This is part one of my interview with Brad Arguello, exec chef of the Über Sausage. Part two of my chat with Arguello will run in this space tomorrow.
"My nickname in college was 'baby bird,'" confesses Brad Arguello. "Apparently, I'd nest in my bed, with my hands splayed across my chest, and I'd wake up hung over, so my friends would put food next to my bed and I'd pick at it," he says, glancing up from the burger he's picking at. The burger -- delivered by one of the kitchen guys at Encore, which squats just down the street from the Über Sausage, the wiener restaurant that Arguello opened in July on East Colfax -- is heaped with caramelized onions, and Arguello is contemplating their presence, much like he ponders how he arrived in the restaurant business.
It all started, he muses, with his dad, one of the original owners of Mataam Fez, a Moroccan restaurant, also on East Colfax. "I used to hang out there all the time when I was growing up, and during the summers, when I was old enough, I'd bus tables and help out wherever he needed me," recounts Arguello. "I got the bug early on, and I was so determined to someday open my own restaurant that, when I was really young, I started a scrapbook of restaurant designs and concepts."
When he got older, Arguello spent several years bartending and rolling sushi in various restaurants and bars in Denver, Boston, Los Angeles and San Diego, feeding his restaurant addiction. "I love everything about restaurants," he says, "from the music and design to the color schemes and bathrooms, and I'm obsessed with all the details that go into building and running a restaurant."
He learned a few tricks of the trade while doing time at the Geisha House in Los Angeles, which just happens to be funded, in part, by Ashton Kutcher. "He paraded around a lot looking hot," jokes Arguello, who admits that he was far more intrigued by the sushi chef than the Hollywood celebrity. "I was bartending, but I started hanging out in the kitchen and with the kitchen staff, and by the time I left, I was rolling a lot of sushi."
But Arguello soon burned out on L.A., so he left the fast lane for San Diego, where he got a gig working at a Polynesian restaurant, first as a bartender, then as a line cook. "I learned how to filet fish, correctly cook sushi rice, which is an art, and work the wok -- I'm sick on the wok," brags Arguello, who also continued to finesse the art of rolling sushi. "I became pretty good at rolling sushi -- not joints, which I also learned how to do in the restaurant industry."
He eventually departed to open his own restaurant, a Chipotle-style, make-your-own-sushi concept, but the restaurant consultant he hired to help him out "completely screwed me out of two years of hard-earned saved money," he remembers.
Down but not out, Arguello traipsed back to Colorado to be closer to his family, and to focus, once again, on opening his own joint -- which started with a food truck that slung sausages. "We did the truck first, but I knew that I wanted to do a gourmet sausage sandwich brick-and-mortar, a place that was casual but unique, with different twists and fun flavors," he says. And this, he insists, is just the beginning of his sausage empire: "We definitely want to open a lot more of these, and we're always looking for spaces, mainly around college campuses."
In the following interview, Arguello takes some time away from his frankfurters to chat about his preoccupation with mustard, his dumb-ass rookie mistake, why he doesn't like gastropubs and the consequences of ingesting a goldfish.
Six words to describe your food: Focused, unsuspecting, simple, spicy, contemporary and nostalgic.
Ten words to describe you: Honest, passionate, stubborn, awkward, gregarious, observant, spontaneous, funny, humble and understanding.
Best recent food find: Colombian arepas from the Quiero Arepas food truck.
Favorite ingredient: Mustard. My Dad is going to kill me, because he hates mustard, but the fact of the matter is that mustard is used in so many different and unique ways all over the world. We've got white mustard, yellow mustard, brown mustard, black mustard, French mustard, German mustard, Indian mustard, old-world mustards, sweet mustards, fruit mustard, hot mustard, herb mustard, balsamic mustard, onion mustard, spirited mustards...like Jack Daniel's mustard, Scotch mustard and stout mustard -- and that's just the beginning. How many other things do you know of that have so many different varieties? We're just about to put a Spanish-style chorizo corn dog on the menu with an agave nectar-mustard dipping sauce. I love mustard.
Most overrated ingredient: Wagyū beef. It's nothing more than a commercialization of Kobe beef. If you're going to waste your money on Wagyū because it's a "lineage" of Kobe beef, spend the few extra bucks and get the real stuff from Kobe, Japan. Go big or go home; that's my thought.
Most underrated ingredient: Cilantro. People either love it or hate it; I love it. I always forget just how much I love it until I start chopping it up and get that incredible smell. Although it's usually used as just a garnish, it brings together a lot of dishes, and when you're eating a dish with cilantro in it, you always ask yourself, "Oh, my God, why does this taste so good?" and nine times out of ten, it's because of the cilantro.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Our fresh French bread, which we get delivered daily from Michael Bortz at City Bakery. He's an awesome guy -- he's the man -- and he's pulled through for us every time we've asked him to.
Favorite spice: Curry. It's a pretty overpowering spice, but if you find a way to balance it with other ingredients, it adds such an amazing flavor.
One food you detest: Trail mix. I don't know why, but for some reason that shit always gives me headaches.
One food you can't live without: I love snow crab. My wife is allergic to shellfish, which is great, because when we go out to eat, I don't have to share it with her. It's just so goddamn delicious.
Favorite music to cook by: Girl Talk. I like it when old-school and new-school songs are mashed up. It's similar to my food: I like to mix ingredients together that you typically wouldn't think would complement each other but actually do in a weird and unsuspecting way, kind of like how you wouldn't think "Tiny Dancer," by Elton John, and "Juicy," by Notorious B.I.G., would work together -- but they do. I've also been listening to a lot of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. recently; they're pretty sick.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Because our kitchen is so small and it's an open kitchen, it's got to stay clean and organized, and because it's such a small space, we have to get pretty creative when it comes to working and cooking in there. It's a good thing that we're just frying up wieners. I'm pretty laid-back as long as you're doing your work, and I used to bartend, so it's second nature to me when people come in and sit at the bar that overlooks our kitchen. The staff has to be personable. I know a lot of chefs, sous chefs and line cooks who couldn't have a conversation with a customer if their life depended on it. People like to talk to -- and see their food being prepared by -- someone they can relate to. Obviously, we're not a fine-dining restaurant -- we do wieners -- but I hate chefs who have a chip on their shoulder and think that their food is God's gift to the world and that patrons should feel oh, so lucky to eat their food. It has to be the other way around: The chefs are the ones who should feel lucky to have patrons supporting their restaurants and enjoying and eating their food.
Biggest kitchen disaster: Total dumb-ass rookie mistake, but the first time I was cleaning out a deep-fat fryer, I emptied the hot oil into the plastic container that it came in, which proceeded to melt and spill all over the place. This was all after a friend, Ben Jacobs, who owns Tocabe, told me the one thing that I should never do is to empty out the hot oil into the plastic container it came in, because it will melt and spill everywhere. We were ice-skating around the kitchen for a week on a thin layer of oil.
What's never in your kitchen? Attitude
What's always in your kitchen? Lots of sausage jokes and innuendos.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Chicken enchiladas. My family made them all the time while I was growing up.
Favorite dish on your menu: The Swiss, which is a veal and pork sausage topped with chopped onions and parsley, spicy mustard, clover sprouts and a curry-based seasoning dusted on top; it's served on a fresh French baguette. It's a typical European street food found in Austria and Switzerland, and most famously found at a hole-in-the-wall in Virginia called the Balkan Grill.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Blood sausage. I lived in Argentina for a year during high school, and when I was down there, my host brother, Leo, tricked me into eating a blood sausage -- and I hated it. A few years ago, my wife and I went back to Argentina, and I gave the bloody -- pun intended -- tube meat another try and loved it. The iron-y mix of meat and blood, along with the smoky taste from the actual wooden coals of the asado, is just amazing. It's definitely an acquired taste, and I'd love to have it on the menu, but I don't think it'd be a top seller.
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Biggest compliment you've ever received: Your sausages are so big!