Road Warriors

What are your first three food and drink related visits when you head to your childhood hometown? What do you order? Fried Clams from Kelly's? Supreme Sauce from Raynor's? A slice from Joe's? A take out order of a green-chili cheeseburger from The Owl Cafe? Maybe it's that hot dog from Pink's or those sticky ribs from Thelma's. Or do you head home for a bowl of Mom's chicken soup and brisket?

That's what the Steuben's website wants to know. When they were working on the concept for their new restaurant, Josh Wolkon, Matt Selby and sous chef Brandon Biederman were determined to find out what food diners know like their own blood, crave like Christmas morning, need like breath. And most important, where did diners go to get it when they were in their home town?

"Me, Matty and Brandon went to Boston," Wolkon tells me. "Because that's where I'm from. That's my home town. And we went to Kelly's, Legal Sea Foods -- like a dozen places looking for lobster rolls. Steamers? We're still working on the steamers, actually." He laughs. "I don't know if we'll ever get the steamers right."

One of the guys from Vesta Dipping Grill, the (in retrospect) groundbreaking restaurant Wolkon opened almost ten years ago, was sent to Albuquerque's Owl Cafe, to get the green-chile cheeseburger and green-chile stew recipes right. And though I don't think Steuben's has the cheeseburger down (for starters, their spy should have gone to the original Owl in San Antonio, New Mexico), Selby -- who's hanging over Wolkon's shoulder during the call -- says that's a work in progress, too. He's not happy with the consistency of the Hatch chiles he's been getting. One batch is too hot, the next almost flavorless. The kitchen's been cutting the mix with Anaheims for consistency, but it's not there yet.

"We've done a lot of research," Wolkon explains, "and you know, [buying chiles] is kind of like buying futures: You put in your order before they're grown so you can guarantee some consistency year to year. We didn't know that."

The guys went to Pink's in L.A. and the Wieners Circle in Chicago to taste some serious hot-dog contenders, then decided to serve their Vienna all-beefs steamed (the way God intended) -- but got so many complaints from people who wanted them charbroiled that now the kitchen offers them both ways. The lobster salad for the lobster rolls is straight from the kitchen at Kelly's (Steuben's brings in 500 pounds of live Maine lobster every week), but even Wolkon's own brother isn't satisfied: "He says, 'The lobster roll is awesome, but it's not as good as at Kelly's,' and I have to tell him, of course it's not as good as at Kelly's. Because you're not eating it at Kelly's. You're not sitting there looking out at the ocean. But if someone wants to say we've got the second-best lobster roll behind Kelly's? Well, that's okay with me."

When I get to talking about my lobster-roll preference, Wolkon is stunned. This man has eaten a lot of lobster rolls, and he's never heard of one done the way I remember. "See?" he says. "This is how it goes. Everyone has something different they remember. But what we're doing? If it brings you somewhere close to that? That's what we're trying to do."

I ask Wolkon if he has these kind of conversations a lot, and he just laughs. "What do you think?" he asks. "Yeah. Oh, yeah. It's non-stop. It's absolutely every day. And I tell people, if you've got something better, if you want to bring in a recipe or if you want to bring in your macaroni and cheese, go for it. We'll check it out."

The lobster bisque has already been taken off the menu because it was causing sectarian violence in the dining room. "People were either loving it or sending it back like it's the worst thing they'd ever had in their life," Wolkon says. "They were yelling about it." And the deviled eggs? The house sells more deviled eggs than anything else on the appetizer menu. And probably hears more complaints about them than anything else.

It took months of back-and-forth with the staff, months of testing pickles, porks and rolls, before they could decide on a design for the Cuban sandwich. The final inspiration came from Cafe Habana in New York, and Wolkon stands by it. The pan-roasted chicken with vegetables comes from Aubergine; Wolkon would walk into Sean Kelly's restaurant on a Sunday night and see an entire dining room filled with people who'd come only to eat the special.

"You know, this is a totally different animal than Vesta," Wolkon says of the LoDo restaurant that's been under the command of sous Wade Kirwan while Selby has been watching over Steuben's. "I mean, does it make it harder because we have Vesta? Yeah. There's a certain expectation. But it's also just different because there aren't these fights, these debates. Like the sweet-chile ginger tuna. No one's saying that Vesta's sweet-chile ginger tuna doesn't taste like their mom's sweet-chile ginger tuna, because that's ours. There's no argument."

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan