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That is, if they haven't already been laid low by the meatloaf. A signature menu item at Bang!, the meatloaf may have been great seven years ago, but now is no better than a hundred other slabs I've had at a hundred other nice places still trying to coast with comfort food. With that first meal, I also had an unfortunate order of shoestring fries that started out fine -- with crisp frites hot out of the oil, tossed with coarse salt -- but were wrecked when the kitchen got the bright idea of adding cracked black pepper and a bunch of dry herbs. The result was a plate of good fries covered in cracked black pepper and green stuff -- the latter doing nothing whatsoever to improve the former. As my hillbilly friend Mikey would have said, putting a pig in a dress don't make it okay to take her out on a Friday night, because no matter how pretty the dress is, at the end of the night, you're still gonna end up kissing a pig in a dress. Mikey (who has kissed his fair share of pigs) probably wouldn't have liked those fries. I know I didn't. And so, no, my first visit to Bang! did not end with one.
But that was just one meal on one night, and each time I returned, I found myself liking the restaurant more and more. I liked the quirky atmosphere and easygoing service. Even more, I liked the fact that (meatloaf aside) the food coming out of the Bang! kitchen -- which sits at the front of the house like a fishbowl full of cooks, with two big windows that open onto the street -- was exactly the kind of stuff you would have gotten from a very good neighborhood restaurant in the days before customers came to expect caviar garnishing the foie gras on top of their truffle salad and warm milk and cotton candy for dessert. A dish of wickedly hot pepper shrimp over fluffy jasmine rice, delivered on a plate inked with squiggles of bright-orange and blazing mango-habanero sauce, then topped with a cooling mango-pepper-red-onion salsa fresca, brought back the half-brilliant but amateurish enthusiasm of the early-'90s bistro scene, when every cook on a level below that of Jean-Louis Palladin (and everyone was on a level below Jean-Louis back then, whether they knew it or not) thought that all they needed to change the world was a squeeze bottle full of garlic mojo and a dream. The dish wasn't perfect -- the salsa mixed very fresh mango with some chunks that weren't as pristine -- but the bright heat, sharp flavors and carefully thrown-together look of the plate saved the pepper shrimp from devolving into a gooey, sickly palm-tree fusion, elevating it instead to a delicious history lesson.
3472 W. 32nd Ave.
Denver, CO 80211
Region: Northwest Denver
Braised short ribs: $14
Roasted chicken: $13
Pepper shrimp: $14
Excellent, creamy whipped spuds are used to mount a good percentage of the plates on Bang!'s short but sweet menu. They came with the tender braised short ribs, spiked with whole garlic, braised carrots and onions, as well, all swimming in a puddle of wine-fortified pan sauce. The roasted chicken -- four skin-on breast and leg pieces -- arrived leaning against a mound of the same, this time swamped by a rich, silky mushroom, bacon and shallot white gravy. The kitchen had taken care with that chicken, seasoning the skin with salt and pepper, then roasting the pieces just enough that the skin got crisp around the edges, but not so much that the fat sizzled away into a smear of grease in the bottom of the sheet pan. An equal measure of talent had also gone into the gravy, which had a rough-edged hominess with its chunky bits of bacon and mushroom and deep, Southern-fried soul of roasted-chicken-back stock. This wasn't some jumped-up, overly fussy nouveau preparation with all of its flavors blended down into an onion-scented bacon cloud, or baby food dressed in the trappings of haute cuisine: It was just gravy in every wonderful, beautiful cream-and-butter-soaked sense of the word.
Food like this -- not new American, but old American, done well and spotted here and there with diversions and digressions interesting enough to elevate it safely above the slack-jawed simplicity or groveling sappiness of the down-home comfort-food grind -- is important because it balances the scales between the lightning glitz and puffery of places really pushing the culinary envelope, like Adega, Vega and Vesta, and all those nameless others that would gleefully charge us $20 for a jar of Gerber baby food and a silver spoon to eat it with if that's what Gourmet said was the new big trend. Bang! is a valuable reminder that there were once restaurants that existed solely to serve good food at reasonable prices to people who wanted to eat well before eating well became such a rigorously intellectual endeavor. And that there was still life in the American kitchen in those days Before Frisee.
Finally, dessert. Not milk and cookies, but a simple thick, warm square of fresh gingerbread, gently flavored with ginger, attended only by a delicate fall of cold, house-made whipped cream. It came to the table perfectly moist and squishy, so that after I'd devoured every bite, I could go back and mash all the little leftover crumbs back together into one last taste. And yeah, that was childish, but it was me catering to my inner child, not the kitchen, and that made all the difference.
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