Was it that long ago that Sputnik
was ground zero for Denver's outbreak of hipsterism? Were we really so young back then, when bearded men and yoga-panted ladies were perceived as a serious threat rather than an accepted occupying force? Back when Donald Trump was on TV in the boardroom and not the bully pulpit, Sputnik was a punchline to many a hipster joke, even as those same gagsters inevitably enjoyed its cheap drinks and sweet potato fries. But sometime since then, Sputnik divorced itself from the neighboring hi-dive
and washed off the thick layer of grime sticking to its surfaces. The space is still dark, but not foreboding, and there's even a happy hour to make it even more welcoming.
Every day from 3 to 7 p.m., Sputnik offers discounts on the drinks and snacks that made the bar what it is. That means $2 PBRs and Lost Lake pilsners, $3 wells and $5 wines, along with $2 fries and $3 sweet potato fries, among other eats. In both liquids and solids, Sputnik follows Denver trends even as they pioneered them a decade ago. There's an impressive craft cocktail menu named after tattoos you regret getting in college, with ingredients like local Spring 44 gin and Brazilian cachaça, and the bar makes a number of tasty infusions in big glass jugs. Steeling myself for an evening of cheap beer, I started off light with the Hummingbird ($8), a blend of Portuguese white wine, Aperol, lemon and soda. A little light for a bar with a heavy rep, I thought, but with an undeniably refreshing flavor. Helpfully labeled with vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free designations, the food menu surprised me — this stuff is damn good bar food. You can sit at a booth and have a full meal here, but the life is at the bar with a can of beer and a basket of something greasy. I'm no fan of sweet potato fries, Sputnik's signature, but the regular fries ($2) do the trick quite nicely. Natural-cut, curled, flexible and brown, they're not cookie-cutter French fries — an accomplishment in itself. An even bigger pleasure is deciding what sauce to dip them in (one ramekin for happy hour, two at all other times). Mango chutney? Banana ketchup? The ever-mysterious "Sputnik especial?" I went for sambal mayo and its chunky fire didn't disappoint, but I still salivated over the remaining possibilities.
While discovering my new favorite cheapo can — Lost Lake, Wisconsin's finest — I tucked into some $2 sliders, available in pork or jackfruit varieties. I tried both, and the veg option was almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Crispy bun, tangy barbecue sauce, a couple of well-placed pickles and this is a good part of any balanced vegan/vegetarian breakfast, if you take your breakfast at 10 p.m. The pork is even better, saturated in sauce and pleasantly burnt at the edges. While Sputnik does alright by barbecue, the lonesome ghosts of Southern cooking are left hungry — an order of hush puppies ($3) was clearly just spheres of corn dog batter with a low-octane jalapeño sauce.
The patrons are still crunchy, the "I Heart Mormon Pussy" bumper sticker still hangs above the till, but damn if Sputnik doesn't charm more than it offends. Call it the de-fanging of South Broadway, but I like the revamped Sputnik. You will too — even if you were there before it was cool.
: Our Chelsea Keeney has already extolled the virtues of brunching at Sputnik while vegan
. It's the best of both worlds, enjoying the sins of fries and the pleasure of pan-continental dishes.
: Consider putting your drinking in the hands of one of Sputnik's bartenders and the secrets behind the bar. In addition to the night's infusions, I subjected a friend to the grapefruit-seed taste of a Swedish medicinal liqueur beloved in Illinois. Perhaps he'll forgive me when the gradual burn of the spirit subsides — but now we both know there's more to Sputnik's bar than PBR tallboys.