Airplanista Magazine Monthly Column - Chef Stuart Stein: The Money Burger

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This article was originally published in the September, 2011 issue of Airplanista Magazine and can be viewed here. Airplanista Magazine is an all-digital new media publication that presents aviation feature stories and content in a digital magazine format. Read the current issue here.

Chef Stuart Stein: The Money Burger: The quest for great airport restaurants
and the elusive $150 hamburger

Border burgers & Lynyrd Skynyrd
The Landing Strip Café at Brown Field Municipal Airport, San Diego, CA (KSDM)

During the last week in July the aviation universe heads to the Midwest to bask in the heat, thunderstorms and spectacle that is AirVenture Oshkosh. I, on the other hand, headed to San Diego. What does San Diego have over central Wisconsin? San Diego has the US Open Sandcastle Competition, Comic Con International, the San Diego Air and Space Museum and the giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo. South Mission Beach at the jetty at Pacific Beach and Sunset Cliffs at Ocean Beach offers some of the best surfing anywhere in the world. There’s San Diego Padres Petco Park, the San Diego Chargers Qualcomm Stadium and Torrey Pines Golf Course.

San Diego is also a very unique and complex flying environment. San Diego International Lindbergh Field (KSAN) has an amazing, breathtaking and rather sexy approach directly through downtown. Miramar Marine Corps Air Station’s (KNKX) Class Bravo airspace overlaps Lindbergh Field and intertwines with North Island Naval Air Station. Halsey Field (KNZY), Gillespie Field (KSEE), Montgomery Field (KMYF) and Brown Field Municipal Airport (KSDM) are all Class Delta operations with various size and altitude requirements. The San Diego TAC is a complicated and dizzying array of solid and dashed blue lines.

Montgomery Field is renowned partially because it is home to John and Martha King’s King Schools. Founded in 1975, King Schools’ 18,000-square-foot facility and 75 plus employees have made them the industry leader in pilot training software. It’s been estimated that John and Martha had a hand in training over 50% of all the pilots in the USA at some point during their flight training. MYF has a number of other flight training businesses including a branch of American Flyers, ATP and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Plus One Flyers, San Diego’s largest and most popular flying club, also has a outpost here.

For the culinary inclined, there are three eating establishments on site. 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant, a kitschy and corporate feeling restaurant, is one of a number of locations across the US. The Montgomery Field eatery is housed in a replica of a World War I French farmhouse with an adjacent large outdoor banquet and seating area. Go for the Sunday Champagne brunch and enjoy a romantic liaison in front of one of the huge stone fireplaces. B&B Deli Restaurant & Catering, located on the south side of the field near Marv Golden Pilot Supplies, is a great place to grab a quick handmade sandwich. It has comfortable couches perfect for hanging out and taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi. Casa Machado Mexican Restaurant has two locations around San Diego, one near the south entrance. This authentic Mexican style cantina has fantastic Carnitas and Flautas.

San Diego also has Brown Field Municipal Airport, located just 1.5 miles north of the US/Mexico border. This towered, US Customs Airport of Entry is an interesting airfield with an interesting accident history. The 3,566 feet MSL Otay Mountain is located approximately 6nm northeast of the airport and has seen its share of controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), most famously the 1991 fatal accident of a plane carrying members of Reba McEntire’s band. On a lighter note, Brown Field has Baja Airventures offering Mexican eco-adventures, Chapter 14 of EAA, Pacific Coast Skydive, the San Diego Jet Center and First Flight Corp, the General Aviation FBO.

I came to Brown Field to talk aviation with the local airport bums and to eat. Right next to the Jet Center in the old tower building is The Landing Strip Café and Bar. It has a small sit-down restaurant adjacent to the more open bar/lounge area that over looks the fuel barn. The Landing Strip feels like equal parts of biker “dive” bar, VFW hall, karaoke club and aviator hangout. It’s the type of place one expects to hear Lynyrd Skynyrd on the juke box.

The Landing Strip offers both an egg-based breakfast menu and a sandwich-heavy lunch/dinner menu that looks larger than it really is. The half-pound burgers ($6.99-$8.99) are juicy and cooked appropriately. They come with a number of topping options, fresh vegetables and accompaniments, an average but suitable bun and passable frozen-in-the-bag fries. The deli sandwich selections offer a variety of protein choices from sliced turkey breast and grilled chicken to roast beef and Philly cheese steak ($6.99-$9.99). A griddled turkey and Swiss melt on sourdough ($7.99) was crisp on the outside, gooey on the inside and flavorful overall. The roast beef, avocado and cheese on whole wheat ($8.99) showcased all five taste elements and a nice balance of creamy avocado, rich cheese and earthy beef.

Being so close to the Mexican border, having a number of “Mexi” items ($5.99-$14.99) are a must. Unfortunately, this part of the menu was both limited and bland. Additionally, the Fried Chicken section, just like the French fries and onion rings, were a mix of crispy and flabby. All suffered from under seasoning. A final seasoning of salt when the fried items exit the fryer goes a long way. The staff, on the other hand, is friendly but can be a bit standoffish if you don’t make the effort to be engaging. Don’t let that stand in your way. Ask about the regulars, history or local gossip and you will easily get an ear full.

Gene Siskel, former late, great movie critic of the Chicago Tribune once said that a 2½ out of 5 star review encompasses equal parts good and bad. Using that criterion, the Landing Strip rates 2½ stars. It has a blue collar sense that fits the place. The beer is cold, the music is loud, the prices are reasonable and the conversation is good.

Brown Field is something all aviators should experience. Just be careful not to mistakenly land at Tijuana International Airport (TIJ) just to the south, because the “paperwork” could quickly get ugly.

The Landing Strip Café and Bar
1424 Continental Street
San Diego, CA 92154
Phone: (619) 661-6037
Hours vary – call in advance

Chef Stuart Stein has worked as a cook, executive chef, culinary instructor and restaurateur all over the U.S. and France, and is the author of “The Sustainable Kitchen: Passionate Cooking Inspired by Farms, Forests, and Oceans.”

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