Second Helpings

Back on the Chain Gang

Bad guys can be rehabilitated.

When I first visited Alcatraz Brewing Co. in what was then known as the Park Meadows "retail resort" ("Behind Bars," September 9, 1997), the food and service screwups were almost criminal. The prison-themed eatery, which is owned by the same company as the California Cafe upstairs at Park Meadows, couldn't do anything right, and I sentenced the brewpub to a life sentence. A very short life sentence.

But over the past two years, this member of the chain gang has gotten its act together. Alcatraz has made big changes in service and kitchen staff, and its food has improved considerably. Eating there is no longer a punishment. In fact, it can be a real pleasure.

I was on a recent shopping trip with my kids when hunger hit, and we trudged into Alcatraz, assuming we'd receive the usual treatment given to a family--stuck far away from everyone else, where we couldn't cause trouble. Instead, we were led to one of the biggest booths in the house, right in the middle of several full tables, where the cheerful server handed us cups of crayons and paper and asked what kind of food she could bring right away to make the kids happy.

We decided on the artichoke dip ($6.95), which indeed appeared almost immediately. It was delicious: a plate-filling spread of artichoke bits mixed with cream cheese and pumped up with plenty of garlic. Because the dip had been spread out, then broiled, the expansive top had a rich, crunchy crust. And although I was skeptical at first about the side of tortilla chips, they were just the thing to scoop up every last morsel.

Two of our entrees also worked very well. The fish and chips ($10.95) was a particularly good version: fresh cod trapped in a thick but not-too-greasy batter made from Alcatraz's Weiss Guy Wheat, a malty wheat that's pretty good on its own ($3). The fish came with thick-cut fries, a vinegary coleslaw and a very tart, freshly made tartar sauce. And the kids' pizzas ($4.50 each), which included drinks and mini sundaes, were just the way kids like 'em, with a thin, not-too-chewy crust topped by a cheesy, sweet sauce. The pizzas were also twice as big as they needed to be, and thus an excellent value.

Only one entree was a disappointment. The Lights Out ribs ($12.95), which were supposedly applewood-smoked and St. Louis-style, were too dry, and the sauce was too sweet to be from St. Louis. And the sides had been oddly augmented: The coleslaw we'd enjoyed with the fish and chips was now studded with peanuts; the "garlic" fries were the spuds that had come with the fish, here tossed with whole peeled cloves of garlic.

But, hey, two out of three ain't bad. Throw in the waitstaff's good behavior--no request was too great, and many needs were anticipated in advance, which is so appreciated when kids are involved--and Alcatraz earns my full pardon.The only thing constant at Denver restaurants is change. In 2nd Helping, Kyle Wagner will occasionally return to the scene of previous reviews to find out what's now cooking in their kitchens.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner