For Jason and Devin Stallings, who opened DJ's Berkeley Cafe in August 2006, one restaurant wasn't enough. Maybe that's because their first place was so ridiculously successful. Maybe it's because of the brothers' weird compulsion to work 24 hours a day (you can see what a job it was to renovate the space at http://djscafe.blogspot.com, the website Jason put together to detail every phase of DJ's construction). But to hear Jason tell it, their latest deal has everything to do with his and Devin's love of classic dive bars — reason enough for them to last month buy the historic Berkeley Inn at 3834 Tennyson Street, right next to DJ's.
"It's been up and running since 1946, 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week," Jason told me. And the brothers didn't have it shut a single day during the transfer of ownership, much to the delight of regulars who've been going to the Berkeley — and occasionally riding their motorcycles through the Berkeley — for thirty years. "It had quite a bit of neglect," Jason continued, but the brothers plan to do nothing more than turn it into a "nice dive bar as opposed to a neglected dive bar."
Thus far, they've put some new upholstery on the bar stools, brought in some better inventory (read: booze), changed the tap handles and done little else. Unlike DJ's, it serves nothing more than simple dive-bar food — "pizzas and pickled pig's heads and stuff" — and has the one thing that every true dive bar must have: cigarette smoke. "It's one of the only dive bars in Denver where you can smoke," Jason explained, because it somehow managed to slip the noose of the smoking ban with a cigar-bar exemption.
I am so there.
Meat your maker: Come to find, the Chinese place that Laura and I were talking about at the end of the review of DJ's isn't closed at all. Little Panda, which I first wrote about back in January 2008, is alive and well and bustling at 18121 East Hampden Avenue, and an outpost of the cheesesteak place we were talking about, Taste of Philly, has actually opened in a strip-mall space next door. This is good news, obviously — another one of those geographic juxtapositions that I love so much, placing China just a few steps away from the City of Brotherly Love, culinarily speaking, so that a weird boy like me can make an easy dinner of potstickers, chicken lo mein, Tastykakes, green tea and a cheesesteak without taking more than a dozen steps. That's awesome, and one of the things I love about living out here. Chinatowns and Little Saigons and Little Italys are all well and good, but I much prefer the polyglot madness of the Colorado strip mall, where an adventurous soul can sample injera, pork barbecue, tamales and pelmeni all without ever moving his car.
Just one problem. I hit this Taste of Philly last week, picking up a few sandwiches to eat while watching Lost, and they weren't very good sandwiches. Because of the name, because of the decor (poverty-simple — nothing but a few cheaply framed pictures of Rocky, the Liberty Bell and da Iggles) and, of course, because of the menu (hoagies and cheesesteaks, all day, every day), I have been suckered into Taste of Philly's various locations more times than I can count. I sometimes suffer wicked cravings for the hoagies and cheesesteaks we get whenever Laura and I go back to Philly to visit her folks, and keep convincing myself that maybe the sandwiches can be just as good out here. And while sometimes I am right, while sometimes I can get a fantastic sandwich at a Taste of Philly — one that has just the right balance of meat to cheese and meat-and-cheese to bread or (with the ham hoagie) meat and cheese and lettuce and oil to soft bread and onion — I get that fantastic sandwich just often enough to make me forget all the bad sandwiches I also get all too often at the chain's various locations.
The cheesesteak is usually okay: lots of meat, just enough cheese (either white American or Whiz) to cement it all together, and a roll that soaks up the grease like a sponge. Delicious. But the hoagies? Not so much. The ham hoagie I got last week was a mess: the ham of a middling grade — neither the super-cheap water-packed stuff that I love sliced super-thin nor the top-dollar deli ham — and cut too thickly and at an odd slant on the slicer so that the plasticky rind was like chewing rubber bands; the onions chopped like someone was prepping them for sauté, too big and too thick when they ought to be slivered or sliced paper-thin by a talented hand on the rotary. The lettuce was chopped, too, rather than shredded, and no one can make a masterful sandwich out of chopped lettuce. From top to bottom, everything about my hoagie seemed clumsy and inexpert, speaking more of expediency than care.
It could be that I'm spoiled. It could be that I've had so many great sandwiches from so many places that nothing but the best will satisfy me. But honestly, I don't think that's the case. I believe Taste of Philly just needs to remember that a properly made sandwich is a work of art — and that if you name yourself after one of the sandwich capitals of the United States, you'd better take a certain amount of pride in your work. It ain't about making a lot of sandwiches fast. It's about making a lot of sandwiches well.
Next time I've got the hunger, I guess I'll just stick with the cheesesteak and double up on the dumplings next door.