On the kind of unseasonably warm winter afternoon that makes people pick up and move to Denver — and makes native Denverites fall in love with the city all over again — a breeze was blowing down Santa Fe Drive, and the garage door of Interstate Kitchen & Bar was wide open. Inside, an old slushy machine was spinning red and blue liquid almost in time to the slow, soul-rousing slide guitar of a blues track.
I was sitting at the bar, legs dangling over the edge of my seat, gazing longingly at the shelf of whiskey bottles in front of me. But instead of a cocktail, I was nursing a lunchtime Coca-Cola — and a Mason jar full of water — as I wrestled with a burger that spanned six inches, yolk from a fried egg gushing out all sides, soaking the spongy bun and dripping onto the bar below.
America, fuck yeah.
Brothers Andre and Aaron Lobato got an early start in the restaurant business, helping their parents, Jack Kerner and Kathy Andrade, run the 14th Street Bar and Grill, which had a 22-year run in Boulder. Just before that restaurant finally closed, the siblings took a cross-country trip and, along with their friend Joey Newman, decided to open their own place, a hip take on a classic highway roadhouse that could use fellow Coloradan Trey Parker's song as its soundtrack. In 2009, the partners picked up the lease on the corner spot that had held the Santa Fe Tequila Company, a new building in the middle of old storefronts that today hold galleries, shops and other restaurants. They redesigned the space with tables that recall the round booths in diners, an old wood bar, artwork that shows old gas stations, and actual automotive fixtures, including the back of a car in the bar. The decor is a tribute to all the romantic symbols of roadside Americana: Norman Rockwell meets a heavy dose of rock and roll meets a mechanic with cigarettes rolled into his sleeve. And for many of us, that induces nostalgia for a life we never really knew.
See more photos of the menu items at Interstate Kitchen & Bar in Cafe Society.
The bar serves domestic beers exclusively — highbrow craft selections on tap and in the bottle, and cans of everything from Hamm's to cultish Ska to tallboys of Miller High Life and PBR — as well as more than fifty craft whiskeys, most of them bourbons. The cocktail list is also whiskey-heavy, with juleps, sazeracs and sours named for highway kitsch. And that slushy machine is mixing vodka-laced frozen drinks, like what you'd make with a large 7-Eleven Slurpee and a handle of cheap booze on a spring break road trip.
The menu, a board of comfort-food snacks, sandwiches and platters heavily influenced by Southern and Midwestern specialties, is designed to mimic dishes that come "straight from your mom's kitchen," according to Interstate's website.
But taste better.
Except for that burger, maybe. I'd expected this quintessential symbol of American gastronomy to be one of the best things on Interstate's all-American list, but it was my least favorite. Stacked high with cheddar, bacon, an egg, iceberg lettuce and a thick cut of mealy tomato, the burger was so comically large, I couldn't fit my mouth around it. And the produce was so plentiful that it masked the flavor of the proteins — but it turned out that the patty was overcooked, the egg underseasoned and the bacon burned. I abandoned the burger halfway through in order to concentrate on the sides that had come with it: thin slices of tangy, housemade pickles and golden-brown, extra-crispy fries, served in a cone and absolutely addictive.
Just about everything else I tried over the course of numerous stops at Interstate, though, was on par with the pickles and fries: excellent versions of American classics.
One afternoon a friend and I sidled back up to the bar in time for Interstate's first happy hour — which runs from 4 to 6 p.m., with a second from midnight to 1:30 a.m. — and took full advantage of it, ordering a feast of extraordinarily cheap snacks. We started with more pickles — this time cut thickly, then battered and tossed in the deep fryer. Though a little too soft in the center, the pickles had an intense acidity that cut right through the crispy batter. Even better were the deep-fried chicken livers, velvety chunks of offal with enough meat to hold up to the batter but enough fat to make each bite seem especially decadent. Dipping the livers in the vinegary, housemade hot sauce took them up another notch, the tart spice balancing the richness. We followed up with a heaping bowl of bacon corn, cherry-picking delicate, spicy roasted peanuts and crunchy bits of bacon before eating a couple of handfuls of fluffy white popcorn. My favorite starter of all, though, was an appetizer from the regular menu: macaroni and cheese. The Interstate version is fairly straightforward but ideal: elbow macaroni in a little clay pot, sharp and stringy with English cheddar, mozzarella and house-made béchamel, and dusted with breadcrumbs scorched into a golden crust. Scallions peppered the top, and the bites that included the fresh nip of those onions were the most satisfying of all.
By the time the remnants of our happy-hour binge were cleared away, I was regretting having ordered a BLAT — but one look at this monster and I was hungry again. It was nearly as thick as the hamburger, but this time the bacon was perfect, crisp and smoky, and played well against the fat avocado slices, crunchy iceberg and fresh, flavorful tomato. Everything was stacked on toasted sourdough smeared with sharp, blue-cheese mayonnaise — a surprising and welcome addition. I managed to polish off this sandwich, too, as I stayed at the bar for a few more hours, nursing a Standard Etiquette cocktail made with whiskey, grapefruit juice and honey, chatting with my friend and enjoying the anecdotes of co-owner Newman, who was manning the bar. It was an immensely pleasant evening, and I might have hung out until the late-night happy hour if I'd thought I could possibly eat anything more.
Although I love Interstate's convivial bar and the community that has sprung up around it, when I returned with a group, we grabbed a comfortable booth in the massive, low-lit, all-too-often empty dining room. But our table, at least, filled up fast. We started with spoonbread, a take on a Southern classic dish that straddles the line between cornbread and corn soufflé and is eaten with an actual spoon. I loved the spongy texture and the way the kitchen had improved on the original recipe with a red-chile-infused honey, making each bite a mix of sweet, spicy and savory. The fried chicken was our best entree: The tender, oil-free leg and breast were encased in a crunchy, airy batter and smothered in a thick, creamy country gravy, and came with a side of lardon-laced green beans studded with black-eyed peas and slick caramelized onions. The ribeye was another winner, seared a perfect medium rare and topped with a warm potato salad that mixed biting blue cheese and firm fingerlings with sautéed arugula and more onions. After those two stellar dishes, the Philly cheesesteak seemed dull: The mix of mushrooms, onions and peppers that smothered the thin slices of beef and melted Swiss cheese also smothered any flavor the meat might have had while lacking any flavor of its own; the beef jus helped a little.
We finished the meal with a thick slice of all-American blueberry pie: plump, sweet blueberries exploding out of a flaky, golden crust topped with a light Chantilly cream. Then we lingered over mugs of coffee and talk about our grandparents and Midwestern small towns — remembering, but not quite remembering, the United States of yesteryear.
When we finally asked for our check, it came in a candy cigarette box with real candy cigarettes.
America, fuck yeah.
At Interstate, the partners have created a tricked-out, sexed-up version of our communal roots — a must-stop roadside reminder of what makes this country, and its food, great.