When veteran Salt Lake City restaurateur Scott Evans announced he was expecting again, I took notice.
Evans was already proud papa of a brood that includes Pago, an upscale pocket restaurant in the 9th and 9th neighborhood, and the tapas restaurant Finca, as well as the relatively new East Liberty Tap House around the corner from Pago. Each has its own personality and charms, and I couldn't wait to meet the newest member of the family, Hub & Spoke Diner, which debuted this spring.
The new arrival, billed as a diner, would inhabit space previously occupied by Finca, which had decamped for larger digs downtown. The Finca space didn't exactly seem diner-ish, so the prospect was intriguing.
The first thing I ate there was a tuna melt ($9.99). It might have been the blanket of cheddar cheese that made me swoon, because that gooey tang was the perfect foil for the fish, bursting from between two slices of grilled sourdough bread. I managed to eat the whole thing, as well as the tangy house salad of arugula, simply dressed with lemon juice, olive oil and a sprinkle of parmesan ($2), which I subbed in for the fries.
Damn, I thought. Evans has done it again!
Then, news of the diner's opening spread, and chaos ensued. There was a weekend breakfast when the span between ordering our food and getting it was so long, the youngest member of our party fell asleep at the table.
Since then, the early-day jitters have been mostly exorcised, although I still hear murmurs about sold-out tuna melts or slow service. It can be slow when it's crowded, and I've noted sloppiness such as mixed-up drink orders, or items removed without asking when diners aren't done with them. Servers are uniformly cheerful and friendly, however, and are accommodating of parties with kids.
Overall, the wheels turn pretty smoothly at Hub & Spoke, a laid-back neighborhood joint that doesn't look like a classic diner but has adopted some of the icon's funk and food styles, with a twist.
Like any diner, Hub & Spoke has a counter, although most folks opt for table or booth seating, both very comfortable. And it has décor quirks, in the form of a stuffed raccoon and a huge photo of deer painted on the wall over the window into the kitchen. Servers sometimes dress in vintage wear, and breakfast is served all day. It's open early every day and last, but not least, it's got booze: a modest selection of craft cocktails, wine and beer, plus a carefully chosen lineup of spirits ($5-$11), some of them made locally, such as Beehive Jack Rabbit gin, High West double rye and Vida Blanco tequila.
Perhaps I should mention here that some of said booze is used in Hub & Spoke milkshakes ($8), from the bourbon-spiked salted caramel to the grasshopper, flavored with crème de menthe and chocolate liqueur. You can get them sans liquor ($5.50), but what's the fun of that?
After having eaten at Hub & Spoke more than a half-dozen times, I'm more a fan of the all-day menu items than the few entrées served only after 4 p.m., which include a pan-seared pork chop ($18.99). It was cooked to order, but the sauce was cloyingly sweet and one of the roasted turnips on the plate was almost raw. It was saved only by the peppery, bacon-studded greens, which nearly drowned in that sauce.
Chicken pot pie ($11.99) is another evening offering. It has a nice ratio of meat to vegetables, packaged inside a flaky crust, but is a rather petite serving for a hearty appetite. It's also available without meat ($9.99).
But my advice is to stick with what Hub & Spoke does best, no matter what time of day, and that's comfort food with a unique twist.
The cooked-to-order Hub burger, for example, is cloaked not with cheddar but gouda cheese, which plays nicely with the smoked onion aioli ($10.50). The open-face roast beef sandwich ($11.99) is stacked with cheddar cheese and caramelized onions then served hot, with mustard horseradish jus. The salad that came with it was a taste of summer — arugula with sliced peaches and cheese shavings.
If you're a fan of Reuben sandwiches, you won't do much better than this version, with house-made pastrami topped with sauerkraut and Russian dressing, all of it bundled in a high-quality rye bread ($10.99).
As for breakfast food, it's all here — flapjacks, French toast, waffles, omelets and eggs Benedict — plus some novelties. You won't find a breakfast banh mi on many café menus, but it's a welcome change of pace: a baguette stuffed with shredded beef short ribs, pickles and jalapeño, plus a fried egg ($9.99). The only flaw was overcooked meat.
Or, if you want a dish to stick with you till dinner, try the Kentucky hot brown ($11), built of béchamel-smothered smoked turkey topped with bacon, Swiss cheese, tomato, avocado and a sunny-side-up egg perched on a foundation of sourdough bread. It's different and decadent.
There's a lively version of shrimp and grits ($10.99) with house-made chorizo sausage, rock shrimp and pickled peppers that had just the right amount of zing, and an eggs Benedict ($10.99) that perches on a cornmeal cake instead of an English muffin and is studded with crab.
The French toast ($9.25) is made with pound cake, and a chicken and waffle sandwich ($10.50) comes with chile-spiked maple syrup and a fried egg. Cheddar grits and meats are available as side dishes ($3-$3.50).
Several of the salads are available in half portions, which is handy if you want to balance a meaty meal. Or you can just eat your meat in a salad, whether it's the fried-chicken variety ($11.50), a big plate of greens with bite-size breaded fowl, chopped bacon, shredded cheddar, pickled beets and avocado; or the Navajo taco version ($10.50). The latter was hardly a salad, however, as it offered only a modest portion of shredded romaine and a few chopped tomatoes atop saucy ground beef slathered over an oval or fried bread. It was so big, I took half of it home and enjoyed it more cold, strangely enough.
I haven't tried the one soup listed on the menu, a posole made with chicken ($4.50-$6.50). But I hope it's better that the weak version of gazpacho that was offered up as a substitute in the peak of summer. It was more like watermelon juice in which a few lonely pieces of cucumber, onion and melon floated.
I personally prefer pie to boozy shakes when it comes to sweets, and I fell hard for the coconut banana cream ($5), with the lemon meringue ($4.50) coming in a close second.
Hub & Spoke has two patios, although both are hard-core urban: One fronts well-trafficked 1300 South, the other adjoins the parking lot. I personally don't mind the vehicles on either side, as they both add the right amount of grit for a city diner.
In fact, Evans has done it again, with a hard-working little café that is nothing like his other ventures. His is a diverse little family that is helping Salt Lake City's food scene blossom.