Eatin‘ Like Royalty
By Bill Gerdes
I wish I lived in Palm Springs and not because I’m gay or Republican or 90. No, I wish I lived there because of all of the hip/retro/just-plain-outstanding restaurants and bars they are serving up out in the desert these days. Like, the King’s Highway Diner at the Ace Hotel, right off the main drag. It’s not the most innovative; it’s the not the trendiest, and it’s not the most whimsy-filled. But it’s chock-full of all those attributes and connected to a charmingly nostalgic hotel and pool club too.
A review of the Ace Hotel itself would be another article but I did take a glance at the pool and it resembled the sort of Rat-Pack art-deco pool setting and vibe (now with 30 percent more hipsters!) that I instantly felt too socially inadequate for, often a real indicator of a fun time. The hotel also has the sort of dark and dank bar that offered up mysteries as I peered through the door. It beckoned, but the car seat with the five-month-old baby I was carrying beckoned harder and we walked into the King’s Highway Diner instead.
King’s is built on the site of an old Denny’s and retains the same layout, just different. I doubt if the Denny’s had a giant mirror enveloping the kitchen. I doubt it had a funky brown elephant on the corner wall. And there’s no doubt that the soundtrack’s improved. King’s is one of the rare restaurants I’ve been to lately where the ambiance is improved by the tunes, an awesome mix tape to accompany the meal. And what a meal!
We ordered the Mezza plate first, basically pita along with traditional Middle Eastern accompaniments like hummus and tabbouleh and some extremely fresh and quite tasty cucumber spears. It’s terribly simple and delicious at the same time, especially the mildly spicy eggplant puree that tastes like God’s baby food (I mentioned we’ve got a five-month old, right?) At this point we’re also knocking back a few cocktails: the Figa is fig-infused vodka, muddled orange and fig, along with a smidge of Earl Gray tea, while the Cool Hand Luke is gin, elderflower, and mint. Both taste the way you want the drinks on those glossy drink promotions to but don’t. They’re subtle, strong but not overly so, perfect really.
So too is King’s version of Cauliflower Dahl. It’s another simple dish done brilliantly. The tiny black lentils and perfectly cooked, the cauliflower florets perfectly seasoned-the dish is more than the sum of its parts. Eating King’s version of Dahl I got a bit of the same “Ah!” moment as the first time I drank quality tequila. Spicy green beans that we also had as a side could only flail in comparison; still they’re cooked correctly retaining a snap and a bit of heat.
The main menu is eclectic. Cochinita Pibil Tacos feature tender marinated pork that is slightly over salted but excellent. They’re the perfect taco to munch on as I look at the window and plan our move to Palm Springs. What would happen to me out in the desert I wondered; would I turn into an avid golfer and start collecting southwestern art, a constant Cool Hand Luke in hand. Would I . . . oh wait the food, the food. A highlight of the tacos is the Serrano Slaw side, a crispy, pickled slaw with a refined spice. It’s subtle and nice, and it’s worth noting that anything pickled at King’s is awesome. Weird. And tasty. We also sampled their black-bean burger which is a nice veggie-stab at a burger if you’re into that sort of thing. We then left and headed back toward Applebee’s land. We’ll return though, hopefully pool-side with one of their cocktails in hand.
The King’s Highway Diner at the Ace Hotel, 701. E. Palm Canyon Drive Palm Springs, (760) 325-9900; www.acehotel.com/palmsprings. Sun-Wed, 7am-1am; Thurs-Sat, 7am-3am. AE, D, MC, V.