Cafe Society


The cash-poor college years can push many people to extremes. So it was only slightly surprising when, during a budget-minded trip to Pizza Hut, my then-boyfriend accepted a dare to down the entire contents of a shaker full of cracked red pepper. The stakes: $50--but he probably would have done it for $10.

The look on his face after the first mouthful is one that I'll always regret not having on film, because I married the guy anyway, and someday, when he's trying to pretend to his children that he has always been of sound mind, I'd like to have tangible proof to the contrary.

And since the first mouthful was also the last, he didn't even get the fifty bucks.

The ante would have to be upped a great deal for a similar dare at the Firehouse Bar and Grill, whose tables boast an array of hot sauces that range from sweet-and-sour to a few fueled by the ultrafiery habanero. Cracked red pepper has nothing on these.

This LoDo bar and restaurant opened like a house afire several months ago. Although it's the first dining venture of owner Mark Berzins and his wife, Margaret, they knew the right people to call on. Chef Dylan Moore, a San Francisco transplant, has a steady hand with a type of food that might give others the shakes. Mark's father, Vilis, designed the place, turning the claustrophobic home of the former Hog Heaven into an open, industrialized space with an attractive outdoor deck.

But the menu really sets the tone, fanning the flames with offerings labeled as "firestarters" and "great bowls of fire." The cutesy categories include seriously Americanized versions of dishes from areas that traditionally rely on the hot stuff--Mexico, Asia, Italy and the Middle East.

We decided to start slowly rather than burn out our buds all at once. The platter of chicken wings ($6.95) brought eight to ten each of Thai-style, Texas-style and buffalo wings. According to the waitress, the heat intensified in that order. But while the Thai wings were only faintly flavored with a sweet, vinegary coating and had no discernible heat, the Texas wings, with their three-chile barbecue sauce, were noticeably hotter than the buffalo wings, with their upper-class Tabasco-type coating. The other starter, a quesadilla stuffed with nicely cooked black beans and lots of cheese ($4.50), was excellent, if mild. The somewhat crunchy red-chile-flecked tortillas provided a good balance for the fillings, and freshly diced tomatoes, onions and green bell peppers rounded out a solid Tex-Mex standard.

I don't know if the Firehouse's green chile matches that standard; after I ordered a cup, chef Moore sent the waitress out with the message that he refused to serve the green chile because it had gone "bad." Since I've worked in places where the kitchen dolled up week-old fish, I was encouraged that the cook cared enough to send only the very best. Instead, I tried the chili con carne ($4.95), a comforting bowl of kidney beans, green bell peppers and ground beef heartily showered with cumin.

Although the Firehouse bills its rotisserie chicken ($7.95) as a specialty, I didn't find it anything special. (Next to wood-fired pizza, this dish is already the most overdone in Denver, anyway.) Purportedly marinated and rubbed with a red curry, the half-bird was properly cooked, tender and juicy, but it tasted pretty much like plain old chicken. The side of red cabbage, however, was a standout: Horseradish, red chile pepper pieces and garlic gave the chopped vegetable a chutneylike quality. The spicy fries, speckled with cayenne and seasoned salt, were even more flavorful.

Another helping of fries was reason enough to order the burger, one of the Firehouse's "thrills from our grill" that house either a half-pound beef patty or a grilled chicken breast. The Firehouse Grill ($5.50) came with what was called a "pasilla" pepper but what I suspect really may have been a poblano (which, to make things even more confusing, is the green form of an ancho--and is sometimes called a "pasilla" by Californians). The true pasillas I've seen are about six inches long and skinny; this pepper was short and fat. Whatever its name, its bite was unforgettable: The pepper had been cooked until limp with a few caramelized onions, then added to a wedge of melted cheddar cheese that already topped a tasty chunk of meat and a huge toasted bun. The burger was all it should have been--except accompanied by a trio of sauces, as promised on the menu.

Those sides of sauces are another Firehouse specialty--and apparently a challenge for both the waitstaff and diners to get straight. But since the hot-sauce concept is what pushes Firehouse offerings past the level of upscale bar food--and also helps atone for the fact that some of the dishes have no noticeable heat of their own--it would be worthwhile for the management to hold a refresher course for the help. The menu lists two kinds of sauces, "custom mild sauces" and "custom hot sauces"; within each of those is a subset of three, each trio designated as going with the bowls, the Mexican platters or the burgers/sandwiches. If an experienced waitperson is available to guide you through what is no more difficult than, say, filling out your tax returns, you should have no complaints about this rigmarole. But we didn't know what the heck was going on and simply asked for some specific sauces--which turned out not to be in our assigned category. After some debate, the waitress finally humored us and brought a sample of the intriguing Rothschild's Raspberry Salsa. It was tangy, sweet, only slightly spicy and a good match for the burger--even if it did violate Firehouse guidelines.

On a return visit, we felt suitably enlightened to order without aid. Unfortunately, our appetizer of rajas ($4.95), a cheese dip, was tepid in both temperature and spice. The cheap, tawdry cheese food contained exactly two bits of roasted red bell pepper and one flaccid strip of caramelized onion. The menu had mentioned salsa, too, but we couldn't find it.

Better were the salads ($1.95 as sides, $3.95 solo), useful as coolants but also substantial on their own. On one, a red-bell-pepper ranch dressing added zip to a standard mix of greens; on the other, an oil-free Thai-pepper vinaigrette--"Asian love juice," according to our waitress--provided the perfect counterpoint to perky Asian radish slices and shredded carrots. Since the Firehouse doesn't serve bread, the salads came in handy when we got overheated digging through the spicy Italian bowl ($5.95). Penne pasta had been mixed with wonderfully spicy sausage and a thin tomato-and-basil cream sauce that suffered from too much of the herb.

As far as I'm concerned, the hottest thing going at the Firehouse is dessert. Although we received only a tiny slice of the pecan pie ($2.95), we couldn't miss the sticky sweetness of the filling and the good, old-fashioned crunch to the crust. Not as conventional and therefore even more intriguing (although it took some prodding from the waitress before we ordered it) was a dish of habanero sorbet ($2.95). The ice was very sweet but had the definite, if subtle, taste of the hottest pepper of all.

I dare you to try it. With a shaker of red pepper as a chaser.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner