Josh Wolkon, founder of Secret Sauce restaurant group, hasn’t jumped on the obvious bandwagons. He hasn’t opened a taco joint or an intensive nose-to-tail program. He hasn’t ventured into an abandoned warehouse in RiNo or joined the crowd on Tennyson Street, and he doesn’t grow his own produce on a farm. While he does have an impressive portfolio to his name, he built it slowly, taking a glacial nine years to follow up Vesta with Steuben’s, then a marginally less glacial six to open Ace Eat Serve. During the rise of fast-casuals, he stuck to full-service restaurants instead. So when Wolkon started acting like a few of his peers, testing the suburban waters with a spin-off of his most successful urban concept, I knew I had to visit Steuben’s in Arvada.
I showed up early on a Saturday night, knowing how quickly waits can develop — not just at the original Steuben’s on East 17th Avenue, but at hotspots across suburbia. Like many of you, I’ve endured long waits at the likes of P. F. Chang’s, willing the pager to buzz before I’m bumped by a kid wrestling siblings in the crowded foyer, and I hoped to skip that scene. I did, barely, grabbing the last spot in the lot and one of the last window-front booths before the restaurant filled up. This despite the fact that the hour was so early, our fresh-faced server couldn’t yet tell us what sausages were on the daily special. (She never did report back, come to think of it.)
Around us, multi-generational families filed in, some with a birthday to celebrate. Groups of plaid-shirted guys in trucker hats downed gravy-cheese fries. Chatty women of a certain age ate dessert and nursed mugs of coffee. The crowd skewed both older and younger than in Uptown, with fewer millennials, more kids with crayons, and more guests likely to remember the days when glass bricks, swivel counter stools and silvery backsplashes were the norm, not retro. This Steuben’s, a converted Gunther Toody’s diner, has plenty of old-time touches, with enough booths to fill a bowling alley, a stone-and-wood bar that hooks off the main dining room, and a marquee sign above the kitchen with shout-outs to a local elementary school. Everything seems to be in shades of baby blue, brown and cream.
Of all the restaurants in Wolkon’s coterie, Steuben’s is the right concept to complement the feel of Olde Town Arvada, just blocks away. His long-tenured team, spearheaded by culinary director Brandon Biederman, obviously did its homework, making minor changes to the menu but otherwise bringing over the lineup that’s drawn crowds to Steuben’s year in and year out, in an era when many restaurants go from hot to not in a matter of months.
It didn’t have to be this way. Wolkon and crew could have expanded to Arvada with an abbreviated menu, under the assumption that Steuben’s edginess wouldn’t go over well in the ’burbs. Happily, however, they stuck with the winning formula: regional comfort food, a few healthy dishes, a few trendy ones and cocktails. This decision was especially smart because a roster of straight-up diner fare — without high-end and/or tongue-in-cheek touches such as lobster rolls and Steubie snacks — would’ve made Steuben’s feel old-fashioned, not retro; tired, not hip.
But hip it is, and satisfying. Steubie snacks, those brown nuggets of braised, fried pork shoulder dusted with powdered sugar, may still look like dog food, but they’re as addictive as ever. Chicken tortilla soup is made with homemade, not-too-salty stock loaded with chicken, corn kernels, tortilla strips and queso fresco. I would have preferred more chiles for added depth, but Steuben’s hasn’t found its sweet spot by catering to the extremes. Macaroni and cheese pleases kids and kids at heart, with a dynamite six-cheese blend and toasted breadcrumbs. (Those in the know add bacon and chiles.) Locally made pierogi, an Arvada addition, are as traditional as they come, plump half-moons sautéed in butter and served with a side of sour cream. While my Polish grandmother would’ve no doubt had a few words to say about the dough’s toughness, that’s a quibble only someone who knows dough intimately — as you do when you make enough pierogi to fill a freezer every year of your adult life — would bring up. A milkshake here never fails to delight, arriving in a tall glass with an equally tall shaker of extras. The shakes would be even better, though, fashioned from the hard-serve ice cream made in-house by pastry chef Nadine Donovan, rather than the soft-serve mix.
And, oh, the fried chicken. This entree is so good, it has groupies (I know some of them). Brined in buttermilk, dredged in seasoned flour and fried like nobody’s business, the bird arrives in that hard-to-achieve state of juicy meat and golden crust. Served with skin-on mashed potatoes, herb gravy and a biscuit that gets extra love from pork lard, the plate is a snapshot of what Steuben’s does so well: generous portions, downhome comfort, affordability.
For every version of Grandma’s comfort food, the menu offers something trendy or healthy — two areas where old-style diners often fall short. A hummus-and-falafel plate comes with falafel rolled to the ideal size, big enough so the parsley-flecked balls taste like more than generic fried stuff, but not so big that you’re left with a gummy inside bite. The Greek salad is equally well proportioned, with abundant greens, cucumbers, Kalamata olives, pepperoncini and tomatoes, and just a light sprinkling of onion. Thickly sliced gyros, available only at the Arvada Steuben’s, make a fine addition. Brussels sprouts aren’t exactly healthy; they’re way too fried for that. But they’re spectacular, largely thanks to the accompanying avocado-based, basil-heavy Green Goddess dip that you’ll want to slather on everything.
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At times, however, certain slip-ups make you wonder if Wolkon’s time frame, though slow by other’s standards, wasn’t slow enough. A green-chile cheeseburger came out well done, not medium rare as ordered. The Monte Cristo sandwich, essentially a fried meat-and-cheese with a dose of sweetness, deserves its resurrection from the dining vault — but only if its tempura-style batter can ooze less oil. The iconic lobster roll arrived with heaps of lobster — but also large, jagged shards of shell. Missing an opportunity to show old-time hospitality, the server hassled us about why we didn’t want to finish it, then agreed to check with the chef. She may have, but we never heard another word, and didn’t know it had been taken care of until we saw the bill.
But even when slip-ups occur, people still go away in a good mood. Wolkon’s winning formula has big margins, padded by a fun environment and memories of the good old days — whether in the ’50s or the 2000s — that provide just the right seasoning for the food.
7355 Ralston Road, Arvada
Steubie snacks $8
Brussels sprouts $5
Falafel and hummus $8
Chicken tortilla soup $3/$6
Greek salad with gyros $8/13
Monte Cristo $9
Fried chicken $16.50
Lobster roll $23
Steuben's is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at steubens.com/arvada.