Big Bang! Theory

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Want more bang for your dining buck? Forget those theme-park "concepts" and million-dollar designs, the 350-seat restaurants that serve the same food you'll find in any other 350-seat restaurant. Instead, take aim at a neighborhood joint with character and innovative eats.

Bang! shoots a big hole in the theory that the only restaurants that can make it these days are those with LoDo locations and major-money backers. This itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny yellow shoebox in north Denver seats 25 and has no liquor license. What it does have are three wise owners--brothers Jeff and Chris Oakley and their friend Cissy Yin--who decided not to put their lives in hock to open a restaurant. They're starting out small and taking it slow, concentrating on the food and letting everything else evolve as money allows and customers demand.

Their concentration has paid off: The food is fabulous.
Jeff and Cissy do the cooking, with Cissy handling most of the salads and desserts and Jeff taking on the rest; Chris runs the front of the house. The Oakley brothers, who hail from Illinois, met Cissy when they all worked at restaurants in Houston. Then Cissy moved to Denver and soon convinced the brothers to do so, too; for a while, Jeff and Cissy worked banquets at the Hotel Boulderado in Boulder.

One fateful day last year, Cissy was eating at Sabor Latino on 32nd Avenue and noticed a "for sale" sign at Lala's, the Mexican deli across the street. "We'd been throwing around the idea of doing our own place for a while," says Chris. "We knew what kind of food we all liked, and we just decided to go for it."

They went for it last July, gutting the deli, painting the place shockingly bright and putting in several tables. "And then we learned a few things," Chris adds. "For instance, we knew the lighting was a problem, but we didn't realize how much it mattered to people until everyone started offering advice on how to fix it." They've since taken out about half the light bulbs in the ceiling fixtures, but Bang! still needs a warmer atmosphere at night. "We know that, and we're working on it," Chris acknowledges. "And we're starting to think we have to get a liquor license. It's so expensive, but we think more people beyond the neighborhood would drive here if we had beer and wine. So we're working on that, too."

Bang!'s bare-bones setup already works. Diners order from Chris at the counter and pay, then help themselves to utensils, mugs of coffee, napkins and condiments from the self-service station to the side before sitting down to wait for their meals. These are delivered--and promptly, judging from my visits--by one of Bang!'s hardworking owners, who returns to whisk away the plate after you've finished.

But not so fast: This is food to savor. The small menu offers a something-for-everyone mix of Southern comfort food--Jeff spent some time cooking in New Orleans, and it shows--as well as other American favorites and three or four international dishes. On my first visit I wanted to try one of everything. But since I knew I'd be back, I settled on a small Caesar ($3) and the meatloaf ($8.50), while my friend ordered the small house salad ($3.75) and spiced pork loin ($8.50). Both small salads were huge but so well-executed, we kept picking at them even though we knew we ran the risk of spoiling our appetites. The Caesar was an ideal blend of garlic, salty anchovy and fresh-grated parmesan on crisp, chilled romaine; the dressing was light and creamy but not gooey. The house salad's fun assortment of field greens, radishes, tomatoes (ripe ones, no less) and carrots had been tossed with a thin but pungent red-wine vinaigrette, then lavishly topped with sun- flower seeds. Add in a nonstop supply of chewy slices of fresh bread (boules from the Denver Bread Company down the street), and we were well on our way to becoming stuffed.

Fortunately, the entrees were sized for the average eater (with modest prices to match). But there was nothing average about the meatloaf, a juicy, your-mama-never-made-it-like-this gourmet version that had plenty of intense seasonings and none of the gristle often found in ground beef. The thick piece came slathered with Bang!'s homemade ketchup, whose slight tang was bolstered by a molasses-y sweetness. Slightly chunky, skin-on mashed potatoes subtly flavored with horseradish and ladled with a peppery beef gravy, along with a mess of cooked greens not-so-subtly flavored with cayenne and soft onion strips, rounded out this homey meal. The pork loin, which was just as heavenly, was a fork-tender piece of meat sparked by rosemary and garlic; it was accompanied by more of the greens and a mound of pecan-studded sweet potatoes further sweetened with brown sugar.

There are just four desserts offered at Bang!, and any one of them sounded worthy of capping this cozy repast. We split the gingerbread with whipped cream ($2.50), a massive square of goodness. Moist, slightly crumbly, exquisitely spiced and capped by an avalanche of real whipped cream, the gingerbread was one of those rare concoctions that needed not one teaspoon more or less of anything. It was perfect. I thought about that gingerbread many times after my first visit to Bang! and tried, in vain, to re-create the recipe at home.

So I knew how my second meal there would end. But first came the small spinach salad ($3.50), another huge portion, this one containing fresh, flat-leaf spinach (which has a better flavor than the curled), chopped red onion and bits of hard-boiled egg, all coated with a tart, not-too-thick buttermilk dressing. I also tried a cup of soup ($1.75), that day a hearty, concentrated roasted garlic that went well with more Denver Bread Company bread.

Bang! has a daily special in addition to the nine entrees on the menu. That night it was roasted chicken ($7.95) with green chile and rice. The plate joined one half of a crisp-skinned, beautifully cooked bird with one of the best green chiles I've ever tasted (on either side of the border) and a heaping helping of steamy jasmine rice. We also tried the andouille sausage ($6.50), a long, super-spicy link that had been split in half and used to frame two fat fried slices of pecan sweet-potato bread; a pile each of caramelized onions and greens rounded out the plate. The flavors played marvelously against each other--the fiery sausage against the sweet bread, the racy greens alternating with cooling, sugary onion.

We made our way through a large portion of banana-bread pudding ($2.50) that was very, very good, almost liquid on the bottom and spiced with plenty of cinnamon. And then it was time for the gingerbread, which was as wonderful as we'd remembered.

"I'd say we'll be keeping that gingerbread around," says Chris. "But we need to start looking at changing the menu a bit to keep people coming in and keep us excited about it. Like I said, we're still working on it."

It may be a work in progress, but Bang! is already right on target.
Bang!, 3609 West 32nd Avenue, 455-1117. Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

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