In the Logan's Run-esque TAXI development, there's a sanctuary from the demands of office and industry that offers more than the Sci-Fi movie's menu of plankton and sea greens and protein from the sea. Fuel Cafe debuted along with the mixed-use development in 2008, opening to the public what could have been a self-contained zone of River North (minus the dome, of course). Along with it's sibling, the fast-casual sandwich shop Refuel, Fuel has been a destination for food lovers from all around the metro area, not just TAXI residents and office dwellers. But for those nearby, it makes sense to discharge post-shift steam at Fuel's intriguing happy hour, offered Wednesday through Saturday from 4:30 to 6 p.m.
I imagined Fuel's bar on Friday would be packed with suits and creatives toasting the end of the work week. Not so — the clientele was mainly families and friends gathered for dinner on the patio as the sky grew dim. The quiet was appropriate for a restrained meal that burst with hidden excellence.
"Local ingredients when available" has become an empty phrase to garner unearned hipster cred, but Fuel puts your mouth where its money is, where servers can easily tell you the origin of your meats and greens; sometimes they're from just down the block, like lettuce from the Growhaus or a plate of Babettes Artisan Breads ($3). The structure revealed while pulling apart its glutenous flesh betrayed the craftsmanship of the bread, which was paired with two surprisingly daring spreads: tonnato (a mayo-like sauce flavored with tuna) and a red-wine butter shining with red-wine salt. While cold tuna sauce is beyond my understanding, the butter added another texture to the experience, offering beautiful dissonance between liquid and solid with an intriguing flavor.
A Babettes bread spread at Fuel Cafe.
Every happy hour dish I tried (or saw delivered to other guests) had some sort of clever touch to it, especially the fried baby artichokes ($6). The dish is topped with lemons — edible fried slices and a wedge coated in chile flakes that, when squeezed, rained red like flower petals at a wedding. Arresting in presentation, it was more impressive on the fork. These little veggies are fried in a thick batter and seasoned with a light touch — completely unlike the touch I used in dragging every crispy morsel through the spread of aioli. Fried lemons served as an unconventional palate cleanser. This is one of the rare happy hour dishes that can overshadow a meal and impress with the thought put into it.
A bowl of blistered shishito peppers ($5) couldn't live up, with a lack of spice and brine despite the presence of crumbly Mexican cheese. It's an alright drinking snack paired with a can of Black Shirt Brewing Pale Red Rye, which is half-off at happy hour, along with equally discounted well drinks. A selection of wines at $4 a glass and mules for $6 round out the drink list. Fuel's happy hour is a relaxed one, a vibe encouraged by the fun and full service behind the bar. And yes, even if you don't live your life in the self-contained arena of TAXI, it's worth hooking this happy hour into your life.
Perfect for: Ah, if only happy hour was available Monday and Tuesday to spice up the beginning of the work week. Still, it's a good idea to stop by if you're visiting one of TAXI's other establishments — whether it's to speak with your councilwoman or meet with your lawyers.
Don't Miss: Artichokes aside, the pan bagnat is a Westword favorite and available at happy hour. Babette's bread holds together a wonderful mess of house-smoked trout, egg, aioli and more.