Trina's Starlite Lounge is not so easy to describe. It's noir — as in dark (they only put in windows a couple months ago). It has craft cocktails, but not classics; draft beers, but only six taps; 17 bottled beers, but that's including Miller High Life, Bud Light, and Black Label. It's nostalgic (old beer signs, girly-magazine pages, comfort food, and water poured from antique milk bottles). It's vaguely Southern (sweet pies, quasi-soul food, and a soundtrack from Patsy Cline to alt-country). It's insider-y, promoting an industry brunch on Monday to attract restaurant workers (the kind of buzz that made the original Franklin Cafe and also Nebo). It's full of anomalies — a Reuben sandwich on scali bread, chicken and waffles, a hot dog of the day, wine you never heard of before — that break any frame you put around it.
MIX AND MATCH Trina’s Starlite Lounge is all over the place as far as influences and cuisines, but
there’s plenty to like, including the waffle-and-chicken dish.
It's all over the place, or maybe cool has been redefined again and I'm not up to speed. There's certainly a lot to like, though, whether you are eating with drinks or drinking with food. In the latter category, it would be hard to top the onion strings ($4), which have actual sweet onion flavor as well as light breading and some pepper. They might be topped by the French fries ($4), thick with real potato taste. Add gravy ($1) and you have the best poutine I've tried recently. There is a cheese option, but I was not clever enough to see if it was the Quebec classic curd cheese or not. "BBQ sweet-potato chips and dip" ($5) is the usual problem with sweet-potato fries — too much moisture to crisp well.
Trina's is nostalgic, but not a place where the menu is curated for tradition. With the Starlite chili ($6/cup; $8/bowl), they do almost everything non-Texas you can do with chili — adding tomatoes, cutting down on the cumin, topping with cheddar and sour cream, serving with chowder crackers — but it still hits that chili spot with meat, beans, and just enough spice.
Likewise the already famous fried chicken and buttermilk waffles ($14). This Harlem invention, usually served in specialty restaurants, combines a fresh order of waffles with syrup or butter or maybe whipped cream and a fresh piece or two of pan-fried chicken. Trina's kitchen nails the chicken, perfectly seasoned and juicy clear through. The waffle on my order just didn't have that melting, fresh, hot flavor. And the syrup was too clever — hot-pepper syrup, like Thai squid sauce. Salvation is nine sentences back, in the rich, meaty gravy served with the French fries. Put that on the waffle and you have something more Pennsylvania Dutch- than Harlem-inspired, but still soul-satisfying.
Even less orthodox, yet more successful, is the Reuben sandwich ($12). If the sandwich police ever walk in, it will be a six-count indictment: scali bread instead of dark rye; dry-grilled a la George Forman instead of crisped in butter like a grilled cheese; not enough Swiss or sauerkraut per corned beef; too much Thousand Island dressing; corned beef too lean. This sandwich is a textbook example of how not to make a classic Reuben, but the textbook may have to be rewritten, because it is terrific, especially the freshness of the dressing and flavor of the lean "local" corned beef. Cole slaw, while redundant with Reuben, is house-made and good.