Saturday, December 24, 2011

Taking a Big Bite out of History

Everyone knows the old saying, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do".  I take this saying to mean that whenever you visit a new locale, you need to check out the celebrated fare and beverage.  So, when my girlfriend and I headed to Pittsburgh for a quick overnight trip to Pittsburgh earlier this week, national chain restaurants were not an option.  It was my first time (save airport layovers) visiting the Steel City, and there was one thing that I just HAD to try:  A sandwich from the original Primanti Brothers Restaurant.  As seen on the Food Network and revered by many, this staple of Pittsburgh dining in the middle of the Strip District has been drawing crowds for several generations.  The typical Primanti sandwich consists of meat, cole slaw, and fries shoved comfortably in between to pieces of French bread.  The point of combining the ingredients was so that truck drivers and workers could eat with one hand while driving with the other.  Almost eighty years, it's a must-see for those visiting downtown, and one would be remiss to leave the city without wolfing down a sandwich that represents Pittsburgh's hard-working persona.  So, after a night of many beers, we headed downtown the next morning to visit the town's most famous dining option.

Pardon my French, but Pittsburgh is a clusterfuck, from a driver's standpoint.  The bridges, roads, and rivers provide interesting urban scenery and topographic texture, but finding your way around is a nightmare.  Even with a co-pilot manning a GPS, you're bound to get turned around once or twice.  I'm going to assume that the person(s) that put signs on the bridges was killed by angry Pittsburghers.  The hunger was building, but eventually we arrived in the Strip District, an area of old markets and warehouses next to the Allegheny River.  Under grey skies and in an area that hearkened back to the heavy industrial days of yore, we spotted the scene of the culinary crime that was about to occur.

As cold on the outside as it was on the inside
We walked in and experienced a little difficulty in the seating department.  After being told to seat ourselves, we plopped down in a booth, much to the chagrin of the Eastern European girl behind the bar.  It seems the booth was off limits, so she instructed our waitress to awkwardly move us to another table.  No matter; we checked out the wall menu and ordered cheese steak and pastrami sandwiches. The countdown was on.

Timeless menu, adorned with holiday cheer

We were surrounded by Steelers fans and ghosts of blue-collared workers from the past.  Even though my body craved water, I couldn't pass up washing down the sandwich with a beer, so I ordered a bottle of Yuengling.  Less than five minutes later, the main attraction had arrived.

Let's get down to business

The sandwich arrived on wax paper, with no utensils and no condiments on the table except hot sauce.

Upon further inspection, I'm going to make a mess

So we dug in, barely breathing as we tore down Pittsburgh's finest.  The cheese steak was more of a burger, actually, and the thick-cut bread sopped up the greasy fries, cole slaw that would usually make up side dishes.  The sandwiches were good, but they're not going to bowl you over with flavor.  the most distinctive flavor came from the slaw, which was vinegar-based and quite zesty.  I thought the sandwich would be much larger, but to be honest, the size was perfect for one sitting.  With nothing but scraps on the table, we moved on to the next task:  Payment.  Another look at the menu board confirmed our fear- the joint is cash only.  Anxiety struck.  We only had credit cards... This woman is going to kick our asses!!

Bourdain on the tube.  Hey, yinz know it's cash only?

Luckily, there's an ATM in the lobby, so I finished my beer and headed over to the bar/cashier and handed said bitchy European woman a $20.  She placed three dollar bills on the counter, which I planned on putting down on the table as a tip for our waitress.  But before I could pick up the change, she grabbed them back and thanked me.  I would have rather ripped up the bills and thrown them away than hand them to her.....

We headed out the door with our bellies full and a couple observations and future tips on the whole experience.  I'll pass them along, so that you don't look like a fool if/when you go in:

1) Primanti Brothers is fast food.  Don't go in with the expectations of a normal, sit down dining experience.  The purpose of the place is to get you in and out the door.

2) Act like you own it.  The place can be a little intimidating to the noob, so look like you know what you're doing.  When they ask you to seat yourself, sit down and start ordering.  Be decisive and quick.  It may help your cause to black and gold.

3) Order the corned beef or pastrami.  There was very little flavor to the meat, and it made the sandwich pretty bland overall.  Good, but bland.  Erin's corned beef sandwich had a lot more flavor.

4) Go for the experience.  This place is the heart and soul of Pittsburgh, and nostalgia central.   Nothing against Primanti's but I can get a much tastier sandwich in my own neighborhood at Snarf's or Denver Ted's.  Heck, you can get much better food directly outside Primanti Brothers from street vendors on Penn. Avenue.  But you miss out on the experience and the chance to glimpse into yesteryear.

5) Prepare yourself for kitschy, abrasive "charm".  I had no idea that part of the allure was the fact that they seem irritated that you're there.  Personally, I think a smile and attitude goes a long way, but dealing with perpetually grey skies and people in a hurry would piss me off, too.

6) Bring cash.  I'm sure the other 19 or so Primanti Brothers restaurants take credit cards, but they seem to relish in only taking cash at the original.  Irritating?  Yes.  It's a big tourist attraction. But the prices are reasonable, and they do have an ATM, so deal with it.

7) Go in drunk.  Preferably really late night at night, when you're drunk.  It's perfect for 3 AM, as it's not spicy and it will soak everything up. 

Truth be told, I liked the place, and I liked the sandwich.  I would go again, fully prepared with adjusted expectations.  Are there better places to eat in the City of Bridges?  Certainly.  But when you one-hand a Primanti sandwich, you're saluting the thousands and thousands of millworkers and wholesalers who needed a good, cheap meal-and didn't have the time to enjoy it or even eat it with two hands.  Foodies, add this to your "to-do" list, and in the meantime check out their website.  Enjoy, and remember to support independent restaurants!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Nobody Beats the Whiz (with)

Before I go out to eat somewhere new, I do my background research.  I love reviews-they're subjective as hell, but I DO take advice, or at least I take information into consideration.  So, when Denver Daily Deals had a $10 worth of food for $5 at Denver Ted's Cheesesteaks, it took me all of 30 seconds to assess the collective view of the Yelpers and pull the trigger.  I could tell from the reviews that service/attitude may be questionable, but the sandwich should be solid.  Besides, it's less than one city block from my lady friend's apartment.  They're only open 11-7 Monday through Saturday, so I thought that it may be a while before we checked it out, because it would have to be late week/weekend before we had a chance to walk over, and my weekends are literally booked for several months.  But the opportunity came much sooner, and Monday we headed over for lunch.

                                    It's what on the inside that counts....

Once inside, it's clear that there is only one function of this place, and that's to make cheesesteaks.  I like a place that is purpose driven.  The decor is not going to distract you; the old benches, bar tables, and tile ceiling remind you that this place has been in business for a while, and not because it tried to create a hip ambiance.  Pretty plain, but somebody's a fan of good music; I did notice a John Scofield "Mile High 2005" poster framed on the wall, along with a the pinups and concert fliers for a lot of good bands.  Just sayin'.  On to the menu, which is simple and to the point.....

Seriously, if you walk in this joint and special order, they should absolutely charge you extra....

So, some of my friends go in to places like this, order something the place is not known for, and complain.  That is taboo in my book.  Order what a place is known for!  Any cheesesteak enthusiast knows that the only way to order is Whiz With.  Sure, Cheese Whiz is kind of gross, on principle.  I'd never put it on a cheese tray or pair it with wine, but there's something about the way that it interacts with the steak that is in my mind distinctive and delicious.  I think it's the fact that Cheese Whiz melts and liquefies immediately when it touches the hot sandwich.  Provolone and American are good on sandwiches, but the way Whiz interacts with the ingredients is memorable; a distinguishing taste difference between a sandwich shoppe and a proper cheesesteak establishment.  So, without delay, I ordered a large, Whiz With.  Like any hole in the wall in Philly, no one blinked an eye with the order because that's how it's supposed to be done....
                                                   Let's do this.

Approximately ten minutes eclipsed, and one of the guys finally brought our steak sandwich over to us.  I say "finally" because watching others receive their subs made me hungry enough to consider taking my belt off and gnawing on it.  But alas, here it was:

 Oh, cheesesteak, there's not a day that goes by that I don't think about you.....

There's a certain beauty to a simple culinary concoction done properly.  There was nothing in this sandwich that stood a chance of being left on the tray.  The bread was fresh, warm, and complicit to the debauchery occurring between its buns.  If it sounds dirty, that's because it was.  Plenty of napkins are pretty much a requirement.  We split a 12", but I probably could have killed it myself.  Best that I didn't though, as consuming half didn't slow me down all that much.  In any case, I left knowing that Ted and I started a sleazy little love affair....... Last, but not least, I must mention the handwritten sign that greets you upon exiting, "You've just experienced the David Lee Roth of cheesesteaks".  The slogan forced my brain to digest a complex thought, just as my gut attempted to digest large quantities of beef, cheese, bread, and onions.  Brilliant.

Now, this review would be incomplete without a mention of the service.  I've read many reviews that criticized the attitude in Denver Ted's.  First of all, from our experience, the guys behind the counter were brief, but friendly, even when I used my Groupon-like discount.  The place gets busy, so my advice in a place like this is:  Know what you're getting into and go with the flow.  This is a taste of Philly in a hole in the wall, not the newest place to be seen.  And that's probably a good thing as you wax primal and get down to business.  We even noticed that one of the cooks gave two guys at the next table vouchers for free subs for getting their order wrong, even though the guys cleaned their plates.  My point is that service fluctuates, and a lot of variables play into service and your experience.  Keep your mind open, and make the decisions yourself.  You never know where you'll find your own personal piece of food heaven.  Keep exploring....

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Storm from Hell/Dinner with Seitan

The Setup
I keep trying to take Erin out to a nice meal, but sometimes I think that it just isn't going to happen.  Something always comes up, or the restaurant just happens to close early that day.  The other night was no exception.  I've been telling her about D Bar for a while.  D Bar (Dessert Bar) is the restaurant owned by pastry chef and Food Network regular Keegan Gerhard.  It's a hip, award-winning restaurant that happens to be a couple hundred yards from my house.  It's a foodie haven known for creative dishes and plated desserts-you need to plan on spending a few hours if you want to do it right.  We were running late, so we decided to postpone our visit and head to City Grille, on Colfax.  It's known for top-notch burgers (imagine that!) and she had a 2-for-1 coupon, so we parked in the alley and got ready to walk around the building.  At that exact moment, the heavens came crashing down with several close lightning strikes, a little hail, and pouring rain.  We decided to wait it out in the car, but as the rain came down harder, I noticed that water was starting to roar through the alley.  After last weeks in-town flash flood (3-4" of rain in an hour) I decided to back my car out and leave our precarious parking spot.  Intent on heading back to my place, I turned north on Sherman and thought about taking a right on 17th, but I could see raging water covering the road, so I kept going to 19th and took a right.  We went one block and realized that the middle was the only part of the road NOT under water.  Cars that were parallel parked on the side already had water to their doors!  I put the hazards on and realized that the only place to go was straight forward with momentum and even then I didn't know how deep the water was.  A car crossing the street in front of us plowed through what was at least a foot of water.  Against better judgment and fearing being trapped in our spot, I decided to chance it and drive through the intersection.  In this case, it worked.  We made it through to Park Boulevard.  We turned off on Ogden and pulled into a lot on a hill, along with several other cars.  Several side streets were under a decent amount of water, so we waited there about a half hour and realized another pressing issue:  My car was about to run out of gas!  So, we carefully made our way back to Colfax and headed back to downtown.  Apparently, Denver streets are incapable of handling heavy amounts of rain in short periods of time.  Colfax was submerged, and driving down the street, you could actually feel waves of water hitting the side of the car door from cars and trucks headed the other direction!  We couldn't make it to the gas station, but luckily we made it back to Erin's apartment on Capital Hill.  I'm not going to lie, I was relieved to make it back to her place.  It was a miserable, stressful hour and a half drive around central Denver, and to top it off we were still starving!

The Conundrum
It was close to 12 on a Tuesday night- not much would be open, not too many places still delivering.  Denver looks like a bigger city than it really is..... the Capitol Hill neighborhood is pretty happening, but in reality there are very few true 24 hour cities.  So, at a late hour, with limited options and a low desire to venture far from the house, we did a little inventory of what may be open in the neighborhood.  I've had too much pizza lately, and I wasn't really feeling Asian cuisine, so Erin reminded me that City, O' City, a vegetarian/vegan restaurant/bar four blocks down, stays open until 2 a.m.  I've been wanting to check it out for several months, but it was always the wrong time to check it out, so it's fitting that I'd finally get my chance on a night when it wasn't even an option several hours earlier.  Vegetarian food is a weird thing to me; I don't partake too often, but I honestly like the flavor of a lot of meat alternatives and textured proteins.  I also love garbonzos, eggplants, and other beans and vegetables used in place of animals.  If the place knows what it's doing, I find vegetarian or vegan cuisine to be quite creative.  BUT, I have to be in the right mood for it, and I was not in the right mood.

The Restaurant
I wanted a burger earlier, after all.  But, given the situation and all we'd been through, I just wanted a place that would serve me food and a drink.  So, after one more extremely close lightning strike to keep us in check, we finally headed down the street to the restaurant.  It's a popular place, but not pretentious, which is refreshing considering that it's located in Denver's most bohemian neighborhood.  Punks and hipsters abound, but City, O'City is casual, comfortable, and dimly lit.  It looked like a great refuge from the bizarro weather that had plagued the city all evening, so we sat down and ordered glasses of wine.  They've got great drink specials, among them $2 Great Divide drafts from 7 to midnight and $3 glasses of wine.  Glasses of wine in hand (stout pours) we eyed the menu.

Erin ordered the Gaza Grinder, which consists of  hummus, greek salad, french fries, feta, sriracha aioli, and flat bread.  I decided to order the Seitan wings.  Several people have told me that they're unlike anything they've ever had, and they show up frequently if you search Yelp reviews, so I gave them a shot, with buffalo sauce and a house-made, non-dairy ranch dip.  About ten minutes later, our food arrived:
                           City, O'City is low on lighting, but high on flavor

Now, for those of you not familiar with Seitan (and I'm by no means an expert), it's made with wheat gluten or flour, and can be prepared in a variety of ways.  It's been used in Asian cuisine and is growing in popular in American health food stores and restaurants, as it is high in protein and similar in texture to meats.  It's also particularly good at taking on the flavors of marinades.  So, how did everything taste?  Well, the grinder was a safe choice.  I love Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors, so hummus and Greek salad in a gyro wrap was predictably tasty.  Pretty good; nothing special and rather bland if it weren't for the sriracha.  But the wings!  They look like some type of weird chicken strips, and you can smell the heat of the buffalo sauce emanating from them.  One bite into a wing, and I could tell that this was something special.  The texture is crispy outside, slightly spongy on the inside, and filled with flavor.  They taste like a fatty wing-the part and taste that you crave, but feel guilty about consuming in quantity.  And the helping is rather large, probably about 15 "wings".  Enough for four or five as an appetizer, or more than enough for one person for around $9.  Now I usually prefer dipping wings in bleu cheese, but the place is vegan, so what are you going to do?  I just wanted something to cool the raging inferno in my mouth.  These things were hot.  It probably didn't help that we were drinking wine, that our water at the table was room temperature, or that the place just happened to be a little warm that night.  It was a perfect recipe for heartburn, or as one Yelp reviewer mentioned, possibly for Chrohn's.  But despite the heat, I couldn't stop consuming the damn things!  

Eventually, I had them boxed up and took them home.  But first, we had another glass of wine, which we deserved after all the effort it took to get to dinner.  Plus, it's a chill place.  Again, a good bar with good drink specials and vegetarian-only cuisine?  Well, that just means that you have to try something different.  And I would start with the wings, but maybe with just a little less heat.  I'll be back soon!
Walking back with a good view of the capitol, which apparently survived the flood....

*Follow-up.  The next day I ate the wings for lunch.  I ate them cold, straight out of the fridge.  Interestingly they were no where near as spicy hot as the night before.  Also, I looked up a few recipes for seitan wings, and quite a few people have had considerable success preparing them at home.  Personally, I love to cook, but I don't deep fry anything.  It's messy and dangerous, so I'll save it for the experts.  Besides, in the spirit of sustainability, the used cooking oil at City, O' City is eventually recycled into biodiesel.  Plus, the turnover of oil assures you that your food is being cooked in fresh oil and the food is tasty! 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Feeling a Little Chile at Lunchtime

There are plenty of things that I should be doing today-I have a critical thinking paper due Monday, the laundry pile is a little high, and I should devote a little time to some work for my internship.  But, it's 80 degrees and sunny, and I feel something in the air.  All outdoor patios in the area are full, and people seem to have started the weekend early.  Not many lunch options at the crib, and I'm a little tired of turkey sandwiches, anyway (not that turkey sandwiches are the only thing that I've eaten this week).  So, when I spotted the Steuben's Truck between 17th and 18th on Sherman, I knew that I'd need to make a stop.  I drove around the corner and parked in front of Wells Fargo Bank, intending on getting $20 out to get lunch and put some gas in the car, but the lure of the food truck made me forget to go to the ATM.  My mind simply put blinders on and guided me to the small crowd of people gathered around the blue truck.
 No, seriously.  I had no idea the food truck would be here, at this particular time and location....

Food trucks are still a new thing to me-they were a total rarity in NC.  I've noticed that they seem to be growing in popularity across the nation, and they've definitely developed a following in Denver.  The Steuben's truck travels far and wide, in fact they just traveled the country a few months ago. They're a venture by Steuben's Restaurant in the Uptown neighborhood, which is a must-visit in Denver, as anyone that has visited me so far can attest. Luckily the neighborhood is close enough to my pad that you could literally roll me home. But I'll give you the restaurant rundown on another post.  Soon, I promise.  Back to the food trucks, social media has turned their existence into a celebrity-spotting, of sorts, around town (Hey, did you hear where so-and-so is today?)-everyone updates their location via FB or Twitter.   Okay- So now's the time where I come clean and tell you that I didn't just happen to stumble on "Pearl"-as she's known.  I knew damn well where she'd be.....  So I walked up and checked out the menu.
                     Nothing to see here....just move along.....

I thought about it briefly, but after watching a few episodes of Man vs. Food last night, I couldn't get my mind off of cheeseburgers.  Granted, I seem to only write about burgers lately, but Denver is by some accounts the birthplace of the Cheeseburger itself!  Anyway, I wanted a little variation, so I went for the green chile cheeseburger.
Don't know if I can make it home without a bite.  Maybe I should flip the hazards on and run some red lights.....

Yeah, I just went for the burger.....I just didn't need any fries today.  Granted Steuben's fries are phenomenal, but just not necessary.  After all, I saw the size of sandwiches that other patrons hauled off.  So, I grabbed my burger and started to walk away, when I noticed several people munching on something odd out of a paper cone.
Hmmm.....something fried, something with powdered sugar on it....tell me more......

They offered me one and told me what they were-a treat called "Steubie Snacks".  Bits of pork shoulder deep fried and dusted with powdered sugar.  Are you kidding me?  They offered one-who am I to resist?  The chunk was decadent beyond words, sweet, salty, crispy, and addictive, I'm sure.  The food equivalent of crack cocaine.  I'll order them for unsuspecting visitors in the future, for shizzle.  In the meantime, I drove the mile back to my house, ready to munch down on the burger.

Environmental responsibility is a big thing with Steuben's and Pearl.  Pearl runs off of vegetable oil from their cooking, and solar panels help provide power to the mobile goodness machine.  Steuben's also takes great pride in sourcing ingredients from the area.  The burger was no exception.  Starting with a sweet challah bun from Udi's and a big burger patty from River Ranches Beef in Steamboat (from what I've read), the sandwich is a direct replica of the burger served at the Owl Cafe in San Antonio, NM- widely regarded as THE authority on green chile burgers.  Supposedly, the Steuben's crew headed down and researched it extensively!  In any case, the fresh patties are given a rub, then covered with melted cheese and topped by green chiles.  Mayo, lettuce, tomato, onions and pickles are then laid on top.  The result is somewhat spicy chiles held in place by the cheese just long enough for you to take a gigantic chomp out of it.  Perfectly seasoned, undeniably fresh, enjoyably sloppy, and large enough to go without sides, I think I made the right choice for lunch.  Even better, when I got home I realized I had one Odell's St. Lupulin Extra Pale Ale to go with the burger.
 Nothing wrong with a beer for lunch, right? I mean, I passed on the fries!

Hoppy, crisp, but with little aftertaste, it was a perfect match for the Southwestern twist on an American staple.  Probably a good thing I only had one in the fridge, because it went down like water, and I have stuff to do.  Seriously, I could see my self stalking food trucks, and that's not the Odell's talking.  Convenient, delicious, inexpensive, and often distinguishing themselves with signature twists on their menu, they're another reminder of how fun and exciting a meal can be.  And with that, I'd better get back to my homework.  I've got a ticket to Widespread Panic tomorrow at Red Rocks, and the Electric Forest Festival to attend next week, and lots of work to do in the meantime.  I'd better get started.  Right after this nap.....

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Damn, it Feels Good to be a Gangsta...

So I was putzing around yesterday....the skies were kind of grey, and I was doing some light reading.  My friend called and suggested that we visit a Prohibition-style bar set in the middle of LoDo called Green Russell.  If you're a Denverite, you probably don't view LoDo as a place that you go out of your way to frequent, especially on weekend nights.  But I hadn't eaten much of anything, and the idea of trying out a new place for happy hour cocktails and appetizers sounded pretty reasonable, so I got directions and punched the coordinates in my iPhone and took a shower.  I also noticed that there wasn't really much information on the website, which basically just told you that the venture was part of a syndicate of restaurants around town.  I headed down to Larimer Square, which is a neat little area of historic brick buildings on the side of downtown.  Draped with strings of lights and brimming with an increasing number of al fresco dining options, it looks like an interesting place to walk through-contrasting Denver's many 80's-era skyscrapers.  So I parked and set out to find the entrance to the nouveau speakeasy.  Speakeasies, of course, became popular after the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol.  Underground establishments were supplied booze by bootleggers (often with mob connections) and frequently became the "place to be" for entertainment, especially for high-class citizens including the gangsters themselves.  Today, alcohol is legal, but the Depression-era look is back in style.  These type of bars have been popping up in cities lately, with differing levels of adherence to the details of the era.  I read that this particular speakeasy had a "front" business set up to cover up the entrance to the bar.  So as I walked up to the facade, I began to wonder if how I would even make my way into place, without some awkwardness....

Am I cool enough to find the bar?  And will I know the password to get in?

I crossed the street, not really sure where to go.  But as I started to text my friend, I noticed a little sign for "Wednesday's Pie"-the supposed front for Green Russell.  Noting that this general area can be full of d-bags-especially on weekends, I wondered what to expect inside.

Well, I doubt anybody gave HIM the secret password.  So if he gets in, I'm cool.

Once you pass through "Wednesday's Pie" (which apparently is open only on Wednesdays and only serves pies), people in Great Depression-era clothing meet you in front of a door that looks like a service entry to a kitchen.  As they lead you in the bar, you can see that this is a well-executed re-creation, from the copper ceiling to the old-timey but classy bar, replete with apothecary shelf (Vanilla cardamom, random extracts, bitters).  Cool bar, cool seats, newspaper boy hats on young mostly male servers wearing ties.... Well, you get the picture.  The place was very well done, very hip and sophisticated but comfortable at the same time.

Dear Apple, please release the iPhone 5 so that us 3GS users can stop taking crappy pictures in low lighting......

Apothecary, featuring hard to get items like eye of newt, tongue of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog....

We sat down around a table that faced the bar.  The bartender, in a smart vest and a throwback getup (which mildly suggested he may play stand-up bass for an Avett Brothers knock-off band in town) walked from around the bar to get our order.  I asked for suggestions that include bourbon, and he asked a lot of questions to determine what type of cocktail I was really looking for.  We settled on a simple concoction of bitters, a freshly chipped piece of block ice, and a glass of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 Year, frequently regarded as the best bourbon whiskey in the world.  I took particular interest in the crafting of the drinks, partially because my idea of spending $15 at happy hour for dinner and drinks was going out the window with this one libation alone, and partially because if I spend $12 on a drink, there should be a damned good story to go along with it).  Our bartender, Matt, obliged with the storytelling and even raised the bar with the well-executed infusion of flaming orange zest. 

                              No, it's not a Flaming Dr. Pepper.

The drink was delicious.  I'm a weirdo about different types of ice, and the block ice interacted wonderfully with the twenty year-old bourbon.  For a spirit this good, I don't recommend adding too much of anything, so a touch of bitters and a kiss of burnt citrus zest was just subtle enough to not get in the way of the wheat-based bourbon's aged flavour.  Letting the drink roll around in my mouth, I could taste the influence of a lot of ingredients dance around.  It was definitely a treat for my taste buds.  About that time, my stomach started begging me for dinner, but I wanted to take my time with the cocktail, so the four of us at the table all ordered small plates or small snacks.  I ordered the pigs in the blanket, which consisted of a piece of tender pork belly in a puff pastry with three mustard-based dipping sauces.  I got a picture of the dish, but it was too dark and the image didn't do the "pigs" justice.  The stuffed mushrooms were filled with pork, herbs, and Gruyere cheese.  I'm not the biggest mushroom fan, but I had more than one.  Other small plate items included a decadent smoked Trout spread and baguettes, and paper-thin sliced aged ham with tiny biscuits and some type of out of this world jelly spread....

