Cheeky’s and Birba, Palm Springs
It’s that time of year again when we’re past the hustle and bustle of the holidays, the hoopla of New Year’s Eve…and the cold rain and/or snow seem interminable. There’s only one thing to do: head to Palm Springs. For a city renowned as chic both for its hallowed past as a playground for the Hollywood elite and as a mecca of modernist architecture, Palm Springs has surprisingly mediocre food – with two noble exceptions: Cheeky’s and Birba. Situated side-by-side on North Palm Canyon Drive, they are both operated by Tara Lazar who never trained formally as a chef, but judging from the throngs of people queuing whenever we’ve stopped in, that has hardly been an impediment to serving up great food. An article in the Washington Post gives some clues to her culinary style by sharing the cookbooks on her shelf including those by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and Judy Rodgers of Zuni Café; we can attest that Cheeky’s and Birba share the philosophy that guides both by creating fresh, seasonal and ingredient-driven plates.
Taking advantage of the more than 350-plus days a year of sun in Palm Springs, Cheeky’s has a 20-seat dining room and a larger outdoor patio both outfitted with bright orange acrylic chairs giving a fun, casual vibe to its space. While the setting is decidedly relaxed, Lazar’s menu is surprisingly sophisticated and inventive for brunch fare. Any restaurant serving up breakfast must contend with eggs which are typically the first item an aspiring chef learns to prepare in a standard cooking course; sadly they are so often sloppily rendered. Wherever eggs appear on the menu at Cheeky’s they are treated with respect and are gently and carefully cooked, making you completely forget the rubbery, greasy stuff of bad diners and fast food joints. The bottom of Cheeky’s menu warns their scrambled eggs are prepared “custard style” and encourages you to speak up if you would like yours cooked more thoroughly – but try them the way they come and you won’t be sorry. Their sausages are homemade, and the bacon is cured on site turning up in a variety of flavours that are as delicious as they sound (including Rosemary Sugar, Maple Balsamic and Jalapeno) and you can order a slice for $1 or a “flight” for $4.
There’s always a pleasant element of surprise when dining at Cheeky’s since the creative kitchen changes its menu weekly, the only hazard being that you may fall in love with a dish that is a temporary feature. While there appear to be some mainstays like the unbelievably fluffy buttermilk and fresh corn pancakes (additional blueberries optional) that I see time and time again, we still dream of the Omelette with Purple Cauliflower and Gruyère cheese we had on our first visit – both the eggs and cauliflower were cooked to optimal consistency and the Gruyère added just the right assertive tang. The Corn Fritters we had the next day were made with kernels so fresh they were sweet and bursting with flavour; sadly we haven’t seen these items on the menu in our several visits since. The Chile Verde Berkshire Pork Stew over Spicy Cheddar Grits was so tender and piquant, fearing it would not return, we had it two days in a row. All this to say, savour everything on offer while you can. There always seem to be some nods to Lazar’s childhood in Mexico with dishes like Chilaquiles with Homemade Chorizo, Breakfast Quesadillas with Scrambled Eggs, and Huevos Rancheros. After a night of cocktails, the strong Intelligentsia brew kindly refilled throughout your meal, is a welcome eye-opener but there are also a Champagne Cocktails and Bloody Marys on offer if you want to keep last night’s festivities going.
By chance, we were at Birba on opening night and have returned numerous times since to enjoy their Neopolitan-inspired pizzas. When we met briefly with Birba’s manager, he conveyed Lazar’s infectious enthusiasm regarding food and the fact that their freezer is tiny and mostly stocked with ice cream – a testament to the fact that most everything is prepared fresh and in-house which becomes delightfully obvious when you taste the food. Birba is well-conceived for the city it’s in – the atmosphere is just right for the relaxed, holiday-focused feel of Palm Springs. Lazar has created a lovely outdoor dining space, completely enclosed from the street by a hedge, giving a sense of privacy as if you’re in someone’s cool backyard. The menu is also exactly the kind of delicious but non-fussy fare you want on what feels like a temperate summer night (even if it’s actually January).
Start with the luxurious Di Stefano Burrata, served with eggplant caponata and wedges of flatbread. It’s some of the best we’ve ever had – it literally oozes creamy freshness. The Tricolore Chopped Salad is a nice, bright combination of radicchio, endive and arugula with fried garlic and parmesean – if you think you don’t like these leaves because you’ve only had the bitter, angry versions sold in big supermarkets, give them a second chance at Birba where they are invigorating and bright. Birba started with pizzas as their mains and baked in a wood-burning oven, they are Neopolitan-inspired but given a more North American treatment with heartier, crisper crusts. You can absolutely taste the quality of ingredients when enjoying a simple concoction like the Margherita which comes with the standard tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil – there’s nowhere for these components to hide and it doesn’t disappoint. We also love their pizza topped with Braised Greens, Green Olives, Serrano Chile and Smoked Mozzarella. The greens are wilted down until they are beautifully tender and the chile and cheese offer a gentle, smokey heat. Birba has now added a section called “Not Just Pizza” to their menu where they offer options like Eggplant Bolognese and Homemade Ricotta Gnocchi both of which we’re eager to try. We have sampled Nonna’s Meatballs and they were fantastic bathed in a light and bright tomato sauce with the right ratio of meat to breadcrumb making them incredibly tender.
If you’re heading to Palm Springs to escape the winter weather, these two establishments are a must but check both websites for hours – Cheeky’s only serves breakfast and lunch while Birba focuses on dinner and their opening hours change depending on whether it is high or low season. And be forewarned: neither take reservations and the queues can be gruelling. But they are both absolutely worth the wait.