Slotted Spoon Meatball Eatery: Fast-casual is on a roll
What goes round: Slotted Spoon partners (from left) Jensen Cummings, Alex Comisar and Johnny Coast. See also: A closer look at Slotted Spoon
After my first visit to Slotted Spoon Meatball Eatery, a locally owned fast-casual joint that's a meatball-slinging version of Chipotle, I thought about giving the guys who own it a present. Two, actually. The first was a blender, so they could offer milkshakes for dessert instead of just Lucky Charms-crusted peanut-butter truffles, which aren't as much fun to eat as they sound. I ruled out the appliance, though, because then I would've had to buy a freezer, too, since the kitchen was designed without one and ice cream doesn't last long at room temperature.
See also: A closer look at Slotted Spoon
The second gift I had in mind was Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Though co-owners Alex Comisar, Johnny Coast and fine-dining convert Jensen Cummings might have seen the book as socks on Christmas morning — i.e., useful but boring — to me it was more like Advil: a godsend to relieve the suffering. If you ate at this restaurant, which is tucked in a busy shopping center anchored by King Soopers and Michaels not far from the University of Denver, shortly after it opened in February, you'll know what I'm talking about: The menu boards were so hard to decipher, with lists of "essentials" (five kinds of meatballs), "vessels" (hoagie, pasta or salad) and sauces, that customers would stand at the counter, glazed-eyed and hungry, trying to make sense of it all.
Aside from a handful of signature sandwiches, the entire menu was customizable, prompting a dialogue that went something like this. Guest: "Would Swedish salmon meatballs taste good on a wheat hoagie with mushrooms and chile queso?" Counter guy: "Umm." Guest: "How about pork meatballs and tomato sauce on a salad? Wait a minute, you put meatballs on a salad!?!" Schwartz could've predicted the process would be painful. He spent hundreds of pages trying to convince a choice-addicted population that too much of the stuff "contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction."
In the end, though, the book wasn't necessary. Three months after opening, Cummings and crew offered moms, college kids and U-Hills regulars a present of their own: a packaging overhaul. While recipes for meatballs, toppings and sauces mostly stayed the same, the menu now points to four sandwiches, four salads and four pastas with ingredients that work well together. (A build-your-own option remains.) You still have your pick of meatballs, but two are suggested for each dish, so the chance of crafting a winning combination is high. Such streamlining is classic Schwartz, whose remedy for choice overload is this: Tackle important decisions yourself, and leave the rest to people with "the expertise to make good decisions on [your] behalf."
Cummings certainly has that expertise. Possibly the most overqualified fast-casual cook in the country, this former TAG chef de cuisine and Row 14 executive chef knows that a refreshing, dill-heavy tzatziki works better with the falafel-like quinoa-and-black-bean balls in the current gyro salad than the garlicky pesto I chose at a pre-revamp meal. If the flavors in the picnic sandwich sound strong, they are: Chicken meatballs buzz with chiles, garlic and vinegar; a housemade barbecue sauce rumbles with Worcestershire and cayenne. But instead of the onions you might add, he tops off this crowd favorite with a bit of crunchy slaw that works much as raita does in Indian food. The Tuscan pasta, with a swirl of pesto and tomato sauce, mushrooms and pork meatballs, is equally good. And then there's the surprise success of the Sgt. Pepper pasta, with chicken meatballs and a creamy red-pepper-and-paprika sauce; bacon, roasted with Worcestershire and black pepper and finished with powdered sugar, is an unlikely but welcome addition.
More traditional combos abound, including the old-school penne with meatballs and red sauce; a Philly sandwich with onions, mushrooms, peppers and cheese; and a grinder with tomato sauce, caramelized onions and melted provolone. Good options all, but it's hard not to miss the pot of bubbling gravy that holds meatballs at Grandma's, or the mouth-watering smell of a cheesesteak griddled with peppers and onions at the fair. As any cook knows, flavors are deeper when meats and accoutrements cozy up together, but here, for the sake of maximum flexibility, tomatoes are cooked in one pot and meatballs in another. (Actually, meatballs are seared and braised before their jaunt through what Cummings jokingly calls "the world's most expensive toaster oven.") And all of the pastas, even the delightful Sgt. Pepper, could benefit from a more thorough drip-dry and another ladleful of sauce.
Slotted Spoon is a single-concept place, with chef-driven recipes that don't shy away from flavor (hence the potentially tricky combinations) and a laser-like attention to quality. Chicken, for example, is a 50-50 blend of dark and white meat from Red Bird Farms, and pork, ground just for the restaurant, is from Polidori Sausage. And despite the meatball-heavy menu and the bright-red walls that make you feel like you're sitting in a bowl of spaghetti sauce, meatballs aren't the only option. Six well-priced side dishes — including lemony sautéed kale, coleslaw, and a kid-friendly macaroni and shells with American cheese and bacon — turn mains into more of a meal. Spiced kettle chips, a new addition, bring welcome crunch; perhaps a crispy add-on for salads will be next.
To have someone with Cummings's background in a meatball shop might seem as odd as the concept itself. But Cummings is here for a reason: to perfect recipes and systems. And the scheme, while new to Denver, has tested its legs elsewhere. Comisar, who overlapped with Cummings at TAG as assistant general manager, tweaked the idea from a sit-down meatball eatery in New York. In many respects, the Slotted Spoon isn't all that different from the tunnel-visioned hot dog and sausage spots that have gained traction here and nationwide. Will meatballs catch on? Cummings counts it as good karma that his initial meeting took place in the original Chipotle, and the trio has plans to expand. Maybe I'll christen their second location, expected within a year, with a blender.
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