It's no secret that Denver is one of the nation's burrito capitals -- a fervent mecca of seam-busting tortillas jammed with everything but the kitchen sink. And while there's nothing wrong with that distinction, the beans-rice-cheese combination isn't exactly groundbreaking territory. And that's one reason why Clay Markwell is making it his mission to rethink -- and revamp -- the Mexican staple.
Markwell, a former sous chef at TAG, was born and raised in a small town in Indiana -- hardly burrito country -- but in college, his refrigerator was stashed with tortillas, a typical cheap choice of poor college students who spend most of their spare change on beer. And Markwell made the most of those tortillas, rolling them with whatever else he had lurking in his refrigerator; he discovered along the way that they lent themselves to just about every foodstuff out there. Tortillas, he realized, were an untouched slate on which to stamp whatever creative or crazy ingredient popped into your head. "Tortillas are like bread," says Markwell. "They're a vehicle in which to deliver food to your mouth using whatever you want."
In October of last year, he signed a lease on the former Shazz Cafe space (4262 Lowell Boulevard) in Berkeley, where he'll open Scratch Burrito & Happy Tap, a restaurant and bar that turns the burrito on its head. "It's an idea that was bouncing around my brain for the better part of a decade, but I wanted to do it in a way that broke the mold," says Markwell. "To me, a tortilla is a blank canvas, and the combination of colors and hues to which it's subject is as endless as a painter's palette."
To that end, Markwell plans to lambast his tortillas with global ingredients -- ingredients, he explains, that "channel different cuisines and different food cultures in ways that create one harmonious bite of food in burrito form." Think roasted brown-sugared pork with edamame beans, pickled chiles, cucumbers, radishes, sushi rice, kimchi and cilantro; or cornmeal-crusted catfish with pickled corn, red pepper salsa, red beans, rice and Old Bay red cabbage slaw, the latter of which, notes Markwell, is a play on his southern roots.
But while re-imagined burritos will be the focus, Markwell also says that he'll bust out empanadas and dumplings, too, because, well, "they're things stuffed with other things, and there's synergy there."
In addition to serving lunch and dinner seven days a week and breakfast on the weekends, the restaurant will have a deli case with grab-and-go items, including seasonal salads, which will change weekly and both fresh and fermented pickles; hot sauces -- some vinegar-based, others similar to a chimichurri or a salsa verde and fermented chiles -- will also be part of the lineup. "We'll put a lot of thought into our condiments and we'll have a handful of available hot sauces, plus we plan to use fresh herbs and vegetables from my own garden, and we'll have herbs, a few fruiting plans and lettuce planters outside the restaurant," he adds, noting, too, that he's building a thirty-seat patio with picnic tables and possibly a Ping-Pong table.
And that patio sounds like it will be the ideal place in which to pair your burrito with a beverage. Markwell will serve six local tap beers, plus bombers and bottled beers, and the remainder of the bar program, he says, is "short and sweet," with a handful of cocktails -- margaritas, caipirinhas and whiskey-based drinks -- that complement the burritos. "I grew up on the border of Kentucky, and I wouldn't be here without whiskey," he says.
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The interior, he reveals, will take on a rustic, farmhouse-y feel with distressed woods, beetle kill and a bar, he hopes, that will be constructed from an old railroad car. "I grew up with little country stores, and I want to bring some of that rural-chic feel to the restaurant," he says, adding that the fifty-seat space will feature a partially open kitchen and a large bar area, complete with a communal table, that will occupy nearly half of the square footage.
Speaking of a community table, Markwell stresses that embracing the neighborhood, along with local producers, is a big part of his vision. "Bringing together the community to make and break bread is important to us," he says. "We want to work with local home brewing associations so they can hold their meetings and events at our place, and when the seasons allow, we want to work with local farmers and purveyors and feature their ingredients in a burrito exclusive to them for a certain period of time."
And most important, emphasizes Markwell, who hopes to be open by mid-May, he wants a restaurant and bar that showcases his passion. "I've interviewed every accountant and insurance agent, picked every wood stain and did the demolition myself. This is my dream -- to be a chef and open my own restaurant, and while the journey to get here hasn't been an easy one, nothing good ever is."