The Chile is Chili at Brewery Bar II
Green chili. Red chili. Chili rellenos. Chili con queso. The word stood out on the menu like an intentional affront, dismissing all notions of regional American-Mexican food with a simple refusal to differentiate between two vowels at the end of a single, all-important word. At Brewery Bar II, though, the difference between chili and chile isn't something you talk about; you'd only provoke mistrust and apprehension. In fact, talking about food too much is probably just a bad idea. Football, power tools, shipping and receiving, the price of a gallon of gas: These are all fair game. But food is just a big mess of ingredients you shovel in between swallows of beer, not something you have opinions about, unless that opinion is a muffled, "Hey, this is pretty fuckin' good," spoken around a mouthful of cheese and pork and flour tortilla.
Brewery Bar II is confusing to anyone who hasn't been there at least a dozen times. It's a dive bar in an industrial part of town -- one of those areas that doesn't even have a hip neighborhood designation (technically it's Lincoln Park, but you're not going to get any knowing nods dropping that name), but it closes far too early to have real dive-bar cred. Its name is a mystery to the uninitiated, and the food -- well, calling it an acquired taste would require reconsidering the meaning of the word "taste." You don't so much learn to love the green chili and Mexican combo plates at Brewery Bar II as the food learns to love you and accept you despite your grandiose notions of what constitutes Mexican food.
If you come back a few times, you'll go through a few permutations of enchiladas, tostadas, rellenos and burritos, and you're no longer put off the gruff service and the basic same-ness of every plate. At this point, you've passed a sort of initiation and the food will beckon you like an uncle at the family dinner table. You might even receive subliminal midday messages drawing you across the railroad tracks for an ill-advised lunch-hour "tiny" beer (24 ounces) and Number 1 combo -- a burrito (which you're going to order with ground beef) and a wonton-wrapped chili relleno, both smothered in a green chile that's simultaneously chunky and thin.
The service gets a little less gruff with each visit, too. Or you just get used to the idea that you're a part of the lives of the waitresses and bartenders and cooks now, and that cool politeness is something reserved for strangers. You, as a regular customer with real paper currency, are a big reason why Brewery Bar II has managed to stay in business for four decades (and even longer, if you go back to the original location at the Tivoli Brewery), so you're a friend and a welcome guest. But you're also a pain in the ass if you accidentally drop the menu between the table and the wall, if you suddenly decide you want to try something different and take a little extra time to order, or if the table you're given is a little drafty and you ask to be moved.
The most important realization when it comes to understanding and enjoying Brewery Bar II is that the green chili -- thin, reddish-orange from tomatoes, studded with nuggets of pork and infuriatingly inconsistent in its heat level -- just doesn't need to be thought about in any manner but the most concrete: It's hot, it's wet, it's salty. It binds everything on the plate together so that combinations are really just casseroles with slight variations in texture from one side of the oval dish to the other. The Number 6 -- beans, a relleno and a cheese enchilada -- is a study in molten yellow cheese; when you hit the crunchy wonton wrapper, you know you've moved on from the enchilada to the relleno. Pools of grease from the cheese and pork form in the white spaces on the plate as sections are cleared.
Every combo look like this.
But every bite comes with a chunk or two of pork and a slathering of actual chiles (yes, they're visible and numerous, unlike in many other Denver-style sauces). Sometimes the heat builds slowly and never fully develops; sometimes it's an instant and addictive burn that has you digging around on the plate for a cooling mouthful of refried beans. If you're a fan of crunchy, you can get a combo with a tostada or a hard-shell taco.
Chips and salsa are extra and you'll hate yourself for ordering them anyway, both for the space they take up in your belly and for the fact that you can get much better chips and salsas elsewhere for no charge. In fact, most of the food isn't particularly cheap: a recent meal of two combo plates, a diet Coke and a basket of chips (with no beers or margaritas) came in at just over $30 with tip.
So what's the appeal? Why does Brewery Bar II (and III and IV down in the south suburbs) keep packing them in? Why do long-time fans still manage to lure in newbies here with assurances of the best green chili in town? Maybe it's a Denver thing, but more likely it's a city thing in general, in that every city has its iconic joints that outsiders use as proof of that city's lack of sophistication. Nostalgia and habit combine like a powerful one-two punch to dizzy the brain to all but the best memories of the place. Blue-collar pride adds chest-puffing defense of something that may not be the best in the world, but is the best in your own world.
No matter what the rationale, though, words don't really make much difference. A basic longing or urge that turns the steering wheel in that direction and has you imagining the steamy smell of the place before you even hit Kalamath Street is more powerful than words. On that first or second time you go, the waitress might send you home with leftovers and you swear you'll never touch them, but at some point in the night you find yourself holding a spoon and the heavy styrofoam clamshell wondering whether to bother with the microwave before you dig in. At that point, the green chili has accepted you.
Chips and salsa for $2.
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