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The man with the cart at the corner of 13th Avenue and Broadway sure sells a tasty Cuban sandwich. The bread is made with lard instead of oil or butter, so it has a crunchy exterior and a chewy interior. Between the pressed slices are strips of marinated pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles. A rare delicacy here in Denver.
But the towering vendor who wears a miniature beanie and cut-off slacks and answers his customers' questions with a "sir" or "ma'am" is more than just an anonymous member of the city's cart brigade. He's Eric Bachmann, leader of the idiosyncratic '90s rock band Archers of Loaf.
Bachmann moved to Denver last year to be with his girlfriend, though he wasn't a total stranger to the city. When touring with his post-Archers band, Crooked Fingers, he was always welcomed by Scott Campbell — then booker for the 15th Street Tavern, now owner of the Larimer Lounge — and could usually be found drinking comfortably at the bar well before taking the stage. "I had a show here every six months for like three years," he says. "Scott was always hooking me up, which made me feel welcome here."
Once he had arrived and began really getting to know the city, Bachmann quickly noticed an absence of Cuban sandwich shops. Having worked in restaurants almost as long as he's been making music, he decided he'd like to open one of his own. He saw the cart as a way to test the market. His friends in DeVotchKa and their manager, Rob Thomas, helped set him up with his first sandwich shift, which was, ironically, in front of the Fillmore during an Elvis Costello concert. He doesn't work the post often: "It's drunk people coming out wanting hot dogs. I don't want to sell hot dogs. I'll do it, but I want to sell Cuban sandwiches."
Bachmann developed a taste for the sandwiches as a kid growing up around Tampa Bay — though the best he's ever had were in Key West. "If you take a Cuban sandwich back to Cuba, most of the people there are like, 'Eeeeeh.' The expats know, but really it's more Florida than it is Cuba."
He learned how to bake the bread from a cook he worked with at a restaurant — but he's changed the recipe to address being a mile high. "I put more lard in it, and I put it in at a different time," he says. "He'd put it in right away, and I put it in at the end. Baking is a weird thing, and it's hard here because the altitude is so high."
Working Tuesdays through Fridays (and the occasional Monday) from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Bachmann sells his Cuban sandwiches for $5, with a smaller version on sweet egg bread — the Medianoche, or "midnight snack" — going for $3.50. His first day at the Broadway location, he made $36.
Business has picked up — he has regulars from the Colorado History Museum, the Public Library and the ING Building — but it's unpredictable. "The customers and the baking are great; the work's great. It's the city that's a pain. I'm legal as can be, [but] they keep poking me in the balls. And it's not just me — I've talked to other vendors.... There's always someone coming up and asking, 'Do you have your license?'"
He's also a tad worried about his spot, because for the rest of the summer, he'll be playing select dates around the country opening for Neko Case. "[The city] wants you to work at least two days a week, and all of a sudden I won't be there," he says. "Other people that want to vend might get upset. I'm hoping that I'll be back enough that I can work when I'm home."
Eventually, Bachmann hopes to open a storefront to sell his sandwiches. He doesn't have a location yet — he's fond of South Broadway near the hi-dive — but he does know for sure that he wants to rip off the loncherías popular in Miami and Puerto Rico, where people order food and Cuban coffee (a strong shot of espresso with a lot of sugar) at a bar and then sit on a smattering of patio furniture for as long as they like. "The kind of place where old Cuban expats just sit and gossip and read the paper and drink coffee and eat sandwiches," he says.
Planning out his shop and working his cart are a welcome break from the stresses of touring for a living. "I met a nice girl, and I decided I didn't want to be dead when I was fifty," he says.
Focusing on the moment is something he taught himself while living in Seattle for a few transitional months before settling in Denver. He slept in a loft bed that he built in the back of his van — the same one he now hauls his cart around in. Once he stopped going to bars and smoothed out a few other kinks, he developed a system: Wake up every morning and head to the Y to exercise and shower, then go and sit by the water for a few hours before returning to the van in the early afternoon to write music until late at night. Much of the material from his days and nights in the van became his first proper solo record, Off to the Races, which was released by Saddle Creek last year to rounds of praise.