The British Bulldog finds strength in its Brit staples and brawny beers
Today the phrase "hair of the dog" refers to a hangover cure, but it originated with the theory that the bite of a rabid dog could be treated by placing a few of the dog's hairs in the wound. Sticking dog hair into a rabies-infested gash probably works about as well as slamming back a few beers when you're hung over: Go ahead and dehydrate yourself further and make that gory headache worse, dumbass. And both of those things probably work about as well as a British pub in Denver serving Pakistani food. Which is to say, not very.
The British Bulldog occupies a century-old building that once held a boxing club, then became the beloved Punch Bowl, a burger-and-brew spot. It spent a few unsuccessful minutes in the '90s as Punch Bowl Baja Bistro, turned into the Stout Pub, and then was transformed into the Bulldog in 2006 by Isaac James, a native of Pakistan who was the joint's food-and-beverage manager and collaborated with line cook Thomas Cortez to create an eclectic English/Pakistani fusion menu.
When Little Pub Company purchased the place in 2008, it kept that menu. Little Pub is owned by Mark Berzins, and since 1994 he's been busy as hell snatching up local bars like a kid grabbing warm cookies off a plate. His company now owns nineteen pubs, ranging from the Bulldog to the Icehouse Tavern, Patrick Carroll's Irish Pub, the College Inn, Gibby's Sports Saloon, Salty Rita's, the Irish Hound and the Elm. When Berzins buys an established bar, he tends to make minimal changes — and also refrains from splashing Little Pub's name all over the place. He doesn't advertise, instead funneling cash to local charities — and right back into the communities his bars serve.
And quite a community has rallied around the Bulldog. When I stopped by around 8 p.m. on a weeknight, there were fixies lashed to the patio railing and a few hipsters with black-rimmed glasses smoking and chatting about trivia — it was quiz night. As I opened the heavy wooden door, I got a whiff of old fryer oil, fusty whiskey and balmy curry spices. I grabbed a seat in one of the vintage booths, whose backs are painted with woodland scenes — a Depression-era trade by artist Noel Adams, who's rumored to have bartered his work for eats and booze. My server spoke with a glorious, halting Boston accent and had a desiccated sense of humor. He also had bad news: The kitchen was out of samosas, which I'd enjoyed before. So instead I ordered a starter of chips and curry and one of fried pickles, along with a pint of Strongbow hard cider. The beer menu is relatively small but brawny, with 1554 Black Ale, Paulaner Munich Lager, Hibernation Ale, Fuller's London Pride and Titan IPA — one of Great Divide's hoppy pearls, smacking of citrus and pine and delivering a slightly sweet finish. Colorado beers are some of the finest in the country, and anyone who says otherwise can sod off.
Slide show: Inside the British Bulldog
Even without the samosas, I was looking forward to supper. Mainstream Pakistani cuisine is a multicultural blend similar to Indian food but more meat-heavy, with a definite Asian influence, some Muslim culinary traditions and lots of aromatic spices: cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace. Traditional British fare is definitely modern-era joke fodder, as it tends to be under-seasoned and understated. But it's often also underrated, since stolid standards like boiled or fried potatoes, roasted beef, battered fried fish and hot bread are comfort foods that should be valued as much for their inexpensive and filling qualities as for their preparation. This odd mash-up in an old Denver bar seemed to have a fighting chance of being more than a novelty, so for my main meal, I'd gone with a plate of naturally starchy, barely seasoned bangers and mash; an aggressively spiced aloo gosht salin — lamb and potato stew with a touch of tomato; and saag paneer, warmly spiced creamy spinach with dices of fresh white cheese.
The meal got off to a bad start, though. The fried pickles were an undersized portion of chips rather than the promised army of spears; the sparse breading was already peeling off, and the chilly, limp circles were swimming in a pool of musty-brown fryer grease. A side of thin, uninspiring honey mustard dressing did nothing to disguise the disaster. The chips portion of the chips and curry was great: a large basket of hand-cut fries just the way I like them — limber with crisp ends, not too oily and very lightly salted. But the curry dip was dry and crusty along the edges of the cup, and difficult to dip into — and once I succeeded, I discovered that the dull, brick-red mess of mashed eggplant innards was heat-spicy to the point that it made my nose run and Speed Racer sweat beads pop out on my forehead and behind my ears. I don't mind heat, but without an underlying flavor profile, it was just empty entertainment; I could barely taste the profusion of wilted, chopped flat-leaf parsley or the spoonful of arid diced-tomato garnish.
I ordered more beer to soothe my disappointment. I'd heard somewhere that "bangers" were called that because during WWII rationing, sausages were made with water and steamed in their jackets until they burst — banging up against the lid of the cooking pot. I'd also heard somewhere that "bangers and mash" is a sex position, which sounded promising — but my meal arrived before I figured out exactly what it might entail. The kitchen was out of peas, so I got an extra banger, which seemed more than fair. This dish is classic pub grub, and the perma-winning combo of mild sausages and hand-mashed potatoes — with just a few lumps — was made even more alluring with a few ladles of brown gravy and a sprinkle of fried onions. Score one for the Brits.
The Pakistani dishes were not nearly as successful. The aloo gosht salin was a diminutive mound of thick, auburn-hued stew atop what was supposed to be brown rice but was really dry white rice with a ridiculous amount of cumin added to it; it sat alongside a slice of pita cut into triangles and a small cup of tan, murky cilantro chutney that tasted like par-blended Mexican salsa. The stew was overcooked — or over-held — with the lamb chunks dry and feathery and the potatoes mealy. And while the stew was under-seasoned, it was also spicy-hot past the point of comfort. Saag paneer is a favorite of mine, and I've eaten it so many times, in so many different places, that I can pick up on even subtle variations in texture and taste. But there was nothing subtle about this awful version. The spinach was undercooked in a barely there, unflavored sauce, and the paneer nuggets were scorched into brown, flavorless, rubbery hunks, heaped on the same rice I hadn't liked in the aloo.
Pakistani food is supposed to be a feature at the Bulldog, but this dog won't hunt. Turns out that Cortez hasn't been in the kitchen for years, and although the current cook is still using James's recipes, he has no prior experience with Pakistani food. While having the recipes is no doubt helpful, as with any recipes, they are open to interpretation, modification and human error. I can understand the Bulldog wanting to preserve the novelty of its Pakistani dishes, but as badly prepared as these are, they're more of a liability than an asset. If the Bulldog isn't going to make better Pakistani food, it should drop it from the menu all Gordon-Ramsay-bollocks style and focus solely on the Brit staples.
Hair of the dog may mask hangover symptoms temporarily, but using gut sauce to cure a headache is only going to make you hurt worse later.
Slide show: Inside the British Bulldog
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.