To do this right, I should have taken along a load of laundry. And I suppose I should have spent an evening in the adjoining bar knocking back a brew or two and listening to live music - preferably with a kid in tow to take advantage of the playscape on the adjacent patio. The Cove, you see, is an utterly amazing collection of functions and facilities: car wash, laundromat, videogame arcade, bar, dining/drinking patio, and, almost the least of it, restaurant. The actual dedicated dining area is probably the smallest of all the spaces, but this is not to be considered a limitation. You can have your meal delivered to you anywhere but, one assumes, the car wash.
And this meal will probably exceed your expectations - The Cove certainly exceeded mine. Just make sure you're not in a hurry (likely not an issue if you're doing laundry); this is a one-woman show - at least during the day - and most everything on the eclectic menu is made from scratch in the tiny, open kitchen.
Eclectic, in fact, hardly begins to describe the selection. There's everything from the expected burgers and chicken strips to an odd but surprisingly successful stuffed portobello. The plate consists of a grilled portobello (or portabella, if you prefer) topped with lightly cooked spinach, shaved parmesan, and a poblano cream sauce with zing sufficient to announce its presence. The stuffed 'shroom is seated atop a bed of fresh baby spinach in a swell touch that seems out of place in the setting, but actually works once you make your own salad out of the dish.
Portobellos are popular in Lisa's kitchen, it's clear: Both a portobello and spinach quesadilla, and a grilled salmon and portobello salad with more baby spinach are available. And then you can indulge in "the ultimate sandwich" with grilled eggplant and portobello, red onion, goat cheese, and herbed mayo, all in a slab of curiously corrugated flatbread, which hailed from Sam's Club, in case you're interested. This is a good sandwich as much for its interesting parts as for the balance between them. The rosemary potato chips that are served with it are good, too; maybe Sam's sells these as well.
The beer-battered onion rings you will have to order expressly as a side. They are dipped and fried to order as advertised, and a half-portion is a mere $1.50. The cook/cashier/waitress must have been distracted when making my order; the rings came out just a little too crisp, but it was easy to imagine them being fine with less frying.
The rings were an accompaniment to the S.O.B. Burger on this particular day, and I can imagine a creation that would have been equally fine without the French's mustard. A kitchen that can put together herbed mayo, poblano cream, and its own honey mustard sauce shouldn't shrink from Grey Poupon when the occasion calls for it. The bright yellow stuff killed the "secret spices" in the hand-pressed, six-ounce patty, and effectively blunted the sliced avocado and jack cheese. Only the grilled ham that is the burger's other signature ingredient seemed to stand up to the flavor. Otherwise, this is a potentially rewarding combination that's inventive without being too self-conscious about it. Several other burgers, from bacon-cheese to a four-cheese model, are also available.
Little flashes of invention and inspiration crop up in unexpected places on The Cove's menu. Take the two tacos, for example. Starting from a base of good, "homestyle" corn tortillas (presumably not from Sam's, but I forgot to ask), the fish taco employs grilled tilapia, a colorful, cilantro coleslaw, and the aforementioned poblano cream sauce. On this particular day, the sauce was less assertive than on the previous visit, so the taco didn't truly sing; it was merely good. But with its feisty wasabi sauce, cool avocado, and crunchy coleslaw, the grilled shrimp taco achieved exceptional status. (I'll remember this when the "Best Of San Antonio" issue comes around again.)
Mama Rita's Blue Ribbon Chili wouldn't be laureled by this critic, on the other hand - and not just because it has beans. To be sure, there's plenty of ground beef to balance the beans, and the taste doesn't suggest wholesale use of chili powder, but if I'm going to eat chili solo, I just want a little more personality. Mama Rita's would be the perfect thing for Frito Pie, however. Or on the grilled hot dog, where it plays a supporting role.
The chili appears in the Cove's "munchies" section, along with hot wings, fried mushrooms, nachos, and the grand-sounding Quesadilla Royale, served with their "original avocado sour cream dip." Presented atop shredded lettuce, the pleasant-enough dip doesn't work as its name suggests, but the super-stuffed and quartered quesadilla doesn't cry out to be dunked anyway. Grilled chicken, bacon, jack and cheddar cheeses, mushrooms, and bell pepper are the players, and they're perfectly at home between toasty flour tortillas. A root beer float seemed the obvious companion since, as a sub-specialty, the Cove serves several varieties of Blue Bell ice cream. Admittedly, there's no art to popping the tab on a can of Barq's, but there can be satisfaction in the simple stuff.
About the only services the Cove doesn't provide are a hair cut, shoe shine or tailoring and alterations - and for all I know, they might be able to arrange that, too. This is otherwise an amazing enterprise, the sort of place you might expect to find adjacent to a college campus. Bundle up the laundry and arrive hungry; somebody has got to try the AKALAKA - "over a pound of pure pleasure," consisting of turkey, ham, roast beef, multiple cheeses, bell peppers, and onions on fresh-baked white or wheat. Grilled. It seems to sum up The Cove in a single sandwich, but I was never quite up to the challenge. •