbers and reds zigzag along the other walls. Everywhere, it seems, are paintings, photographs and tchotchkes of America's Southwest, the region that gives this diner its name and cuisine. (That name does double duty: The Southwest Diner is located on Southwest Avenue, roughly halfway between Interstate 44 and McCausland Avenue, in the Ellendale neighborhood. Painted across its front window is the slogan, "A taste of the Southwest on Southwest.")
The most obvious tell that Southwest hasn't occupied this spot for decades? It's clean, its metal still shines, and none of the vinyl chairs is patched (or ripped). The less obvious, but ultimately more interesting, clue? The coffee I was sipping wasn't standard diner swill, burnt and bitter, but an excellent brew from Kaldi's beans.
You might know co-owners Jonathan Jones and Anna Sidel from the breakfast-taco stand they've operated at the Tower Grove Farmers' Market for several years. Plump with scrambled eggs, chorizo, beans, cheese, sour cream and cilantro, and dressed with either red- or green-chile sauce (or "Christmas" style, i.e., with both), these are good tacos — or, rather, they were good tacos. Jones and Sidel have scaled back the stand to focus on Southwest, where the tacos appear at the very end of the menu.
The breakfast menu includes "Jonathan's Famous Fiery Scramble," which mixes eggs, cheese and meat (bacon, turkey bacon, breakfast sausage or chorizo) and spikes the bunch with chile heat, or the "New Mexican Breakfast Burrito," which wraps scrambled eggs, the meat of your choice, green chiles and home fries inside a flour tortilla. My version of the latter was good, though if I had it to do over again, I'd request a stronger chile kick, as the sausage failed to pack sufficient heat: Spend the extra $1.50 to add both smoky red- and verdant green-chile sauces, as well as cheese.
The breakfast half of the menu balances Southwestern dishes such as the burrito or huevos rancheros with more traditional American-diner fare: omelets and egg-meat-toast platters. "Buttermilk Cornmeal Pancakes" combine the two approaches, the cornmeal giving the pancakes a tad more heft than the usual variety, but with a light sweetness that takes well to melted butter and maple syrup. "Biscuits and Chorizo Gravy," though, are a flop. The gravy doesn't taste like any chorizo I've ever eaten. It doesn't taste like meat at all. What it tastes like, inexplicably, is cloves. The texture is very thick and a touch greasy. The biscuits can't stand up to it.
The lunch menu isn't as extensive as the breakfast one, but both menus are available all the time, so in one sense, at least, the point is moot. This being a Southwestern-themed restaurant, there must be a green-chile cheeseburger. The pairing of green chiles and cheese — Longhorn Colby in this case — is always a winner, but this rendition of the classic burger is undercut by an undistinguished patty of distressingly uniform thickness that's served medium-well.
The "Red-Chile Mexican Enchiladas" are a stack of corn tortillas layered with ground beef (for $2 extra) and either red- or green-chile sauce and topped with a heaping helping of melted Longhorn Colby cheese. As with the burger, the dish suffered from the quality of the meat — ground beef that was underseasoned (though the red-chile sauce helped some) and had been crumbled to the point where it was as tender as sawdust.
These three meat dishes underscore the tension that I felt on each of my visits to the Southwest Diner. There are the thoughtful preparations (the complex, delicious red chile sauce, for example) and the small but vital details (great coffee!), hinting that the place wants to transcend the diner template. The prices are as cheap, the service as quick and as disarmingly casual ("Warm that coffee up for you?" asks your server, pouring before you can reply) as at any classic diner — and so too are the compromises in the quality of ingredients.
As a restaurantgoer, there's only so long I'm willing to pretend a place like the Southwest is a stalwart diner while it keeps reminding me that it's actually just a newcomer aping the diner style. As a restaurant, you can't have it both ways.