There's a fine line between a manageable and unmanageable hangover, and I was delicately toeing it a few Sundays ago. The night before, I'd met friends at the Atomic Cowboy, where we'd shared a couple of thin-crust pizzas before knocking back PBRs over an increasingly difficult game of Connect Four.
When I woke up the next morning, my head was throbbing and my stomach was clenching. And the only thing that could drag me out of bed was the notion of returning, as quickly as possible, to the scene of the crime.
Drew Shader took over the Atomic Cowboy in 2004, a few months after Leigh Jones, the bar maven who now runs Jonesy's EatBar, opened it as a Southwestern diner in a former piano shop. Cartoonish depictions of cowboys and aliens still adorn the exposed brick walls that frame a wide-open room with visible piping and ventilation ducts above. In the center of the vast space is a bar with elevated seats, where patrons can sit and watch the action. Although there's more seating in booths and at high tables, the place is often standing room only — particularly on weekends, game days and other prime drinking times.
For the first few years of Shader's ownership, the Atomic Cowboy was nothing more or less than a hip bar with an ever-changing menu of negligible food, a place where the neighborhood's twenty- and thirty-somethings gathered for drinks before a show at the nearby Bluebird or whiled away a few hours at a pool table before wandering down Colfax to find something to eat. But in 2008, the Shaders — Drew married his wife, Ashleigh, now a co-owner, that same year — gave its regulars more reason to stay put when they opened Fat Sully's New York Pizza (named for a friend of Drew's who played for the New York Giants), which cooked up pies and slices for both the bar crowd and walk-up traffic.
Invigorated by the success of their makeshift parlor, the Shaders cast around for another concept. Drew, a Florida native, wanted to deliver a true Southern breakfast to Denver — and in 2009, the couple picked up a food truck so they could do just that. While the vehicle was being outfitted for mobile vending, they used the Atomic Cowboy to test recipes, opening at 8 a.m. daily as the impromptu Denver Biscuit Company. The breakfasts there were such a hit that when the Biscuit Bus hit the streets last spring, the Shaders decided to keep the expanded hours and offerings at their brick-and-mortar establishment. They also soon rolled out another food truck so that they could sell Fat Sully's slices and pies on the street, too. With that addition, the Atomic Cowboy became home base for five separate businesses.
When we arrived that Saturday night a couple of weeks ago, the place was filling up fast with groups of families and sober friends. We found a table, ordered up a round of beers from the bar's local-craft-beer tap lines, then got serious about finding some sustenance. We started with salad: crisp romaine lettuce piled with cold, salty, shredded mozzarella, thin disks of piquant pepperoni, black olives and diced tomatoes, doused in a thick, creamy, housemade ranch dressing. It was a slightly elevated version of what you'd get at most pizza parlors, with an emphasis on quality ingredients that indicated the Shaders don't see Fat Sully's as merely a pusher of bar food. Only a couple of servers were working the growing crowd, so we had time to nurse our drinks before the pizzas showed up.
Though Fat Sully's touts itself as a New York pizzeria, the pies it turns out are what I've come to identify as Colorado New York-style pizza — but these are good Colorado New York-style pizzas. The crusts, kissed with bready sweetness, are still thin, but they're thicker and fluffier than their East Coast counterparts. (If you order a whole pie, you can also get gluten-free crust). The tomato sauce is savory and thick, the layer of bubbling mozzarella more generous — and if you order a couple of toppings, you've got a hearty meal. We ordered one version with spicy sausage from Clyde's (although the sausage is outsourced, the rest of the components and toppings are all made in-house) and plenty of jalapeños, another with caramelized onions and pepperoni. The pies come in twelve-inch and twenty-inch models; I've learned through experience to order the smaller size, because the larger slices can get soggy as time passes. Unfortunately, if you're just ordering a slice, it's always cut from a twenty-incher, then topped and reheated in the oven — but then, when I'm shoving a slice in my face, I'm typically less concerned about crust composition than I am about fortifying myself against the effects of alcohol.
It was after our group was stuffed full of pizza that we switched to pints of PBR, continuing to socialize as the crowd turned from serious diners to serious imbibers, whole pizzas giving way to slices, groups abandoning their tables to stand and chat or play games. Before I knew it, I was waking up the morning after, shielding my eyes from all forms of light and steeling myself for a return to the Atomic Cowboy for a little hangover-fighting fat and grease from the Denver Biscuit Company.
The room looked like a totally different place that morning, cleared of the drinking mess of the night before and awash in sunlight streaming through the south-facing front windows. We poured ourselves steaming-hot mugs of rich Novo coffee from the self-serve station and nabbed a booth amid the families and sober friends that once again constituted the patronage. Thankfully, service was faster in the morning — because we needed food to come fast.
My go-to order at the Denver Biscuit Company is the Franklin, a veritable heart attack on a plate, with crisply fried chicken and strips of smoky bacon stacked on top of a fluffy, housemade buttermilk biscuit, gooey cheddar melted over the meats, and thick sausage gravy poured over the whole thing. Nothing kicks a hangover faster, though that's probably because all the blood in my body rushes to my stomach in order to deal with the block of cholesterol I've just ingested. Still, I changed it up that morning and ordered the chicken pot pie version, which smothered that same biscuit in a lighter, buttery gravy studded with peas and carrots and shredded chicken. Salted liberally, it did the trick — and I felt slightly less heart-diseased after I finished.
A friend skipped the gravy altogether and went with the Schooner, a biscuit sandwich stuffed with a chunk of breaded, fried, tender catfish, lubricated with a tangy homemade tartar sauce, along with lettuce and tomato. It was satisfying, but I would have preferred it alongside an order of smothered sweet-potato fries: sweet orange strips topped with more savory sausage gravy. The shrimp and grits, a seasonal special, was less appealing: Though I liked the creamy grits on top of the biscuit, nothing popped; the dish needed a stronger flavor element, like peppery hot sauce. The last thing I want to eat after a night of drinking is bland mush.
Still, we'd successfully vanquished our hangovers. And as we sat picking at the remnants of our huge breakfasts, our eyes drifted over to Connect Four, tempting us to settle in at the Atomic Cowboy and enjoy all its incarnations, once again letting day turn into night.