Pop Diner is a Big Bust
It's 2:30 in the morning at some bar in Uptown, and as you drag a ballpoint pen across a credit card slip, feeling the grain of the bar beneath, you become aware of a rumbling from within. It's impossible not to be hungry. Most bars close their kitchens down by midnight, but they'll gladly sell you booze for hours longer. And as you step out the door and count your options (most of which involve tacos), you realize your situation is grim. You're stranded in a late-night food desert.
The announcement that Pop Diner was coming was welcome. Not only was the West Village getting a diner that stayed open around the clock, it was getting one with a little extra ... flair. The walls were painted in bright red and adorned with a tapestry of decades-old music stars and artists, with a few pixilated Lichtenstein prints of distressed dames mixed in. A small collection of arcade games lines the back wall under a massive screen that plays the video from Warrant's "Cherry Pie." And because you so desperately need to extol the virtues of your meal in song, you can do just that on Thursday evenings, when the dining room is filled with the tone-deaf expulsions of drunken karaoke.
It's not all bad. During a visit a few weeks ago, one guy pulled off a competent "Forgot About Dre," verbal acrobatics and all. The rest of it sounded exactly like what you'd expect from a karaoke party in a mostly empty restaurant at 1:30 a.m. Not that it matters if you're as drunk as everyone else. And besides, you came to eat, and Eat Good, according to the T-shirts worn by the waitstaff.
The slogan is peppered throughout the menu and a website for the restaurant, teasing that Pop Diner might actually bring some meaningful food to the table. There's even a nod to fresh and local ingredients and partnerships with local farms. You start to picture a perfect sandwich filled with tender slices of juicy, corned pasture-raised beef, omelets made with farm-fresh eggs and salads brimming with vibrant, peppery greens when restaurants claim such things. Unfortunately, Pop serves up quirky diner riffs that taste like they came from a college cafeteria. In fact it's surprising how hard it is to even eat decently here.
French fries topped like nachos could work. Pat Snuffer built a greasy little Snuffer's empire on spuds topped with a motorcycle helmet of cheddar, bacon and jalapeños. Pop takes them further, adding ground beef, tomatoes, black olives, salsa and sour cream for a riff on Tex-Mex big enough to pummel a table of four. You must eat quickly — those fries will only get soggier.
A cheesesteak might have been decent if the bread used to make it could hold the mess together. The mass of melted cheese, rib-eye steak, lettuce and Thousand Island dressing overwhelmed the soft white roll, reducing the sandwich to a pile of ingredients that looks like you may feel tomorrow morning. A Reuben holds up better, but that's only because it's so dry. The sandwich touts plenty of corned beef, but it eats like sawdust, while sauerkraut adds no texture and little flavor. Still, it's edible, which is more than can be said for what is one of the worst burgers in Dallas.
Across the menu, dishes are described as containing all natural ingredients. The description, of course, has no real meaning. While the FDA regulates some food terms like organic, "all natural" can be applied to anything. It's the culinary equivalent of hipster: overused and without value. Chickens raised in poultry houses with no light, sparse ventilation and dead companions can be labeled all-natural these days, so you might wonder what you're biting into when your teeth sink through two all natural beef patties on the American, double meat, double cheese.
All natural? Surely nature, which gave us the Grand Canyon, the majestic redwood and Penelope Cruz can do better than this dry, flavorless, ugly burger. Add a salad filled with lettuce leaves ready for the compost bin, and you'll wish you had enough cash on hand to tuck under your plate and politely leave.
Breakfast is awakened with surprisingly good coffee, but the temporary pleasure is muted the second your corned beef hash arrives. The potatoes are new, if still unimpressive, but the beef is the same presliced deli cuts that were stacked on that swayback Reuben. It's the wrong cut for this dish, and while poached eggs are almost always ugly, it's hard not to notice that this pair looks particularly sad. The eggs weep pale yellow yolks when you pierce them with your fork.
The pancakes are as sweet as funnel cakes, so go light with the syrup on your short stack, but masochists are welcome to add chocolate chips if they really want to make their dentists smile. And the rest of the breakfast food is what you'd expect from a bad diner. The scrambled eggs are dry, the bacon likewise and the toast barely toasted.
After last call, when copious amounts of alcohol have stripped you of your senses and left you only with your desires for bad food and sex, you might find solace in the pleather booths of Pop. The food isn't terribly expensive and the room is filled with youthful boozehounds who aren't ready to go home after the last bar told them to. But when the sun comes up and you've regained your senses, the luster will surely fade. You should have taken a cab to Denny's.
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