The Sporting Life
The original Brewery Bar closed right around the time I was born. What information I have about its glory days comes mainly from historical documents, Web archives and the spotty memories of its habitués. It was a beer-soaked neighborhood watering hole that took up residence in the old Tivoli brewery during the Eisenhower administration and left that honored spot while Nixon was still in office, retaining a following so loyal as to border on maniacal and gaining a Roman numeral at the new Brewery Bar II on Kalamath Street. Wayne Newton was a fan of Brew II back when he was still kicking out the jams and collecting panties on coast-to-coast tours. Three decades' worth of sports heroes that I barely recognize have slouched at its longbar.
Tracing the genealogy of this restaurant family is not unlike following the history of any human clan. The Brewery Bar was the hardworking first-generation grandfather, putting down roots in the heart of his city. When his time was drawing to an end, he sent his son -- Brew the Second -- out into the world. Brew II followed the family tradition, working hard in the shadows of the Rio Grande grain elevators, popping caps and churning out Mexican food like it was going out of style -- which, of course, it never did. And eventually, Brew II gave birth to its own offspring, Brew the Third.
Brewery Bar III -- the prettiest, brightest, smart-assed whippersnapper of the bunch -- found a home in Lone Tree, among the SUVs, McMansions and big-box retail stores of suburban sprawl. Now seven months old, Brew III is still trying to define itself, carrying the burden of the family name and fifty years of history, looking beyond the solid, working-class roots of its progenitors. It's like an immigrant story played out with burritos and beer -- an allegorical tale of ethnic exploitation, consumerism run amok, and the crippled sex lives of the modern American sports fan.
Thirty years after it made its debut on Kalamath, Brewery Bar II is now about as close as you can get to honest, unmanufactured perfection in a divey, old-guard neighborhood bar. It's small, cramped and homey and smells alternately wonderful or horrific, depending on how close you end up to the men's room and how ravenously the crowds have been wolfing down the tacos. The walls are covered with the knickknacks and chatchkes of a collective beer-drunk sports culture, the elder valuables taking on a respectable fuzz of dust, the newer additions (say, anything less than ten years old) seeming to glow in the milky light. It's the kind of hole-in-the-wall where you can expect (and deserve) an earful of abuse from the staff if you try to do something like split a check three ways during overtime in a Broncos home stand or demand that the kitchen serve your chile on the side.
Brew II is busy almost all the time, and regulars get preference, but if, regardless of your reproductive equipment, you can just hang like one of the guys -- stroll in the door, find a seat, order your drinks, order your food and settle in with no muss and no fuss -- you'll be right at home among the road crews, union lathe and plaster guys, maudlin-drunk insurance salesmen and local armchair quarterbacks. Once you get into the flow of things (and if you're a memorably good tipper), service works like relay lightning -- fast and with sharp efficiency. I tested it during a Monday lunch, and from the time I was seated until the moment my sweating Corona and plate of Brew II's trademarked Cornitos (corn tortillas stuffed with ground beef, topped with cheese, lettuce and napalm chile) hit the table, only three minutes and ten seconds had passed -- just a little more time than your average ESPN commercial break.
The menu is all "Mexican," with quotes around the word, same as it was at the original Brewery, same as it is at the new place. Everything is greasy, cheesy, hot and sloppy, only recognizable as food by those well-steeped in the gringo-Mestizo gustatory traditions of the American West or well-lubricated by drink. According to this school of cookery, there is no element of Mexican cuisine that cannot be improved by the addition of melted cheese. No ingredient that can't be wrapped in a tortilla or deep-fried, no weakness in flavor or texture that can't be bullied up with a liberal dose of the house's custom chile. In short, the food is exactly what you'd want and exactly what you'd expect if you walked in cold to Brew II tomorrow, knowing nothing about the place's menu or its history.
The chile is a red-and-green blend that's heavy on the pork, so far from the pure heat and flavor of traditional verde that comparison is impossible. It's a good measure of how far I've strayed from my Hatch-purist prejudices that I love this biracial chile without reservation. Sweet, watery, hot without being numbing, it kicks the endorphins into overdrive, then throws in that killer jolt of chile flavor right at the end to make everything it touches taste better.
I head to Brew II when I want to be nobody in particular -- when I want to drink a couple of beers while the sun is still up, smoke thirteen or fourteen cigarettes, eat a taco and watch SportsCenter with a bunch of guys more concerned with injury lists, overtime pay and "that cocksucker from the building inspector" than the new tasting menu at Mateo. Brew II has the kind of blue in its collar that's never gonna wash out.
Brewery Bar III is everything that Brew II is not. It's bright and shiny, well-lit, squeaky-clean, friendly, polite and dull. It's not loud, it's not smoky, and every inch of it has that new-car smell of fresh plastic and assembly-line ennui -- like they just ripped the shrink-wrap off the booths five minutes ago. Walking into Brew III is like stepping into a department store sporting-goods section where all the mannequins have beer bellies, small families and huge SUVs, and have come alive just to watch the big game. Whatever big game might be on.
