Cafe Society

Red Trolley needs to serve more than ice cream to stay on track through the winter. But hot dogs?

When it opened in the middle of the hot summer of 2008, Red Trolley was an ice cream and gelato shop, and only an ice cream and gelato shop. Still, it was located in a lovely, historic space (the website claims Red Trolley stands on the site of an old streetcar turn-around) and dedicated to the worthy notion of bringing healthy, all-natural ice cream and gelato to the Highland neighborhood. Owners Patrick and Julie Shaw made their own everything, robbing local peach trees and grapevines for base ingredients, vowing (quite publicly) to never use artificial flavors, high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats or sprinkles. They imported cones from France, crafted their own marshmallows and filled freezer cases with handcrafted ice cream. And not only was this ice cream good for you, but it tasted good: The salted caramel version alone drove local ice cream aficionados (myself included) around the bend with joy.

It was more than enough in July. Also in August and September and October and even November. But when winter really hit, ice cream — even very, very good ice cream — probably wasn't going to be enough to keep Red Trolley going.

So the Shaws started serving breakfast, including a cereal bar featuring bottomless bowls and a variety of toppings and homemade cereals that probably reminded Patrick of his mom's health-food business, which she ran out of the family's living room in Florida when he was a kid. They added sandwiches to the lineup and instituted a root beer float happy hour featuring Red Trolley's own ice cream and the Wynkoop Brewing Company's Tiger Root Beer, poured from a tap installed behind the counter. They were already pouring local Novo coffee, and now brought in a brand-new espresso machine as well as a Clover coffee machine — a wickedly expensive ($10,000 or more) combination French press and vacuum contraption whose name works like magic on coffee freaks, the mere mention of it driving them into fits of caffeinated euphoria.

"We kinda got all over the place," Patrick admitted when I asked about that first winter. They didn't really have a solid plan for how Red Trolley would support itself, how it could best serve the neighborhood and its own beliefs through the long, cold months.

Still, Red Trolley survived until summer and ice cream weather rolled around again. In the heat, I returned for the salted caramel ice cream, with its thick layer of chocolate; for honey graham so good I wanted to order a bucket delivered to my house; for simple vanilla that was never quite as good as I wanted it to be (almost watery, and without the smooth, luxurious kick of milk fat that's the only thing interesting about good vanilla ice cream); for honey-lavender that tasted like eating cold potpourri.

Even in summer, though, Red Trolley didn't stand still. The breakfast service changed, the sandwiches disappeared, and hours were added. "It's an evolution," Patrick told me. "You have to know when you've made a mistake and fix it quickly."

Now a second winter is coming, and Red Trolley has headed off in yet another direction.

Red Trolley is a family-friendly place, a kid-friendly place (Patrick and Julie have three of their own and were inspired to get into the ice cream business when they couldn't find healthy ice cream alternatives for their children), but it's also a neighborhood place. And when the Shaws see a neighborhood niche that needs filling, they steer Red Trolley that way.

Ice cream still holds the place of honor in the comfortable wood-and-brick room with the little trolley running on tracks near the ceiling. It's front and center right when you come through the doors: salted caramel and chocolate and spumoni and peach gelato and "Candyland" (chocolate chips and split malted milk balls) and honey this-and-that arranged on metal trays behind nose-printed glass. But today Red Trolley is also a breakfast spot (egg sandwiches and cereal on the weekdays, malted French toast, multi-grain pancakes and Belgian waffles with scoops of ice cream melting into the dents on the weekends), a spot for morning coffee from the Clover, for free wi-fi and local sodas from Oogave in the afternoon, for specially imported whole-leaf teas dripped through high-tech tea-making gadgets that Patrick will tell you all about if given half a chance.

And it's a spot for hot dogs, too. Red Trolley now has a hot dog bar that showcases the all-natural, antibiotic-, hormone- and nitrate-free local dogs of Denver's Continental Sausage Company.

I was in a hot dog kind of a mood a week or so ago when I stepped out of the mud and melting slush that lined the sidewalk and into Red Trolley. Unfortunately, Red Trolley doesn't serve what I'd consider hot dogs. Yes, what it serves are inarguably tube-shaped meat products. There are buns to put them in, and shaved onions and cheese and relish to put on top of them, and a few sticky bottles of mustard on the counter with which to dress them. But when I think "hot dog," what I'm conjuring in my mind is the cheap and bad-for-me variety — the dogs full of chemicals and filler, hog lips and beef hearts and delicious, delicious nitrates. I'm thinking about Sahlen's or Thumann's on the top end, limp and generic grocery-store brands on the bottom, and about how much I love to boil up one or two in the middle of the night and not think at all about how unhealthy I'm being, because, frankly, come three o'clock in the morning, there are way less healthy things I could be doing (used to be doing...) than eating a dog or two.

The Red Trolley dogs are of that particular modern genotype of things-formerly-delicious-but-bad-for-you-suddenly-turned-healthy-and-guilt-free-and-not-the-same-at-all; they occupy the same questionable food space as tofurkey and carob and light beer and all-natural bread that tastes like eating ten pounds of wheat germ and mortar. I wanted a hot dog. What I got was a "T dog" (for Trolley Dog, get it?), the house version of the classic Coney Island hot dog except that it was too stiff, shockingly snappy (Continental uses nothing but natural casings), and lacking that salty, malty, sour taste of poverty and sodium nitrate that to me is the core sensory experience of a proper hot dog. I gamely took two bites — just enough to get me to the whole-grain bun — and then doused the rest of the thing in bright-yellow French's mustard to cut the unusual flavor (like a savory pudding, maybe, or a dense SPAM forcemeat) and powered through the rest. To reward myself, I ate half a pint of salted caramel ice cream in the car while smoking just enough cigarettes to counter-balance whatever good health benefits I might've accidentally accrued by eating the T dog.

I am a brave man, though. And stubborn. So I kept going back to Red Trolley and trying more dogs. I ordered the Buffalo Bill (a 100 percent bison dog) and, provided I didn't think at all about hot dogs, found it decent, though so lean that the flavor seemed to have no carry; two seconds after swallowing, it was like I hadn't taken a bite at all. But the Ballpark was actually a decent version of a veal brat, dirtied up with a little pork in a custom blend that was so juicy it squirted when I took the first bite and would've truly pissed off the two guys sitting at the next table had they not just gotten up to go and peruse the ice cream selections. And the Spicy Highland, a dark-brown smoked bison tubesteak with a texture like blood sausage and a spark of jalapeño and cheddar to the mix, was a great sausage. Topped with a little cheese and a little onion and folded into a steam-damp and toasted whole-grain bun, it was a good meal that I could even see eating again the next time an urge for that particularly American brand of cylindrical meat (and a pint of ice cream to go with it) overtook me. So while these are not the old-fashioned, unhealthy dogs I like, they're not a bad direction for Red Trolley.

But I hit another bump in the road with the Red Trolley's root beer float. A good root beer float is a thing of beauty, a kick of pure, historic brilliance improved only by the judicious application (from hip flask or friendly bartender) of Bulleit or Makers, redolent of a thousand summer days of childhood without ever becoming too sappy or nerdily retro. I love root beer floats, consider myself a serious connoisseur. And the Red Trolley's version tasted terrible: weak, flat and more like medicine than anything pleasurable.

Maybe the watery, too-mild house vanilla ice cream didn't work with the Wynkoop's usually good root beer. Maybe it was just that my body was missing the chemical spike of high-fructose corn syrup. Maybe it's impossible to turn every guilty pleasure into a guilt-free, healthy(ish) treat.

"We're not trying to be freaks about it," Patrick insisted. "We're not trying to serve people only on the far edges."

 So I'm still hoping they'll tinker with the drink, that it will be one of those mistakes they fix quickly.

"You fail your way to the top," Patrick told me. So far, Red Trolley seems to be on track.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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