It took a while for my server to arrive, but I didn’t mind. At Bang Up to the Elephant!, which opened in the dead of winter, beach drinks rule the day and clocks run on island time. How else to explain cocktails arriving halfway through dinner? Normally I would have been peeved, but something about the laid-back dreamland that owner Kevin Delk has created inside this formerly derelict space makes you feel toes-in-the-sand relaxed, even if you were cursing the lack of parking just minutes ago. This all-day neighborhood spot seems to channel the spirit of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” even though the catchy song is never played (amen and hallelujah).
Brick walls are painted two shades of blue to capture the sky/water palette of Trinidad and Tobago, the islands that inspired Delk. There’s water here, too — not in an actual ocean (though I wouldn’t put it past Delk to try), but in a giant stone fountain playfully filled with rubber ducks. Light sparkles through a stained-glass wall and twirling, translucent mobiles, as if you were underwater looking up at the sun. Tropical plants twist out of cinderblock walls to bring a 3-D reality to this island/jungle/otherworldly octopus’s garden. Bang Up to the Elephant! is so ambitious that it’s everything and nothing in particular, more of a feeling than anything you can actually pin down.
Delk does his best to describe what he was after, but the concept is big and slippery, even for this veteran restaurateur (Beatrice & Woodsley, Mario’s Double Daughter’s Salotto, Two-Fisted Mario’s Pizza). In one breath, he talks of calypso and the desire to apply “the title of this musical genre, of uplifting and positively charged music, to the cuisine.” In another, he taps a metaphor reminiscent of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, with aliens dropping by Earth for exhibits to put in a zoo: “It’s as if some space aliens, bent on mapping and adding potential zoo planets to their collection, but with a huge galley aboard their ship, landed only on these islands,” he explains. But given the people’s “un-cageable spirit, you can forget about a successful zoo. So they gathered up the iconic trappings, especially recipes, as best they could with their limited handle on the language and culture, and took off with some really exciting dishes and menus to share. That was an exhibit!”
Never before in my years as a critic have I had a greater urge to cast off my anonymity and meet a restaurateur face-to-face; I can’t shake the feeling that our conversation, conducted across many time zones via email, would have been even more mind-blowing in person, like a brush with Vonnegut himself.
Here’s a simpler way to think of Delk’s restaurant: It’s the Casa Bonita of Capitol Hill, only hipper and funnier. Instead of cliff divers, you get fantastical decor, live music, pay-what-you-wish yoga, performance art, and seating that’s good for the big-group birthdays and gangs-all-here gatherings that add to the festive vibe.
While food isn’t the main draw, it’s refreshing in its difference from Denver’s norm. The menus — and there are lots of them, since Bang Up to the Elephant! is open from the early morning to the wee hours of the next morning — conjure up island spirit and the intersection of many cultures. Unconcerned with authenticity, the kitchen wheels and deals, relying on ingredients rather than traditional recipes to evoke the Caribbean. Jerk chicken is a standout — smoky, charred and a touch fruity from allspice, ginger and orange peel. Served skin-on and cut into parts, the bird is juicy and fragrant, best eaten with your fingers so that you can smell the spices as you lift it to your mouth. One of the heartier entrees on a menu of small plates, curries and sandwiches, the chicken comes with grilled pineapple, slaw and coconut rice with black-eyed peas.
Curried chana (chickpeas), the backbone of roti wraps and saucy rice plates, is another highlight. An island specialty, this earthy yellow curry has a low-key profile of cumin, turmeric and ginger. It’s not soupy, like the Thai kind, instead binding everything together: chickpeas, skin-on potatoes, and proteins that range from goat to tofu. Depending on your leanings, I recommend the Mack the Knife curry with oxtail or the jackfruit roti, with a vegan filling that eerily mimics pulled pork. Jackfruit also appears on a satisfying cubano, vegetarian but easily vegan.
The team’s mantra of “authentically inauthentic” sounds liberating. Some dishes, however, would be improved if recipes stuck closer to tradition. For the jerk chicken, the kitchen takes pains to fill the smoker with traditional pimento wood, the tree that produces allspice berries, but then leaves out the expected torch-off-your-pants heat, which would make it even better. The callaloo, a cross between soup and creamed greens, is also unexpectedly mild; at least it contains the promised crab. (Callaloo is also offered as a vegan side.) “We wanted a few things that someone with a low spice tolerance could enjoy,” says executive chef Travis Messervey, who wrote the menu with Delk after immersing himself in Caribbean cuisine on several trips to New York. In a restaurant that shoots for the moon everywhere else, however, why sink to the lowest heat denominator?
Inconsistency sometimes requires the wow factor of the space to swoop in and save a wobbly meal. Tamarind pork kebobs came out without the tamarind. Mofongo, a plantain-potato patty plopped in a doppelgänger for warm, sugary marinara, won’t attract many fans if it arrives as mine did, seared but shockingly cold inside. Some disappointments — “beaten-up eggplant” that bore no resemblance to the menu description, an All Provisions salad with fried cassava and taro that went from Styrofoam to chalk the longer you chewed — will be coming off the menu soon when it’s revamped to be more diverse and user-friendly. In other good news, drinks will get stiffer and already-low prices will drop even more.
Bang Up to the Elephant! has terrific potential but isn’t yet living up to its name, a Victorian expression for “well done.” Where it already succeeds is in its cheeky atmosphere, from porta-potty bathroom doors to the wiggly worm salad that’s really a joke to the website’s listing of a wave pool on the roof (also pretend). To hear Delk tell it, his restaurant offers “a house-of-mirrors look at Caribbean food and approach.”
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When the food is taken a little more seriously, this work-in-progress funhouse will be even more fun.
Bang Up to the Elephant! is open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily at 1310 Pearl Street. Find out more at
303-792-4949 or banguptotheelephant.restaurant.
Select menu items
Tamarind-glazed pork $14
Jerk chicken $13
Jackfruit roti $12
Mack the Knife curry $14
Seitan cubano $13