             Okay, let's say it together.  Yummmmmmm.......

The small plates were $6 to $13, I believe.  The portions are small, but the attention to detail is impressive.  The service is a little more personal than the average bar, but it can be slow sometimes when things get busy.  It bears mentioning that they have a few quirky rules, but they don't get in the way of a good time, and probably keep miscreants out:  Cell phone use is limited to only in the designated phone booth and there's no standing around (to be served a drink, you must be at the bar, or at a table or booth).  Oh, and make sure you make reservations-even for one drink.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

There's no way that most of us could afford to be a regular at this bar, and filling up your gullet at Green Russell would cost a fortune.  I personally left there lighter in the wallet and still hungry, but at least with a sophisticated little buzz.  Afterward, we left and I spent the most money I've ever spent on a Mexican entree.  Perhaps that's a blog entry for another day.  Back to the speakeasy- if you want to take a date to a hip place, impress a friend from out of town, have a drink before or after dinner, or if you're just seeking refuge from the roving gangs of toolbags in LoDo, I'd recommend checking out this interesting trip to yesteryear and relaxing for a bit!  And, if you like the way Robert Redford dresses in The Sting, or you've ever fantasized about a Mumford and Sons bandmember serving you a drink, by all means head down there as soon as possible!

*On a side note, I have nothing against the Avett Brothers or Mumford and Sons.  I'm just noting the recent resurgence of love for folky Americana.  I'd love to write about it, but I don't think I can do any better at summarizing my views about the bands than this article.  Read the whole article; it is absolutely hilarious.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

One of the coolest things about Denver is the palpable sense of history.  Last week, we decided to capture some frontier essence and eat somewhere legendary.  I thought about it for a few minutes and realized that it was time to visit the oldest bar in the town, My Brother's Bar.  Originally established in 1873 as Highland House, MBB has been pouring drinks continuously for almost 140 years.

The real claim to fame, though, is the former clientele.  The bar was known as the local watering hole for two of most prominent figures from the Beat Generation, Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac.  Cassady, a Denver native, was the inspiration for Kerouac's On the Road (and later, the Grateful Dead's "The Other One" and "Cassidy.") Supposedly, they lived off greasy burgers served in wax paper, and ran up tabs in the dark, unmarked bar. 

So what can you expect, these days? We drove down to the River District, an area gentrified in the last decade.  The REI flagship store is down the block, and the hip restaurants of Highland right up the hill.  My Brother's Bar, though, involves no fanfare-there's not even a sign outside to let you know what you're getting into. When you walk inside, you witness a non-pretentious remnant of yesteryear, including a menu that hasn't changed in eons.  A nostalgic, slightly musty smell adds to the ambiance, and with a beautiful old bar and employees in ties, you realize that you're not in the hip new fusion spot that popped up on the corner.  I would call it "Sophisticated simplicity."  A quaint, dimly lit beer garden begs you to sit outside, but on this chilly June evening, we elected to soak up the atmosphere and sit inside near the bar and check out the highly-regarded pub fare.

The beer list is rather short-but that's fine when you've got good ones on draught.  We ordered a pitcher of Odell's IPA and waited for the burgers to arrive.  I ordered the Johnny Burger, which featured three cheeses and onions.  My girlfriend ordered the JCB, which stands for Jalapeno Cream Cheese Burger.  You couldn't go wrong either way.   Every meal comes with a condiment tray- an impressive box that will allow you to dress up your burger anyway you see fit.  We ordered fries and onion rings to accompany the meal, but frankly they were sidenotes to the amazing burgers.  Now these burgers are not going to wow anyone with gourmet twists; they will hit you instead with simple, in-your-face goodness.  The talking ceased, the burgers disappeared, and instead of dessert we opted for a pitcher of Fuller's London Pride (unexpected surprise of a session beer!)  Anyway, with our stomachs full, we vowed to return-SOON.

Now I hate to read reviews where people compare apples to oranges-the service is slow in this type of bar.  If you want fast, friendly service, go to Outback or Chili's.  If you want one of the best (if not THE best) burgers in Denver-and authenticity and a sense of place mean something to you, then go to My Brother's Bar and order a pitcher of beer and kick back.  Better yet, let me know and I'll go with you.  The food will arrive soon enough, and believe me-when it gets there, it'll be worth it.