As an achievement in design, Steuben's is unparalleled. No hackneyed, cliched or sardonic architectural detail was spared in the construction of this physical love letter to a time not too long gone when wood-veneer paneling and vinyl-covered steel-tube chairs were the height of de mode fashion. Every angle in the front bar and dining room, every curvilinear jigsaw piece of the place, is evocative of the old East Coast family restaurants where so many of us transplants to Denver grew up.
In fact, Steuben's is named after a beloved Boston establishment opened by Josh Wolkon's great-uncles Max and Joe back in 1945. The 2006 Steuben's was brought to life over months and years by Wolkon, his wife, Jen, and chef Matt Selby, the same folks who brought us Vesta Dipping Grill -- and though it opened just a few months ago, from certain perspectives, the effect of the restaurant's architecture is so startling that it can cause a kind of whiplash nostalgia in those overly susceptible to flights of hometown melancholy. Like me, for example. And apparently Selby and Wolkon, as well.
I was standing out by the front door one Friday night having a cigarette between courses (exiled, along with the other smokers, from the side patio). I had my back to the building and was staring off down 17th Avenue, contemplating the heavy bowl of cioppino waiting for me. And when I turned to head back inside, I saw the way the low-slung roof hung over the door on brown posts set too close together, spotted the petal-backed aluminum lawn chairs set on the cement in front and, through the window, caught a glimpse of the counter with its boxes of Black Jack gum and Bit-O-Honeys, the elbow of the bar with the bottles ranked behind it -- and I instantly flashed back to a thousand nights at the Princess Diner, the All-Star, the Royal, the Olympic and Tom's; to the dinners I had at those places with my family when I still ordered off menus that doubled as placemats and colored pictures with those awful, cheap waxy crayons sold by the case to restaurant owners; to breakfasts eaten quickly before work, lunchtime burgers and hot ham sandwiches, and late-nights when the greasy onion rings and fries bathed in instant brown gravy were the only things standing between me and a date with a field sobriety test.
If the owners of Steuben's invested a lot of effort and (arguable) genius into the physical design of the space, they worked even harder and longer on the design of the menu. The idea was to provide the food not just of a single American gastronomic region, or even of a few, but of all of them. For almost a year, the staff and crew had meetings every Tuesday during which they would sample potential dishes -- multiple versions of chocolate truck-stop cake and fried chicken and Chicago hot dogs and green-chile cheeseburgers. Employees who'd ever been anywhere else -- or, better yet, lived there -- were brought in as expert witnesses, made to taste version after version of the foods that were native to their home towns, then aid in the refinement of those foods until a single, consensual version was reached. Selby and Wolkon took scouting trips, hunting for Monte Cristo sandwiches and lobster rolls and barbecue, eating their way through the most recognizable and renowned food regions of America, always on the lookout and trying to bag the ideal relleno, étouffée or lobster bisque.
And when they were done with all that, they wrote a menu.
And when they were done with the menu, they opened the doors.
And when they opened the doors, all of the flaws in their concept suddenly appeared.
For example: With this concept, the apex of talent and skill, the level to which they're ultimately striving, is to copycat to the molecule a cuisine, a style, a single dish that's already been perfected somewhere else over generations. And that's good. That's as noble a goal as any in this weird industry. But you know who else does the same trick? Every chain restaurant in the country. They make brownies just like Mom used to, then stick sparklers and American flags in them and charge you $7.99. They make toothless scampi and chemically altered french fries and iceberg-wedge salads that have been tested, fucked with and focus-grouped until they appeal to the broadest swath of eaters, echoing most truly their personal conceptions of what a scampi, a french fry or an iceberg salad ought to taste like. Conceptually, if everything worked right and everyone in the dining room was happy, Steuben's would become a very expensive, very over-managed urban Applebee's.
Luckily, Steuben's hasn't yet seen a single night where the kitchen hasn't pissed off someone. So far, it has managed to stay on the right side of the razor-thin line that separates honest, down-to-earth comfort from the unchallenging, anesthetizing drivel of riblets and fried cheese. But flirting along that comfort-food line invites a new set of problems. Make the food just right, and people will say things like, "Those deviled eggs taste just like the deviled eggs I make at home, so why would I pay someone else to make them for me?"
Of course they taste just like the deviled eggs you make at home. That's the point -- especially if you happen to live in the basement of a Southern Baptist church known for its picnics. And if the deviled eggs don't taste like the ones you make at home, you might be even more irritated. Everyone is going to be enraged by something on this menu, angered by the brisket, the baked clams or the green-chile cheeseburger because their idea of brisket, baked clams or a green-chile cheeseburger is something very different from what's served at Steuben's.
I am one of those people. I've already had the greatest green-chile cheeseburger in the world. As a matter of fact, I've had several of them -- all eaten in the place where the green-chile cheeseburger was probably invented, made by the granddaughter of the man who invented it. At the Owl Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico, the ideal green-chile cheeseburger involves a slap-dash stack of grilled, fresh-ground beef, cheese and (this is the important part) New Mexican green chiles, roasted and skinned and dumped on top. The sweet heat of the New Mexican chile is a singular thing, matching perfectly the bloody, savory weight of the burger, the blandness of the cheese and mayonnaise, the crunch of shredded lettuce and onions.
And Steuben's gets almost everything right with its version, except the chiles are spicy, not hot, and they have no undertone of fruity sweetness. They are simply wrong. My absolute, unshakable conviction that the Owl's green-chile cheeseburgers are the best anywhere is a matter of highly specific regional preference; I am adamant about this, but I'm just one person. And at the table next to mine one Saturday night, I watched a restaurant guy I know by reputation chew through two of the cheeseburgers with a totally blissed-out smile on his face, so obviously transported by the mix of flavors that he wasn't going to say one damn word against Steuben's faulty research or poor choice in chiles.
Just as I'm not going to say one damn word against the cheesesteaks here, which I love because the kitchen makes them with Cheez Whiz (or its version of Cheez Whiz, anyway), and the result is so salty and gooey and fall-apart delicious that I have to order them in multiples, because one is never enough. I also love the flaky, light, honey-sweet biscuits and the real mashed potatoes and the icy sweet tea and the notion of the skillet-cooked, pan-fried chicken, even if the kitchen (which is getting crushed every night of the week by standing-room-only crowds) can't yet seem to get it right. The chicken is always too dry -- a simple matter of the crust being too thin to keep the juices inside where they belong when the breasts and legs are introduced to the brutal heat of a smoking-hot pan.
The gravy fries, topped with broiler-melted cheese, are amazing, murderous, a pitch-perfect memorial to the days when gravy was a health food and melting cheese on top of anything just made it classy. The crabcakes are faithful copies of those done in places where crabcakes aren't a gourmet delicacy, but a way to jazz up leftovers -- more crab croquettes than anything, presented simply with lemon, cocktail and tartar sauce. The lobster roll may be a great sandwich, with big chunks of beautifully done tail meat in a whip of salted mayonnaise touched with paprika, slapped down thick and heavy on a firm, flat-grilled butter roll. It may be the best lobster-salad sandwich ever. But I prefer an even simpler version: the boat-trash roll with boiled lobster piled naked on the same kind of bun, dressed only with lemon or maybe a dash of vinegar, then half-wrapped in a waxed-paper cone and eaten walking.
On a Monday night, I hit Steuben's takeout counter (which also offers a not-yet-perfected curbside pickup service) and got a North Carolina-style pork barbecue sandwich on grilled white bread, topped with a generous helping of dry, red-cabbage coleslaw and a mustard/vinegar sauce powerful enough to drop my jaw. This is a sandwich straight from the shacks of the mid-eastern seaboard, a derivative that anyone who grew up on Carolina 'cue would know on sight. I also got a Cuban sandwich, and I have no idea where it came from. The pressed roll is authentic, as are the thick-cut ham and Swiss cheese. But the addition of the same smoked, pulled pork that's on the Carolina sandwich is so far from any version I recognize (even after living for a year in Tampa and subsisting almost entirely on Cuban sandwiches and beer) that I can only guess this oddity is a sop to the kitchen's food cost, getting double duty out of the labor-intensive (and very tasty) slow-smoked pork.
Still, the most telling dish on the menu is one that few people are likely to ever order: the side of baby vegetables. I tried it for the first (and last) time on a Friday night, sitting across from my visiting parents on the brown vinyl seats in Steuben's main dining room. The floor was packed with young couples, families, kids, neighbors, milling groups of singles, hipsters and yuppies, all breaking bread in peace. I was plowing through a Maryland crab boil (almost two pounds of king crab, boiled red-skin potatoes and sadly overcooked corn on the cob), drinking Kentucky small-batch bourbon and looking forward to a plate of frosted cupcakes for dessert when, almost absently, I reached out and speared a chunk of pattypan squash from the bowl of baby vegetables in the middle of the table.
Now, there are hundreds of ways the kitchen could have prepared these vegetables -- good ways and bad ways and plenty of ways in between. But it chose the absolute worst: marinating and holding them in what amounts to lukewarm, generic Italian dressing. This is an awful preparation -- sour and viscous and heavy and abysmal -- and also, to me, exactly right. One bite and I was ten years old again, out for dinner with my parents at some upstate, cut-rate family diner where all of the vegetables were done this way, served with no expectation of anyone ever eating them, preserved in their goop (and my memory) forever.
It couldn't have been a mistake. It had to be deliberate -- proof of a dedication to regional flavors so deep that even the bad ones are copied with obsessive precision, evidence of Wolkon and Selby's undying loyalty to American culinary arcana.
I forced myself to chew, to swallow, to listen with my eyes closed to my dad telling a story about my little brother back in Rochester. And though I hated every nuance of that bite of squash, no one would have known it to look at me, because I was so happy to be ten again, even if only for a moment, that my smile stretched ear to ear.
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