It felt like being welcomed by St. Peter through the pearly gates: A friendly hostess grabbed our menus and parted a seemingly impassable dining room, leading us to a few set places miraculously empty. "Could it really be so easy?" I wondered. But this is Work & Class and after the trouble of getting a table, it's all smooth sailing. Thousands of Denver diners seem to think so, anyway, elevating a container that once shipped Keds and Toyotas across the ocean to something more like holy ground. Eager diners wait to be seated as soon as the doors open at 4 p.m., which also marks the beginning of Work & Class's happy hour. Question is: will a slim list of tasty specials be a draw in itself or will it be a distraction from the plate-sharing, community-meal experience that has defined Work & Class so far?
Served Tuesday to Sunday from 4 to 6 p.m., the "Early Work Release Program" (as its called on the menu) is more conventional than the mix-and-match dinner menu that's so elemental to the restaurant's theme. Get a $6 cocktail or a $3 beer, grab a couple of small plates and you're set. But if you've been to W&C before, you know a lot of the fun is deciding whether to get a quarter-pound each of chicken, goat and maybe lamb, or one huge portion of pibil pork to share around the table. Then you squabble over sides, debating the merits of smashed potatoes versus french fries, handmade tortillas or goat cheese masa cakes. The dining experience is less segmented, so the elbow-bumping community tables make sense as kindling for firing up memories that go beyond the tongue.
But then there we were, on the fringes, sitting in the enclosed patio — spacious, for the moment. My companion was a tireless W&C booster who promised to make any food and drink choices easy. Tuesday is Tequila Tuesday, so our waitress invited me to try a fine añejo for a reasonable price, by itself or in one of the house's mixers. Now, the drink menu here is nothing like most cocktail lists you've seen. Mixology is a verboten word as you select your preferred spirit and try to guess what would blend best: hibiscus-grapefruit lemonade? Spicy basil sour? Ginger orange-clove? It's a fun system for a fair price ($6 at happy hour), but not every flavor combo turns out potable. Three-buck drafts of good pours like Deschutes Obsidian stout and Station 26 Juicy Banger and $2 cans of Utica Club do a lot to confirm W&C's working-class identity.
Both happy hour and dinner prices are admirably low, as well. Each happy-hour plate is $4 or $5, snacks that easily whet the appetite and reflect the 75-percent Latin, 25-percent American comfort makeup of the menu. My companion, a recovering vegetarian, pointed to her old favorite: green chile cheese fries ($5), free of gluten and pork. This is the dish that helped Work & Class nab our 2015 award for Best Vegetarian Green Chile, and it's ideal to share among a couple of forks or fingers, with thick potatoes and thin chile with just enough peaks and valleys of spice.
The rest of the offerings are a bit more personal: there's a chile relleno ($5), stuffed with roasted veggies and drizzled with spicy aioli, but not fried. It's a mess to split, but a fresh, (almost) healthy taste at a place where you can often end up eating too much. The unassuming piggy in a blanket ($4) arrives looking a bit, er, rustic. But when I sawed off the first bite and started chewing, my face contorted and my eyes started rolling. No way could this thing be this good. But It was; the combination of crispy dough, salty pink sausage and creamy mustard hit the bull's eye. And it's worth noting that none of these are offered at dinner past 6 p.m.; happy hour is your only chance to see this side of Work & Class.
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SHOW ME HOW
Co-owners Delores Tronco and Tony Maciag, along with chef Dana Rodriguez, have managed to create a warm spot of love for diners here at Work & Class, and even happy-hour goers aren't left out. The deafening buzz and sweaty atmosphere is difficult to dismiss — it's the biggest discomfort when eating here, even if you arrive early. But to a certain sort of person — a lot of people, it seems — this din is a seductive sound.
Perfect for: First-time foodies. This is one restaurant you could bring open-minded relatives or a hip and inquisitive young person to give them a taste of Denver's restaurant scene. There's a simple but kickass kid's menu, too.
Don't Miss: The chile cheese fries are a must-try, but you'e kidding yourself if you don't have a hearty helping of goat. Marinated and braised to take the gamey edges off, Work & Class's cabrito is a curiosity that soon becomes a necessity.