On a recent Saturday evening, the crowd at the bar in the far room was boozy and raucous in the manner of retired investment bankers or aluminum-siding salesmen on a three-gimlet rip. They were smartly dressed in fiercely pressed khaki shorts, white socks, team jerseys or polo shirts sporting company logos, and out to get weird in this knockoff of an actual sports bar, because Brew III was the place closest to the golf course and the condo. The near room -- the one with the windows and the quietly humming smoke-eaters -- was filled with families: mom and dad and the 2.4 perfect children eating plates of nachos and smothered burritos in cushy, black booths, watching TV (there's at least one set in direct view of every seat in the house) while the cold eyes of former sports heroes stared out from black-and-white snapshots in polished frames and servers replenished their iced tea and guacamole.
Those servers are never surly or tired, but rather as apple-cheeked and bouncy as candy stripers or ex-Hooters girls. They're happy to do any little thing they can to make your stay a pleasant one. They offer a kids' menu, split checks with a smile, bend to any whim, anytime -- and sure, they might hate your guts when they're in the back of the house, mocking more difficult customers for their fashion choices, bad hair plugs and chintzy tips, but on the floor, they're nothing but sunshine and peppermint breath spray.
On paper, the menu at Brew III is almost identical to that of Brew II, but in this setting -- under these lights, in this neighborhood, shared with this crowd -- it seemed all wrong. The chips and salsa that had been an appropriate accompaniment to the skull-popping margaritas on Kalamath were a throwaway here, a loss leader designed to make you order another round of microbrews, with chips straight off the back of the Sysco delivery truck and salsa that tasted like ketchup and chile powder. Pushing them aside, I concentrated on a non-Brew II offering of chicken wings -- good chicken wings, actually, nicely floured, golden brown, a vital part of the lineup for any self-respecting strip-mall sports bar -- and two cold Coronas while trying to simultaneously watch three live college games and two replay NFL highlights shows. It was a difficult business, what with the contractor type next to me shouting at everyone in the joint and then bouncing around the bar, throwing his arms around total strangers, telling them he loved them, offering to buy people brand-new Cadillacs if only the owner would put up the cash and add the sticker price to his bar tab. This was a man who wanted so badly to be Norm from Cheers -- to be everyone's best buddy, everyone's special pal -- that it made you want to look away and get really into whatever game was in front of you. But in a room of TV cripples, he was only the loudest. The place was full of them.
On another night, I sat in a corner booth and watched the bar's tenders go robotically through the crowd popping tops and jigger-pouring margs into salted rocks glasses. I'd ordered the burritos this time, overstuffed, gooey tortillas inflated with ground beef and slathered in red/green chile that was much more timid than at Brew II, as though its heat had been turned down a couple notches in deference to the delicate suburbanite palate. The dull chile detracted from the chile rellenos, crunchy, cheesy, batter-dipped monsters, fifty years in the making, that were good in a booth at Brew III, but still better at the bar at Brew II.
On yet another visit on yet another game night, I stuffed myself with a plate of rolled enchiladas -- one cheese and beef, one cheese and chicken, one cheese and more cheese, all swimming in chile -- with extra chile, an extra taco and extra sour cream on the side. The Brewery Bar family is proud of the fact that it goes through 40,000 pounds of cheese every year -- it posts the figure on the wall of both restaurants, in fact -- and I'm not at all surprised by the statistic. There was more cheese on my enchilada plate than any mammal should consume in a single sitting, a gross tonnage probably equivalent to the yearly cheese intake of your average Chihuahuan or Pueblan family.
Only Brewery Bar III isn't in Chihuahua or Puebla: It's in Lone Tree. And the most Mexican thing here are the busboys out smoking hand-rolleds by the back door. If Brew the First and Brew II wound up fitting perfectly in their neighborhoods, maybe Brew III will someday, too. And that's the problem. My concern isn't with its lineage, but its incubator. Surrounded by Bennigan's, Schlotzky's Deli, Black Angus franchises, super-mega grocery marts and closet manufacturers, Brew III is doing nothing worse than trying to fit in with its neighbors.
Stepping outside around sunset, after another uninspiring meal, another bath in the blue glow of hundred-channel satellite TV, another afternoon spent among the new pioneers, I can see the future. Someday, after the buildout and the in-fill is done, Brew III will be indistinguishable from everything else in the landscape. It'll be one of those places you go to without thinking about it, and leave without remembering. I can see it in the stumpy, transplanted shade trees fighting to put down roots in hostile soil, in the frames of new tract housing spreading like an infection across the denuded hills. I can hear it in the sound of a four-man bar band singing a cappella Richard Marx oldies at the bar across the way, their caterwauling carried on thin, dusty breezes across acres of sticky blacktop parking lots just waiting for the next prefab home store to go up, the next T.G.I. Friday's, the next Bed, Bath & Beyond.
In this world, on this new frontier, I think Brewery Bar III will do just fine. But if you need me, I'll be across town, on the other side of the tracks, having a Cornito.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.