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Behind Bars

The area surrounding the "retail resort" of Park Meadows has sprouted buildings like so many landscape pimples over the past year. And each time one of them erupted into a restaurant, the dining-starved residents of the south burbs flocked to it like frat boys to a kegger.

In this microbrew-obsessed state, it soon became obvious that what was missing from the ski-lodge-on-steroids setting was a brewpub or two. Lo and behold, two opened within a few months of each other. One is the second location of an upscale bar/eatery already well-established in Boulder. The other bills itself as "a unique restaurant-brewery with a lighthearted prison theme"--and it's a crime, all right.

Not surprisingly, the Walnut Brewery, featuring the same menu and the same beer as the Boulder original, has been packed since day one, with an hour or more wait on the weekends and at least a half-hour wait during peak times on weekdays. The other brewpub, Alcatraz Brewing Co., had exactly twelve diners during prime time one recent Saturday and even fewer during a weeknight visit. And Alcatraz even has access from inside the mall, which normally provides a captive audience.

So what is Alcatraz doing wrong? Everything.
The service was so laughable that we wished someone would lock up the waitstaff and throw away the key--we wouldn't have seen our waiters any less. And there oughta be a law against serving such cheap, lame knockoffs of real food: Alcatraz obviously had more time and money to spend on the "lighthearted prison theme" than it did on recipes.

And spend it must have, because the place is filled with the not-exactly-appetizing Alcatraz motif: enlarged photos of infamous prisoners such as the Bird Man and Al Capone, steel bars everywhere, a nearly life-sized three-dimensional replica of two convicts escaping by boat, a lighthouse, and an enormous set of fake boulders that hide the kitchen. (Too bad they didn't seal it off entirely.) There are even bullet holes in the telephone booth.

The decor is so silly that it's hard to believe Alcatraz shares parentage--California Cafe Restaurant Corporation out of Marin County, California--with the ultra-chic California Cafe upstairs at Park Meadows. But while the Cafe at least has some class, the brewpub has badly executed papier-mache seagulls hanging from wires overhead.

Perhaps one of the birds fell into our order of buffalo chicken tenders ($5.95). The chicken strips were so dry they might have been cardboard, and they absorbed nothing of the thick, gloppy barbecue sauce whose only resemblance to anything "buffalo" was its odd, musty smell. The blue-cheese dipping sauce had been either watered down or ladled into a wet dish; a ring of water around the rim kept breaking the dip into curds. Hey, if we'd wanted bread and water, we would have ordered it. We tried to concentrate on a cup of chicken gumbo ($2.95), but it packed so much heat, it was hard to tell if there was any real flavor lurking inside.

The list of transgressions kept getting longer. An Alcatraz mixed salad with tomatoes ($3.95) came with ranch dressing instead of the promised beer-honey mustard vinaigrette; when I pointed out the mistake to the waiter, he responded, "Oh, that dressing's better, anyway," and walked away. There was supposed to be honey mustard on the overcooked pork chops ($14.95), too, but we couldn't taste it. We had no problem discerning that the side of pear chutney was spoiling for a death sentence, because the pears had that tangy, past-their-prime flavor, and the chutney didn't look so good, either. When I told the waiter, he said, "Aw, man," and took the plate back to the kitchen. He returned with the same plate, still bearing the skid marks of scraped-off chutney. "Sorry, we're out of the pear chutney," he said, and walked away, shaking his head. Well, the maple-whipped yams were good.

The other entree, Honor Farm-raised grilled salmon ($14.95)--is anyone else tired of knowing the specific location of their food's death?--was overcooked, too, but there was a bite right in the center of the fillet that was perfect. The lemon-butter sauce was way heavy on the lemon, and the dry, cottony texture of the pesto mashed potatoes led me to believe they'd been sitting in a hot place for a while. An electric chair, perhaps?

Although we ate very little of either dish, our waiter was in no mood for trouble. He whisked the plates away and brought the check without even asking if we wanted dessert or a refill on our beers, neither of which was very impressive. (The Weiss Guy Wheat was served with a lemon to give it some flavor, and the Penitentiary Porter was too sweet.)

A different miserable waiter monitored our second visit. Still, things started off all right: The jalapeno poppers ($6.95) tasted like the mild peppers had been freshly coated with breadcrumbs, then fried flawlessly until the outside turned golden and the cheese inside started oozing. From then on, though, it was hard time. Accompanying the poppers was an Asian slaw that consisted of nothing but shredded cabbage and carrots--no discernible dressing or spices--and the mango pepper "jam" was simply diced fresh mangoes tossed with diced fresh peppers.

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