Baja Humbug

Once upon a time, the dimly lit Punchbowl, at 20th and Stout streets, was a perfectly good place to get an honest glass of whiskey, tell lies to your companions in highly atmospheric surroundings and, if the urge should strike, order a hefty bacon cheeseburger with plenty of good old-fashioned grease running out of it. You couldn't help noticing the vintage artwork adorning the high-backed wooden booths: rustic scenes of mountains and rivers said to have been painted in the Depression by a Native American down on his luck and in need of a square meal.

Bet the management didn't bring him a shrimp burrito. Or dried-out fish tacos.

The Punchbowl, which opened its doors in 1902, remains an ideal spot for booze, burgers and rampant untruth -- particularly when it's stuffed full of lawyers, reporters and federal agents from the nearby U.S. Court House and assorted regulars from more distinguished walks of life. So why, pray tell, have the present proprietors tried to turn this venerable institution into a half-assed concept restaurant?

To wit: The Punchbowl of yore now calls itself the Punchbowl Baja Bistro. As far as we can tell after three recent meals in the place, the renaming is nothing more than a license for the cook to send out beef fajitas the texture of rubber bands and to grossly oversalt crab cakes allegedly "blackened with verde sauce." The reinvention has also enabled the author of the new menu to abuse two languages, presumably in the name of comedy. Where else but in the fantasies of owner Fritz Voelcker would a humble Cobb salad be renamed "Ensalada de Cobb-O" and the chili "rellano" come "smothered con verde?" Care to order the "Ensalada El Puncho" or (our own linguistic favorite) Carne Bar Be-Coa? The new menu needs a proofreader ("Plato grandes"?) as badly as an infusion of kitchen talent.

We've tried these items -- and others, and it's safe to say that they resemble the cuisine of Baja California as much as Campbell's chicken gumbo resembles the transcendent stuff you get in New Orleans. If you want a real sopa de mariscos, try Manzanillo on West Colfax. Looking for good crabmeat burritos? Forget it. No such thing.

On the other hand, it's easy to take the Punchbowl's misguided experiment with Mexican beach food with a grain of salt -- several million grains of salt, actually -- and return to this wonderful old saloon for its more timeless pleasures. At least Voelcker and company have not installed plastic palm trees, and no one will fall by the table trying to sell you silver jewelry. In fact, the Bowl looks, feels and acts precisely the way it has for the last quarter-century, before the introduction of the "ensalada de chef" or a version of carne asada so tough you could field groundballs with it six blocks away at Coors Field. Baja Bistro? No way. Not while the great photos of young Cassius Clay and Joe Namath still hang on the dark red walls, along with a pre-war M & O Cigar placard and a tattered pennant advertising the 1939 Chicago World's Fair. The whiskey is still plentiful and the burgers still among the best in town -- even if, under the new regime, the bacon-and-blue-cheese version is now called "El Azul" and French fries have been variously renamed "pappas" or "papas."

By any name, the Punchbowl is still a classic.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo

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