Just up the street from vegetarian Green and just south of venerable M.K. Davis, the building is still part of the old regime on a street that is slowly emerging from generations of neglect. Covered with graffiti that seems to be, if not purposeful, at least tolerated, the unimposing structure was once, I’m told, a VFW post or something similar. To one side is the very ad-hoc-looking Tienda de Pilar, across the street a bail bondsman and a shuttered-seeming thrift shop. You are not immediately impelled to enter.
But once courage is gathered, the interior has its own elusive charm — in a dark, old VFW club kinda way. There is odd — and oddly hung — art, to one side the remains of a former coffee operation has been turned into an internet lounge, the moderne-looking dining chairs actually all match, the vinyl floor has been painted an earthy terra cotta, and at the rear, there is a curiously compulsive display of pasta boxes, porcelain bowls, and chafing dishes. There is also a kind of shrine to a trombone and its one-time maestro, Eddie Lopez.
The chafing dishes are a clue to the origins if the place. According to an informative waiter (who merits mention on the operation’s web page), owner Mark Riemann started using the facility as a catering kitchen, some people would drop by to pick up dishes, then they started lingering … and the rest is, if not yet history, an excuse for just calling the place a restaurant and getting on with it.
Catering may also explain the shotgun menu: chicken-curry lettuce wrap to baked penne and Salisbury steak to lemon-caper shrimp. There being no appetizers, we landed on the lettuce wrap and an item many restaurateurs might have wished to have on hand just for critics: a knuckle sandwich.
Honest, that’s what it’s called. What’s really in it is thinly sliced Angus beef, roasted on a stone with onions and mozzarella, all served on a hoagy bun. Sounds simple, and it is — maybe just a little too simple. More, and more-caramelized, onions would help, and so would beef that’s a little less texturally challenged. Maybe it needs to be more like a Philly steak, or jolt of the barbecue sauce that presumably anointed the day’s $6 special, an Angus flatiron-steak sandwich.
Though it sounded much more ladies-lunch than barroom-brawl, the lettuce wrap actually had much more flavor. Good pieces of chicken breast in a curry-powder-laced yogurt are elegantly wrapped in long rolls of romaine, tied with green onion tops, and further accented with slivers of cucumber. Easy to eat, easy to like. The house salad also makes use of romaine, and though it seems like a curious thing to do, I can testify to the value of paying an extra dollar for the Hilly-made buttermilk-ranch dressing; it was much more appealing than the tart honey-mustard that’s standard issue.
Hilly also does more than passable pasta, the dish of shrimp in lemon-caper sauce over angel hair being a briny/buttery success, and the baked penne with mini meatballs and four cheeses delicate beyond expectations. Desserts are made “for us but not by us,” yet the ubiquitous tres leches was appealingly moist and well-flavored, so the source is apparently a good one. I did miss both the potato museum (?) and the Fridays-only entertainment, an odd feature for a lunch-only place. It’s usually just a duo, I was told, and might actually be welcome all the time as a kind of sonic mask for the six-top that on two occasions was dominated by cacklers. You know who you are.