Okay, maybe I batted an eye over the parking lot, an unpaved, slippery mess without a single working streetlight. Maybe I swore a few times as I navigated the walk that needed shoveling and ice melt. Maybe I laughed at the makeshift sign taped to the window with an arrow pointing left to Will Call and a similar arrow pointing right to Tengu, the second of three restaurants planned for the project. But did I question the possibility of finding terrific food in an under-construction office building in what, prior to the Source’s arrival up the road, had been a stretch of mostly abandoned warehouses? Not for a second. On today’s dining scene — both local and national — great restaurants pop up where you least expect them.
The fact that Will Call, one of dozens of watering holes in Little Pub Company’s portfolio, specializes in Venezuelan arepas made it seem even more likely that I was about to experience something special. Why serve arepas, rather than the Elm’s burgers or the Pioneer’s tacos, unless the restaurant group was determined to up its game? Why else hire a kitchen manager, Mitchell Calvin, who graduated from culinary school and staged at Chez Panisse? “Our owner, Mark Berzins, was visiting a friend in Connecticut. His friend took him to a Venezuelan restaurant, and he tried the arepas and fell in love,” Calvin told me when I called to ask about the menu. “Immediately, [Berzins] got on the phone with our corporate chef and said, ‘This is the next thing.’”
It seemed that memorable South American fare might be a major part of the “sweet, weird, combo-pack of awesome that is Will Call Denver,” to quote its website. But after all the arepas I ate, after piles of chicken chicharrones and sweet-potato fries and sliders, I can agree that the four-month-old Will Call is weird and sweet. Awesome — well, that’s another story. A menu that deserves that adjective, like Industry itself, remains under construction.
Will Call’s design pays homage to the site’s original function as the will-call area for a produce depot built in 1939. Those two words are spelled out on one wall, eroded slightly as if by time and weather. Glowing orange “shipping” and “receiving” signs flank the bar; an old-time drawing of a hand points to the kitchen. Still, the room feels industrial rather than historic, with gutters doubling as light fixtures, exposed black ductwork and loud music on the digital jukebox. It also feels more like a saloon than a restaurant, thanks to the central bar that dominates the space. Even if you’re at one of the booths along the perimeter, you’re always aware of the ebb and flow of people getting drinks, partly because of the bar’s size and partly because the booths sit up a few steps, giving the impression of bar as center stage.
This was an impression that lasted throughout my first meal at Will Call, and all the meals that followed. Try though it may, Will Call always pointed first and foremost to the bar, with food doing what it usually does at taverns: cushioning drinks.
Showing ourselves to a circular booth, we were greeted by a server who simultaneously handed over the menus and asked if we wanted something to drink. Unfortunately for me, Will Call has a strict card-everyone policy; to pull out my ID would’ve blown my cover as anonymous restaurant critic. So I ended up with an agua fresca, a mango-watermelon concoction that should have been a refreshing complement to the South American-inspired fare. But the drink was chalky, as some mangos can be, and tasted like too many ice cubes had melted in it.
Maybe the rum version would’ve taken the edge off; I needed something to get through what quickly turned into a deep-fried parade. Cheese empanadas were pleasant enough, though the shells tasted like all-purpose wrappers that could’ve been used for any number of culinary projects, and the accompanying ranch dressing seemed like a habit someone in the kitchen should kick. Chicken chicharrones, a pile of skinny strips of chicken skin and thigh meat, appeared to be a wings knockoff, complete with celery, blue cheese and choice of sauce. We picked the house green over buffalo and regretted it; the sauce was sweet and too light on acid to dent, much less cut, the richness of the fatty skin. Not even the kale-spinach salad gave our bodies a break, since it was sprinkled with deep-fried chickpeas and a heavy dressing weighed down the greens.
After a taste or two, my husband and I pushed aside the almost-untouched apps and passed the time swapping stories of the day — until we gave in to the lure of the many games flashing around us. (Will Call has as many flat-screens as a sports bar.) The arrival of our entrees quickly caught our attention — but didn’t hold it. My husband’s burger was as basic as they come, with jarred dills, raw onion and two small tomato slices that covered half the brioche. (He peeled them off when he saw how pink and mealy they were.) The accompanying sweet-potato fries were cut into awkward chunks, glazed and nearly too sweet to eat. And for a place that makes its own salsas and dressings, it’s surprising that the only condiments were ones squirted out of a bottle.
My arepas were another disappointment: They had not been grilled and finished in the oven, as they often are, but instead had also become victims of the fryer. So rather than an addictive cross between corn tortillas and pita bread, they tasted like hush puppies, with insides as gummy as a mouthful of peanut butter. A shmear of dry black-bean paste — included in nearly all versions — only made the problem worse. Too bad the fillings didn’t come naked, like Venezuelan versions of tortilla-free burritos, highlighting tender pork; chopped chicken; steak hinting of cilantro, orange and lime; grilled shishitos, avocado, ripe plantains and corn. But then again, an open display would have only highlighted sloppy execution. The mangos in the Call arepa were an affront to manners, big chunks requiring an even bigger mouth. A paltry half-slice of shishito made its way into the RiNo. Chicken skin added a bite of crunch to the Chicharrón — actually two bites, since there were only two strips. Deep-fried plantain in the Toastdor was tasty while it lasted, but the one nub was gone all too soon. Sauces detracted, not added: that bland house green; a deceptively sweet, not at all fiery mango habanero; smooth avocado salsa that added little more than mouthfeel. The exception was the cilantro mojo, a thick green paste with the salt, citrus, heat and freshness necessary to bring out the best in this kind of food.
The arepas were served with a laughably small heap of sweet-potato fries, but we didn’t want more of those anyway. On other visits, I upgraded to plantains, which turned out to be maduros (fried sweet plantains) rather than the savory tostones, and tasted like an early dessert, given the side of raspberry coulis. The plantains were certainly a better choice than the understuffed apple arepa that followed, thrown on a plate without the promised caramelized rum, and with no drizzle or garnish.
One dish deserved to be called awesome: the guisado, an enchanting soup similar to minestrone, only South American, not Italian, in nature — with carrots, sweet potatoes and a hint of pineapple in a coconut-milk-based broth that whispered of other lands. The soup alone would be worth a return visit to Will Call, even if it meant more virgin drinks, more dark parking lots, more flashing screens — proof, if anyone needed it, that great food can indeed be found anywhere, provided you know where to look.
3043 Brighton Boulevard
Select menu items:
Cheese empanadas $8
Chicken chicharrones $8
Industry salad $9
Angus burger $9
Apple arepa $4.50
Will Call is open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily. For more information, go to willcalldenver.com.