Cafe Society

Mountain Sun turns out ideal versions of American classics

I'd never seen Ben dance before. He's a New Yorker, a finance guy, and though he's always up for a good time, we usually spend our evenings smoking cigars and drinking Campari while talking about world affairs and travel and life philosophy, lifting quotes straight out of the Economist to confirm our political predictions and furiously googling things on our smartphones to prove each other wrong.

But when he visited me in Boulder a few months after I moved to town, we threw a Sunday-night dinner party and then, after consuming a couple of bottles of wine, traipsed down to Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery, where a local jam band had a crowd of hippies, college students and athletes just off their weekend camping trips, still clad in outdoors gear, all dancing like maniacs.

And Ben, wearing a sports coat over a pair of shorts and driving shoes, put on his sunglasses and joined right in.

I got to know my friend Thai over a series of afternoons spent standing at the bar of Mountain Sun, sipping pints of F.Y.I.P.A. while regaling each other with stories. When I was reunited with my best friend, Ali, after months of separation, we spent her first night in town at Mountain Sun, chattering spiritedly across the table while tasting through a sampler of beers. Last October, I broke up with a boyfriend over a burger at a table along the wall. And when my current boyfriend asked where I wanted to go for what was to be our very first date, in April, I suggested getting the small-talk formalities out of the way while splitting a pile of nachos in a booth. When social interaction is the goal, Mountain Sun is my go-to restaurant, a perfect social prop — like that empty glass that gives you an excuse to cross the room to the bar and strike up a conversation with an intriguing stranger, or a friend who's particularly good at third-wheeling it on a date that might not be a date.

When Kevin Daly opened Mountain Sun in 1993, he wanted to give Boulder a community pub, a place where people could gather with friends and neighbors for good food and craft beers in a space that felt like a living room. He didn't put in TVs because they would have been distracting; instead, he decorated the walls with Boulder-themed kitsch and stocked the spot with Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit games.

He fostered the idea of community in his staff, too. At Mountain Sun, there is no distinction between front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house, no rivalry between the cooks and the waitstaff. Everyone does every job, rotating through positions so that they can get to know every aspect of the restaurant. "I'm a manager, but I still have to scrub toilets," one employee notes.

As a result, Mountain Sun is the ultimate extension of that ongoing house party thrown by college friends, with endless lawn games and homebrews for everyone — whether your friends were home or not. And the crowds definitely came to the Mountain Sun party, stopping at the cash-only establishment so frequently that Daly had to open a second Boulder restaurant, the Southern Sun, in 2002. In 2008, he took his concept to Denver, establishing the Vine Street Pub (see story below).

Mountain Sun is supported by an on-site brewery and has about fifteen taps of its own craft microbrews: hoppy IPAs; thick coffee stouts poured on the nitro tap; a fruity, light blackberry wheat. In February, the restaurant hosts a stout month, rotating in a different brew each night. The Mountain Sun brews are all enjoyable — and economical, at the same price you might pay for a Coors Light elsewhere — but the guest taps, which host interesting beers from all over, are an excellent distraction. Russian River's sour Supplication — one of only a handful of kegs to make it to Colorado — made an appearance here; I've seen ales from the Bruery and pilsner from Victory. And Boulder's Avery usually commands at least one of the handles.

The successful execution of Daly's community-gathering-place concept coupled with novel, award-winning beers (accolades include several golds at the Great American Beer Festival, which starts today) are reason enough to make Mountain Sun a frequent stop. But Daly was also adamant that his spot serve delicious food.

The Mountain Sun menu lists typical bar offerings: a variety of burgers and sandwiches, supplemented by such snacks as nachos and fries. In some joints, these dishes are often served loaded with salt to encourage imbibers to continue their consumption. In others, they're prepared with no more skill than a reheated Totino's party pizza, since they're just serving as sustenance so that those who are drinking aggressively have something to put in their stomachs. Not so at Mountain Sun.

The fries are long, centimeter-thick strips of potato you salt to your own taste and douse with ketchup and malt vinegar. The nachos come loaded with quality ingredients: savory black beans, cheddar melted over each chip, a hefty scoop of tart sour cream, chunky housemade tomato salsa, creamy just-mashed guacamole and diced jalapeños. I like them with chunks of tender chicken, although I like them even more when, during a rare lull, the kitchen lets me substitute bacon.

The beef in the burgers comes from vegetarian-fed Colorado cows that aren't given antibiotics or growth hormones. That appeases my sustainability-loving side, and it translates into hefty patties, grilled a perfect medium-rare. You won't err ordering a basic cheeseburger — topped with just a melted slice of cheddar, Swiss, Monterey Jack or spicy pepper Jack, along with lettuce, onions and tomatoes — but my favorite renditions are more loaded. The junk burger, for example, which tops the beef with crisp strips of smoky bacon, a sizable smattering of sautéed mushrooms and onions, and a dollop of roasted-garlic mayonnaise, all coated in cheese and enveloped between a toasty bun. It's messy and visceral, and sure to induce a food coma. I also like the S.O.B. burger (which, despite what it looks like, stands for South of the Border), a patty topped with spicy green chiles and jalapeños, plus more bacon and cheddar.

The elevated bar offerings aren't the only things worth sampling at Mountain Sun, though. The kitchen caters to those Coloradans interested in health food — particularly that army of people in the neighborhood who adhere to a vegetarian diet. And so there are veggie burgers and black bean burgers and tempeh, substitutions for diners who don't eat meat, and vegetarian dishes worthy of an omnivore's attention, too. Like the smooth, nutty hummus served with chunks of bread and tortilla chips. Or the avocado and cheese sandwich, piled high with crisp carrots, cucumbers and green peppers, topped with onions, lettuce and tomato, and served between two slices of multi-grain or honey whole wheat bread, or on a whole wheat baguette. The rich, earthy, vegetarian black bean chili is warming and satisfying in the winter — but also light enough to be consumed with a pile of tortilla chips during warmer months. And I can't get enough of the grilled cheese sandwiches: made on buttered toast on a griddle, cooked until golden brown on the outside, the American cheese oozing within. They're even better when you add sautéed mushrooms and onions, and maybe a slice of tomato. Or a little bacon.

With such menu highlights as burgers and grilled cheese, Mountain Sun isn't breaking new culinary ground; it's just turning out the best possible versions of these American classics, ideal food for this perfect social-prop setting. Whether you're eating a beefy burger or black beans, whether you're wearing a sportcoat or a Gore-tex jacket, whether you're drinking stout or soda water, it's impossible not to get sucked into the convivial fold and thoroughly enjoy yourself and your company.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk

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