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A Pizza the Action

If you thought Lower Downtown didn't need another hangout, stop by Wazoos on Wazee some Friday night and watch as hundreds of people jostle for elbow room. Where were they before this cavernous beer/pool/music hall opened in October?

The answer can't be that they were frequenting another LoDo hot spot, because a quick tour finds those places just as packed. Clean-cut, well-dressed 25- to 35-year-olds must be multiplying like rabbits somewhere.

Which is fine with Dan Shipp. He'd seen just the tip of the market during his two years at the helm of the ten-year-old Spanky's Roadhouse on East Evans. Realizing that they had a good, if small, thing going in south Denver, Shipp and fellow Wazoos partners Matt Fleming and Dave French exported nearly the entire Spanky's operation to Wazee Street. (In the process, they managed to mightily offend the folks at the Wazee Supper Club. Angelo Karagis, proprietor of the LoDo pioneer, claims that Wazoos' name, menu and location are a little too close for comfort. As a result, the two restaurants are locked in a legal battle that Shipp says may take a year to resolve.)

Wazoos does boast one undeniably unique--and crucial--feature: an oak-burning oven that enables the kitchen not only to turn out a fairly respectable pizza, but also to add some fire to the rest of the menu. With this smoking oven, a healthy beer list and a bar the length of a bowling alley, Wazoos is hot.

The service, however, often is not. On weekend nights Wazoos could use several more waiters--and many more chairs. The restaurant has as many as two dozen employees hustling on Fridays and Saturdays, but the demand is simply greater than the supply. Or, as my dazed waiter--who mistakenly thought he'd failed to bring my yummy chocolate milkshake ($2.75) half an hour earlier--said, "I don't know what's going on."

It's all too easy to see what's going on with the food: Much of Wazoos cooking is done in an exposed kitchen. And the cooks are about as thrilled to be under scrutiny as are third-grade boys in a school play; there are a lot of rolled eyes and mouthed swear words that would be better kept behind closed doors--especially if diners aren't supposed to catch on that this kitchen specializes in inconsistency.

The one dish that's never varied (probably because it starts out frozen) is the first thing I tried and now the one thing I crave at Wazoos: jalapeno poppers ($4.95). Six red jalapeno peppers are stuffed with cream cheese, evenly breaded and baked. They pack a mean punch, one hardly cooled by the standard-issue ranch dressing that comes on the side.

Strangely not hot, though, are the atomic shrimp ($5.25). Our first order failed to provide any dipping sauce, and we were quite confused by the appearance of deep-fried shrimp wearing nothing but a light batter and a smattering of breadcrumbs. Once we tasted the sauce, we were less puzzled than disappointed; it's a mild concoction whose supposed fire comes from just a hint of Tabasco. We never did receive the promised creamy blue cheese and celery sticks.

The chicken wings ($4.95 for a small order) featured the same atomic sauce but much more heat--the cook must have poured in the entire bottle of Tabasco this time. Again, no creamy blue cheese or celery sticks were to be found, but we enjoyed the wings too much to miss them.

The only appetizer I've found seriously lacking was the Wazeeecheeese ($4.95), breaded sticks of mozzarella that had a cheap, freezer flavor. They were accompanied by what was supposed to be a spicy marinara sauce, but was noticeably lacking in pepper-infused heat.

Two salads, the Wazeesar ($4.25) and the house salad ($1.95), were large but unexciting. The Caesar dressing was heavy on the mayo and contained no discernible anchovy--a major flaw for serious Caesar fans. The house salad--iceberg lettuce heaped with tomato wedge, cucumber slices and red onions--was topped with a surprisingly strong-flavored honey-mustard dressing whose gummy consistency indicated it hadn't been taken out of the refrigerator and shaken for a while.

Shipp says burgers are his biggest seller, but from the one we tried I'm not sure why. The plain Wazoo burger ($3.75), which the menu claims is "wood grilled to perfection," was well over our medium-rare stipulation and had to be sent back. The new burger was closer to properly cooked, but still a thin, chewy piece of tasteless, if lean, beef. And the oak grilling was barely apparent.

It was all too obvious with the Flemingo chicken ($5.25), which had an unrivaled tenderness and an intense oak-grilled flavor. The flavor was so intense, in fact, that it overpowered the avocado and single slice of Swiss cheese topping the sandwich; fortunately, the two bacon strips offered a nice, salty counterpoint. The burgers and chicken come on either whole wheat bread or a sourdough bun; both tend toward sogginess.

The bread stuff wrapped around the hot dogs, on the other hand, is a hefty, sturdy hoagie roll that does a good job of holding in a mess of fillings. The Denver dog ($2.95) housed a quarter-pound of grilled beef frank covered with green chiles, melted cheddar and a homemade, jalapeno-filled mustard that will leave you howling at the moon.

Although the individual-size pizzas also are heavy on the dough, the oak grilling makes for an airy, crunchy crust filled with bubbles and pockets. The Margherita ($4.95) comes covered with mozzarella and Parmesan, with a sizable amount of garlic and basil thrown in; fresh tomato slices are tucked between the cheese and the olive oil almost like an afterthought rather than the main attraction they are. A bite of tomato with the rest of the toppings is pure heaven, and I could easily have gobbled more than the four slices that make up a small pie.

The same dough is used for Wazoos calzones, which come in four varieties or, like the pizza, can be built from a list of ingredients. Our choice, the Paisan ($5.50), was jam-packed with sausage, pepperoni and freshly cooked mushrooms with lots of mozzarella and Parmesan. On the side was that mild-mannered marinara, over the top a thick layer of more mozzarella. Under that topping, though, we discovered a shiny black coating of very burned calzone. The scorching didn't affect the flavor as much as we feared it would--but it didn't help our attitude any.

After all, man does not live by burned bread alone. If Wazoos wants to attract diners as well as drinkers, the kitchen needs to grow up.

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