The Grill Next Door
Just go ahead and sit anywhere, guys. We'll find you."
Happy hour at the Stout Pub. Cheap drafts and well drinks at recession-friendly prices, soggy blue corn nachos and an appetizer lineup borrowing heavily from the Midwestern "Everybody loves fried cheese!" school of menu design. Behind the bar, bottles lined up in orderly parade formation like soldiers ready for review: Scotch here, whiskey there -- serious booze for serious drinkers, with little real estate given over to the kid stuff, the trendy schnapps and fruity, rainbow-colored concoctions made for young drinkers still getting inexpertly shitfaced.
As we step from the greasy, gray, post- industrial gloom of Stout Street into the warm antique womb of the pub, we're followed by two hideously efficient-looking businesswomen in identical black suits and black high-heeled shoes. Uniquely 21st-century creatures, they are liberally greased for a frictionless move up the corporate ladder, with gleaming complexions that make it look as though they buff their cheekbones every morning with an angle grinder. They stalk confidently around the early-twentieth-century space, staking out two stools at the end of the bar, bristling like childless she-wolves, and commence saying loud, awful things about their co-workers and the "sorry state of the fucking world" as evidenced by the CNN ticker spewing doom from the two big TVs suspended over the bar.
"The bartender says we're out of Corona." Our waitress -- young, personable and pretty, more suited to the college-bar roofie-and-Jägermeister scene than this recently recovered downtown dive -- shrugs. "Can I getcha something else?"
I have a personal policy against mixing hard liquor with haute cuisine -- it kills the tastebuds quicker than a shot of kerosene -- but one look at the menu tells me I am in no danger here. The offerings are cuisine basse, as far from haute as water from wine, so I switch to my fallback position: whiskey, in great quantity, sweetened with a little Coke. I am working, after all...
"Deep-fried pickles," says a red-faced man with a giant boiled ham of a head poking out from the collar of his dusty IBEW Local 68 jacket to no one in particular. "What're them?" The ladies sitting a few stools away ignore him. The bartender -- young, like the waitress, and too pretty himself for a bar that looks like it ought to be manned by a one-armed ex- railroad brakeman named Chester -- tells the union man that they are pickles. Deep-fried. The union man harumphs and orders another beer instead. Pabst Blue Ribbon. Draft. I didn't even know they made that anymore.
Deep-fried pickles are a new thing for me. They're not a new thing in the Midwest, though, where the prevailing theory is that any food item that can fit in a Fryolator will be dramatically improved by coating it in breadcrumbs or batter and then frying the living hell out of it. "It" can be anything from cheese to hard-boiled eggs, and kosher dill-pickle spears fall comfortably within those parameters. My wife is horrified at the mere thought of abusing a perfectly good pickle in such a manner, but I order the fried pickles anyway, along with fried onion rings, fried mozzarella sticks, fried chicken wings and french fries.
A healthy human being has a serum cholesterol level of somewhere under 200. My heart pumps pure lard.
My wife orders the chicken-salad sandwich on marbled rye, the only remotely healthy thing on the menu that isn't a salad, but the waitress tells her there's no chicken salad; it went bad. It says something about the Stout's clientele that the chicken salad sat around long enough to go bad; it says more about the owners that the staff is so honest. Instead, my wife orders a Philly cheesesteak -- the next-healthiest thing, obviously.
Everything arrives at the table nicely done, golden brown and accompanied by the necessary accoutrements. Even the Philly cheese-steak comes on a golden-brown toasted baguette -- which both the wife and I agree is a little too Suzy-foo-foo for such a basic, workingman's sandwich -- but that baguette is loaded down with tender shaved steak that's charred along the edges, melted provolone, mushrooms, grilled onions and green peppers. Although in downtown Philadelphia a real Philly is just "steak and Whiz" -- meaning grill-black shaved sirloin and Cheez Whiz -- this combo works just fine. The onion rings are beer-battered, crisp, the cheese sticks breaded and served with a homemade "Italian dipping sauce" that's chunky red and thick with tomatoes but terribly bitter from too much dried oregano out of the bottle. The tasty wings are offered in only one variety -- hot -- and the sauce whipped up in the kitchen tastes like one half Frank's Red Hot, one quarter barbecue and one quarter movie-theater popcorn butter mixed, inexplicably, with more oregano.
The pickles have been breaded with crumbs kicked up with a liberal inclusion of dill; they are soft and piping hot, and they come with a side of spicy mustard. I like them. A lot. Something about their inherent, greasy strangeness speaks to the rust-belt fat kid buried inside me.
