Eating Adventures

The Westword Watch List: Where and What to Eat This Week

Quesadillas go upscale at Element Kitchen + Cocktail.
Quesadillas go upscale at Element Kitchen + Cocktail. Mark Antonation
We have happy hour and bar bites on our mind this week; fortunately, we've found a trio of spots that are good bets for late-afternoon stops, from Broadway to LoHi. Bar food doesn't have to be bad food, as these three eateries prove.

click to enlarge Smoky mezcal and smoked sturgeon pair well at Citizen Rail. - MARK ANTONATION
Smoky mezcal and smoked sturgeon pair well at Citizen Rail.
Mark Antonation
Citizen Rail
1899 16th Street

Citizen Rail makes happy hour happier by making it longer. From 2:30 to 6 p.m., you can find drink deals and small plates that capture the smoke and fire of chef Christian Graves's wood-fired kitchen. Lead bartender Chris Burmeister continues the smoky theme with a selection of house cocktails garnished with grilled, charred or smoked ingredients to pair with bar bites. While you peruse the menu of drinks named for classic movie titles and quotes, start with a $7 shot-and-drink combo, which range from an amaro-saison duo to a more unusual mezcal-rosé coupling — like a hard slap followed by a quick kiss.

Mezcal also plays a major role in Burmeister's Plunder Road, a milk punch that's crystal clear despite its name. The bartender mixes Del Maguey Vida mezcal, green Chartreuse and cantaloupe and citrus juices into milk and lets the milk solids settle out before straining the whole concoction several times. Made in batches, the punch is served from bottles over a large ice cube and topped with a slice of charred grapefruit. The result is light, refreshing and a little mind-boggling. No single flavor stands out, but a hint of smokiness from the mezcal and a mellow smoothness from the melon and whey make for a thoroughly drinkable cocktail. Match it with the potato cake and smoked-sturgeon appetizer topped with smoked crème fraîche, sturgeon caviar and apple matchsticks for a whirlwind of perplexing but ultimately satisfying flavors.

Burmeister knows how to make fancy mixology fun, with toasted marshmallows, Swedish Fish and a Hawaiian Punch reduction punctuating the cocktail roster and adding laugh-out-loud moments to what could otherwise seem a little serious. After all, it's just happy hour.

click to enlarge Element Kitchen does great things to wings. - MARK ANTONATION
Element Kitchen does great things to wings.
Mark Antonation
Element Kitchen + Cocktail
1134 Broadway
Sports bars aren't known for chef-driven creations, unless you count the invention of the Buffalo hot wing as a great moment in culinary history. But at Element, culinary director John Tesar, a Top Chef alum whose Dallas steakhouse, Knife, has earned national attention, the dining experience is every bit as important as the big game. Tesar has built a menu of traditional sports-bar favorites, but has made them better by using quality ingredients and unique preparations. In addition to the vivid orange wings we all love, options include a pungent Vietnamese wing doused in fish sauce, and our favorite, a tangy salt-and-vinegar wing that's every bit as addictive as the potato chip that serves as inspiration.

Tesar's mastery of beef carries over from his steakhouse in a juicy burger that relies on simplicity to highlight the flavor of the meat itself, and in a pepper-crusted filet mignon that's sourced from the same Texas ranch that supplies his steakhouse. If you're a strict traditionalist when it comes to sports-bar grub, try the pork-belly quesadillas, which have all the cheesy goodness and crisped-tortilla enjoyment you're used to, with the added pleasure of smoky pork. And a $10 burger-and-beer combo is a tempting lunchtime deal.

click to enlarge LAURA SHUNK
Laura Shunk
Señor Bear
3301 Tejon Street

Señor Bear has been one of the hottest tickets in town since opening earlier this summer, and the tiny space means that scoring a seat can be a time-consuming proposition. But last Friday, the restaurant tacked on a two-hour happy hour beginning at 3 p.m. daily, offering a small selection of drinks and snacks at decidedly happy prices. Chief among them is the gordo crunch, a surprise homage to Taco Bell that wraps a hard-shell taco in a soft tortilla. Confit chicken wings and funky cashews kicked up with black lime are also worth a nibble, washed down with a $5 margarita or pisco sour. If you can't bear the evening crowd, head out of work a couple of hours early for a bar stool that won't remain empty much longer.

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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation