By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Just go ahead and sit anywhere, guys. We'll find you."
Happy hour at the Stout Pub. Cheap drafts and well drinks at recession-friendly prices, soggy blue corn nachos and an appetizer lineup borrowing heavily from the Midwestern "Everybody loves fried cheese!" school of menu design. Behind the bar, bottles lined up in orderly parade formation like soldiers ready for review: Scotch here, whiskey there -- serious booze for serious drinkers, with little real estate given over to the kid stuff, the trendy schnapps and fruity, rainbow-colored concoctions made for young drinkers still getting inexpertly shitfaced.
As we step from the greasy, gray, post- industrial gloom of Stout Street into the warm antique womb of the pub, we're followed by two hideously efficient-looking businesswomen in identical black suits and black high-heeled shoes. Uniquely 21st-century creatures, they are liberally greased for a frictionless move up the corporate ladder, with gleaming complexions that make it look as though they buff their cheekbones every morning with an angle grinder. They stalk confidently around the early-twentieth-century space, staking out two stools at the end of the bar, bristling like childless she-wolves, and commence saying loud, awful things about their co-workers and the "sorry state of the fucking world" as evidenced by the CNN ticker spewing doom from the two big TVs suspended over the bar.
Denver, CO 80203
Region: Central Denver
Mozzarella sticks: $6
Pub wings: $5.25
Sampler platter: $7.25
Red chili con carne or green chile: $2.75/$5.25
Pub burger: $5.50
Stout hearty burger: $8.25
Chicken burrito: $6.25
Philly cheesesteak: $6.25
Chicken salad sandwich: $5.25
"The bartender says we're out of Corona." Our waitress -- young, personable and pretty, more suited to the college-bar roofie-and-Jägermeister scene than this recently recovered downtown dive -- shrugs. "Can I getcha something else?"
I have a personal policy against mixing hard liquor with haute cuisine -- it kills the tastebuds quicker than a shot of kerosene -- but one look at the menu tells me I am in no danger here. The offerings are cuisine basse, as far from haute as water from wine, so I switch to my fallback position: whiskey, in great quantity, sweetened with a little Coke. I am working, after all...
"Deep-fried pickles," says a red-faced man with a giant boiled ham of a head poking out from the collar of his dusty IBEW Local 68 jacket to no one in particular. "What're them?" The ladies sitting a few stools away ignore him. The bartender -- young, like the waitress, and too pretty himself for a bar that looks like it ought to be manned by a one-armed ex- railroad brakeman named Chester -- tells the union man that they are pickles. Deep-fried. The union man harumphs and orders another beer instead. Pabst Blue Ribbon. Draft. I didn't even know they made that anymore.
Deep-fried pickles are a new thing for me. They're not a new thing in the Midwest, though, where the prevailing theory is that any food item that can fit in a Fryolator will be dramatically improved by coating it in breadcrumbs or batter and then frying the living hell out of it. "It" can be anything from cheese to hard-boiled eggs, and kosher dill-pickle spears fall comfortably within those parameters. My wife is horrified at the mere thought of abusing a perfectly good pickle in such a manner, but I order the fried pickles anyway, along with fried onion rings, fried mozzarella sticks, fried chicken wings and french fries.
A healthy human being has a serum cholesterol level of somewhere under 200. My heart pumps pure lard.
My wife orders the chicken-salad sandwich on marbled rye, the only remotely healthy thing on the menu that isn't a salad, but the waitress tells her there's no chicken salad; it went bad. It says something about the Stout's clientele that the chicken salad sat around long enough to go bad; it says more about the owners that the staff is so honest. Instead, my wife orders a Philly cheesesteak -- the next-healthiest thing, obviously.
Everything arrives at the table nicely done, golden brown and accompanied by the necessary accoutrements. Even the Philly cheese-steak comes on a golden-brown toasted baguette -- which both the wife and I agree is a little too Suzy-foo-foo for such a basic, workingman's sandwich -- but that baguette is loaded down with tender shaved steak that's charred along the edges, melted provolone, mushrooms, grilled onions and green peppers. Although in downtown Philadelphia a real Philly is just "steak and Whiz" -- meaning grill-black shaved sirloin and Cheez Whiz -- this combo works just fine. The onion rings are beer-battered, crisp, the cheese sticks breaded and served with a homemade "Italian dipping sauce" that's chunky red and thick with tomatoes but terribly bitter from too much dried oregano out of the bottle. The tasty wings are offered in only one variety -- hot -- and the sauce whipped up in the kitchen tastes like one half Frank's Red Hot, one quarter barbecue and one quarter movie-theater popcorn butter mixed, inexplicably, with more oregano.
The pickles have been breaded with crumbs kicked up with a liberal inclusion of dill; they are soft and piping hot, and they come with a side of spicy mustard. I like them. A lot. Something about their inherent, greasy strangeness speaks to the rust-belt fat kid buried inside me.