Cafe Society

A Zero's Welcome

After over twenty years in business, the Zang Brewing Co. just won the location, location, location lottery.

The original Zang Brewing Co. belonged to Bavarian immigrant and would-be miner Philip Zang, who bought the failing Rocky Mountain Brewery after he failed to strike it rich in the gold fields. He did much better with beverages: At one point, Zang made half of the beer in Colorado, and there were twelve buildings in the brewery's Platte Valley facility. In 1940 a group of businessmen bought the complex, and all of the buildings were eventually sold off and torn down -- except one. Although beer was never made in the remaining Zang structure, once a hotel for the Teamsters who drove the beer wagons (there are still twelve rooms upstairs to prove it), the downstairs has supposedly been a fully operational restaurant or bar since 1871.

But while the building's clearly historic, the restaurant that now occupies it should be history.

In 1976, current owners L. and D. Restaurant Enterprises purchased the Victorian storefront at the edge of I-25 and revamped it as the trendy Zang Brewing Co. At the time, events at nearby Mile High Stadium and McNichols Arena were all that kept the Platte Valley from seeming completely deserted, and the restaurant's ambitious menu was quickly downscaled to sports-bar fare. But then Coors Field went up, Elitch's moved, Ocean Journey took up residence across the street, and the Pepsi Center deal was inked. And so today Zang's, as the locals call it, sits on prime real estate.

I wound up there after a long day at Ocean Journey. Although we'd visited the aquarium's snack bar -- where, of course, the best thing on the menu is the fish and chips -- as I dragged my kids to the parking lot, they complained that they were still hungry. That's when I noticed the big sign hanging off the side of Zang's: Good Food, Reasonable Prices, and Kids Are Welcome.

Perfect, I thought.

But truth in advertising obviously does not apply to plastic signs hanging from the sides of historic buildings. The food wasn't good (in fact, I didn't find one thing that I'd be willing to eat again), the prices were standard for the sort of cheap sports swill that Zang's serves, and my kids were welcomed only to the extent that the drunks watching football and the gals smoking in the ladies' room thought they were cute. (My girls thought those folks were cute, too.)

The place was so crowded on this Saturday evening that it was standing room only in the bar area, and the revelers spilled over into the main eating area -- which was so smoke-filled I thought we were going to develop asthma on the spot. (Zang's also has a great patio out back, which is everyone's first seating choice during the warm-weather months.) "Dark Side of the Moon" blared in the background, and periodically an announcement boomed over the loudspeaker that anyone who wanted a ride to the ZZ Top concert could get on the bus out front.

What decade was this?

The filth covering the walls and the floor looked like it could date back to the nineteenth century -- which might be historically accurate but was also unappetizing. Ditto for Zang's chiles rellenos ($6.95), which seemed to have been made in the 1980s. The Anaheim peppers were so tough they had to be sawed with a knife, and the coating was something I'd never before encountered on a relleno (or, for that matter, on anything other than a raincoat). The leathery consistency outside indicated the chiles had been previously frozen -- and not recently. Inside was a curdy white cheese that turned into rubber-eraser material as soon as it hit the air. Yum. These packages were supposed to come smothered in Zang's green chile but appeared to have been only briefly dipped in the stuff, as though the kitchen were trying to conserve it. And while the menu had promised the chile was "HOT, man!" it not only was NOT HOT, man! but also sported an odd chemical taste. The rellenos came with a side of low-grade canned refried beans into which three tortilla chips had been stuck, as well as a pile of the usual rice, lettuce, tomatoes and black olives, none of which helped this dish in the slightest.

While beer clearly flows freely at Zang's, the kitchen is also stingy with liquids other than the chile. We'd ordered one of the two possible choices on the optimistically named "pick-a-pasta" section (both possibilities involved linguine and char-grilled chicken); the marinara with char-grilled chicken breast ($8.95) contained maybe three tablespoons' worth of sauce that was not zesty, as the menu had claimed, but tasted simply like cooked-down tomatoes to which sugar had been added to make the sauce sweeter and cut its acidity. (If any herbs had been added, we couldn't find them.) And while the chicken was tender and had a nice char, we could find only three chunks of it, which added up to about a quarter of a breast. I'd ordered the pasta for my kids to split -- but even though it cost more than two kids' meals, the server couldn't be bothered to bring an extra bowl (hey, I would have split the entree myself). Nor did she take the extra steps of offering booster chairs, bringing extra napkins or putting the drinks in cups smaller than large tumblers filled to the very top. If this is how Zang's welcomes kids, I'd hate to see how it discourages them.

Not even the ultimate kids' dessert, the Rocky Mountain brownie sundae ($3.95), was done right. A chocolate cookie crust that tasted of the freezer had been topped by a big square of vanilla ice cream and then smothered -- sure, now the kitchen gets generous -- with canned whipped cream. The whole mess was served on a plate about a centimeter bigger than the creamy blob, which meant that as soon as we took a bite, everything started oozing over the sides of the plate.

We oozed out of there as quickly as we could.

But the next day we were back in this busy little corner of the Platte Valley, this time working up an appetite at the Children's Museum. And so we decided to stop by Zang's again to see if we'd imagined the glaring gap between the welcoming exterior and the distinctly unwelcoming interior.

Once we stopped inside the door, though, it was as though we'd never left. Pink Floyd still droned on, the place was still packed, the drunks were still cute and the food was still lousy. We ordered the wings ($5.95 per pound) with Zang's original and buffalo-style sauces, both of which were awful. The original was supposed to be a "hot spicy" honey, but it was just sickeningly sweet; the buffalo-style, for which the menu warned "a sweat band will come in handy," featured very little Tabasco and so no heat. But a sweatband would have come in handy -- if for no other reason than to soak up this oily sauce. The wings themselves were rubbery and likely made ahead and reheated, since they had none of the crunch you'd expect from deep-fried. The guacamole ($6.95) was way overpriced for a small ball of mayo-laden goo, and the accompanying chips were old. The onion ring basket ($5.95) brought a pile of rings so greasy they looked like strips of wet dish rags. And the "homemade" posole ($5.95) tasted as though the broth had been watered down to stretch out the few pieces of tough, probably canned hominy and chewy pork. The burger ($5.25) was both tough and chewy, and it was far past the medium-rare I'd specified; adding insult to injury, the bun was stale. The tavern-battered cod ($6.95) featured two pieces of fish smaller than the ones we'd gotten at Ocean Journey for a buck less. And the fish's sides were no bonus: Someone had forgotten to season the curly fries, the coleslaw was so full of mayo it was no thicker than the posole, and the Texas toast was oddly soft, as though it had been microwaved.

I couldn't imagine what process had left the fajitas ($8.95) in such a strange state. Although the beef had been grilled until the strips resembled Kibbles 'n Bits, the onions and green bell peppers were nearly raw. And while the menu had made a big deal about the size of the portion -- "This is a lot of food, hope you're hungry" -- the bulk of the platter was lettuce and tomatoes, about a tablespoon of shredded cheddar cheese, and enough sour cream to bury a football.

More creamy overkill marred our dessert, this time a chocolate ice cream and pecan variation on the first. Once again, the plate was too tiny to withstand the avalanche of whipped cream that immediately began sliding onto the table.

At the sight, our server snapped at my kids, "Well, you sure made a mess, didn't you?"

Actually, the mess was made by me. My kids can't stand the sight of whipped cream.

By then, I was feeling the same way about Zang's.

Location isn't everything.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner

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