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.

My Thai snapper ($12.95) strongly resembled a Thai chicken and vegetable stir fry ($10.95). Since there were only three other customers condemned to eating at Alcatraz that night, our waiter was huddling behind the rocks instead of paying attention to us. I finally flagged down another waiter and sent the dish back. Exactly thirteen minutes later, our waiter appeared with the correct entree, said "Sorry 'bout that," set the plate down and walked away. While the fish was well-cooked, the dish wasn't anything to get excited about. The stir-fry vegetables were the standard-issue red and green bell pepper, yellow squash and zucchini strips, in a nebulous sauce that was a little sweet and a little spicy, but not enough of either. And the "Thai" in the dish's name certainly didn't refer to the "caramelized onion rice," which was nothing more than standard short-grain white rice mixed with brown-sugary onions that still had their crunch.

By the time the fish arrived, we'd already eaten our fill of fettuccine jambalaya ($12.95). (Go ahead and laugh--we did when we ordered it.) Jambalaya is supposed to be a Creole rice dish, but, thank heavens, no rice appeared in this entree. Instead, fettuccine--and lots of it--was topped with andouille sausage, a few decent shrimp, more tough chicken and a Creole sauce that fortunately tasted like the sausage, the best thing in this concoction.

If the inmates at Alcatraz had been forced to eat this stuff, there would have been quite an uprising.

Across the shiny car roofs--their backs glistening in the sun like seals--crammed into the ocean-sized parking lot that surrounds Park Meadows, across County Line Road, there's a beacon of good taste. Walnut Brewery had the decency to quietly set up shop last summer without resorting to any goofy promotional gimmicks, and instead just started pouring beer and dishing out good gourmet bar food.

And people are clamoring to get in. So what is Walnut Brewery doing right? Everything.

For starters, the staffers felt bad about the lengthy wait, and so they offered us diversions. Beer? Crayons and paper for the kids? Appetizers at the bar? And after we finally were seated, they proceeded to provide excellent service up until the minute we exited the place.

The dishes here are comfortably priced and amply portioned for the average Monday-night-football-watching Joe (about the only characteristic that Walnut shares with Alcatraz). A platter of onion slivers ($4.75) was too much even for four adults and two kids, and we were all over those great, greasy strips of buttermilk-battered and deep-fried onion. We also devoured Walnut's homemade, scallion-flecked beer bread, scouring every bit of the incredibly rich Asiago cheese dip ($6.75), an outstanding version of a recipe that's become a staple of many bar menus. The crawfish quesadilla ($6.75) was more unusual and delicious to boot, with lots of mild, melted cheese holding the marbles of parsley-sweetened crawfish meat between flour tortillas.

Walnut introduces no earth-shattering innovations, but a few twists kept us interested. For instance, the tenderloin with roasted garlic ($18.50) boasted garlic cloves stuffed inside the smoky meat, which arrived coated with a thick gorgonzola cream sauce spiked with Jack Daniels. The honey chicken sandwich ($7.75) featured thick slices of killer smokehouse bacon, which went well with the honey mustard-soaked grilled breast. Chicken also starred in the ribs-and-chicken combo ($13.50). Although the dry-rubbed ribs were decent, and even better when we got some sauce on the side, the chicken was way above average, with a deep, barbecued flavor inside and just the right amount of grilled flavor outside.

The alder-smoked salmon ($15.75)--the alder's a tree in the birch family, by the way--also benefited from judicious grilling. The fish came with mashed potatoes so full of white cheddar cheese that even my daughter could taste it as she gobbled them up. She was delighted with her kids' meal, too (as the child of a food critic, she's just about had it with the usual hotdog-cheap-pizza-lousy-spaghetti roster): an order of salmon and chips ($2.95) brought three big chunks of salmon deep-fried in a thick batter and a mound of fries.

After all that, we wound up taking home most of our humongous desserts: decadent stout cheesecake ($3.95) and dense, moist carrot cake ($4.25). But first we polished off a few brewskis ($3.50 per pint). The Devil's Thumb Stout was a bit mild for me, but the St. James Irish Red Ale and the Old Elk Brown Ale were superior versions. And like the rest of our meal, they were completely satisfying.

Escape from Alcatraz, all right, and do some time at Walnut Brewery instead.

Walnut Brewery, 9627 East County Line Road, Englewood, 792-9090. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.

Alcatraz Brewing Co., 8405 Park Meadows Center Drive, Littleton, 649-1144. Hours: 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.


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