Dick Lande has been keeping the home fryers burning for 25 years at the Stout. Twenty-five years. In an industry where a cook who stays at his post for 25 months is considered a seasoned veteran, this guy has been flipping burgers in the same galley for a quarter of a century. "He's the only cook they ever had," says Chris Horner, who bought what had been the Punch Bowl this past fall with his partner, Stas Szafranski. "Back in the old days, they didn't even have a kitchen at the Punch Bowl, but when they put one in, Dick was the first guy they hired."
Back in the old days, the Punch Bowl had a reputation for being a solid, blue-collar bar that also attracted a white-collar crowd from nearby offices, the kind of place you went to to drink beer, tell lies, maybe hand out "It's a Boy!" brand cigars to announce your first-born son's grand entry into the world. It was dark, dingy and quiet, with wooden booths along one wall whose high backs had been painted with beautiful, rustic landscapes by a down-and-out Indian during the Depression in exchange for free meals and a bellyful of beer. Or so the story goes. By the '30s, the bar was already three decades old.
But the '90s almost killed it altogether. By the middle of the last decade, the boom had hit downtown, and the Punch Bowl's then-owner -- in an ill-fated move that should be used at business colleges as a textbook example of how to fuck up a good thing -- decided to cash in on the sudden popularity of all things Mexican by changing the place to the Punch Bowl Baja Bistro. A new menu came with the name change, featuring horribly misspelled quasi-Mexican fare that tasted a lot like rubber bands dipped in red chile.
Not surprisingly, most of the customers fled in horror. Enter Horner and Szafranski. "I wish I could say there was some great story, like I've been looking at the place for years, but really, it was just a great deal," says Horner, a former manager at the Wynkoop Brewing Co. who subsequently owned The Grand on East 17th Avenue. "It was what we could afford, and we love the location." Other than cleaning the murals and the checkerboard floor, "there's not a whole lot in here we kept," he adds. "But we kept Dick."
Dick had survived it all, the ups and downs, and his kitchen is now back to the kind of food it made before the Baja debacle. "It's just a simple bar," Horner says. "Lots of juicy burgers in baskets and beers on tap. To try and do something like a Baja thing...it just wouldn't work here. Now we've got a lot of people coming in who say they haven't been back in a couple, two, three, four years."
The only apparent holdover from the Baja days is a chicken burrito, as thick as my forearm and smothered in hot green chile that's actually green (as opposed to the gray-brown gravy you find in many Denver restaurants) and packed with chunks of chile and fatty pork. Going the Punch Bowl's legendary burger one better is the massive Stout hearty burger: a double stack of meat and cheese on a toasted roll with American, Swiss, cheddar, Monterey Jack, bleu and provolone cheeses, sautéed onions, mushrooms, bacon, guacamole, Italian sauce and chopped jalapeños. An absolute monster, it has the heft of a hand grenade -- and eating it has about the same effect on your stomach as swallowing one would have. Add a cup of the mild red chili con carne or the aforementioned green, and you have what could easily be classified by the U.N. as a weapons-grade meal.
But you won't be laid low by E. coli: It says right on the menu that all burgers are cooked medium-well. When I asked the waitress if I could get mine rare, she replied, "Sorry, the cook only does them medium well or better." I asked if she was serious. She said she was. I wondered if maybe there was some sort of release or promise of non-litigation I could sign, but in the end, I told her I'd have the burger anyway, "however he wants to cook it."
And lo and behold, the beast arrives at my table done just a little past medium rare, still juicy and tender. Maybe the menu's disclaimer is designed to cover the owners against any overly litigious screwheads who want to make a quick buck by claiming they were poisoned by under-done meat. My suspicion is that if you convince your server that you're a brave soul, a fellow traveler happy with your beef done rare and yummy, that's the way Dick will want to cook it.
The Stout Pub is not the place to go for health food; it's not a trendy meat market full of unattached, disaffected twenty-somethings flashing their body piercings at each other. It's a genuine neighborhood joint, and despite the name change, it looks and acts today much as it did decades ago. The customers are an eclectic mix of laborers and lushes, unemployed union men and bitter divorcées, reporters, feds, restaurant folk and other businesspeople dropping by for a quick happy-hour pint -- or a long night of talking and drinking while the televisions drone and the world falls apart to a soundtrack of vintage Zeppelin, Patsy Cline and Vikki Carr. You get a history lesson just walking through the door, and it's the kind of place where you could easily become part of that history -- sliding in one night and just never leaving. The staff greets everyone coming through the door like a long-lost regular finding his way back home after many years away.
Sort of like the bar itself.
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