Several years ago, in a somewhat disturbing trend, relatively affluent 20-somethings began donning Von Dutch trucker hats and crowding into the contrived environs of places like Double Wide. Downing cans of beer in a staged version of Podunk apparently made privileged urban types feel more real, more down-to-earth—a kind of Simple Life for the $30,000 millionaire set.
Nowadays, with bank accounts teetering, the novelty of mocking rural America has worn thin. Yet that didn't stop Blue Collar Bar from opening on the still-gentrifying end of Henderson Avenue, alongside established and very real dives like Slip Inn and Louie's. The new pub will (with Barcadia and Café San Miguel), help anchor a growing cluster of small nightlife venues—a noble venture, although its contribution involves a collection of Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon pop tops. Owner David Pedack peddled the bar's adopted theme by trotting around media kits stuffed cleverly into metal construction worker-style lunch boxes. And the setting is very much workaday, from the drab, almost unmarked exterior to the slab floor.
Aside from valet parking, however, there's very little ironic about the place.
OK, the menu is admittedly kitschy, perhaps even nostalgic, batching items into such categories as "Green Acres" (salads), "Hand Held" (sandwiches) and "Blue Plate Specials" (entrees)—the latter in reference to bygone days when mom-and-pop diners served a meat and two sides for one fixed price. But chef Rolf Hovik manages to keep extravagant urges in check. You end up with sizable sandwiches for around $7 and full blue plates for just a dollar or two more.
Nothing fancy here. The fried bologna sandwich piles American-made mortadella, hand-cut and quite piquant, on toast seared well enough to ooze a vaguely rich, buttery flavor. But then bland, dripping cheese almost undermines the near perfect old-school appeal. Salisbury steak, revived from the age of TV trays, comes out authentically overcooked, reeking of mushrooms and gooey brown sauce and tasting like a gourmet Hungry Man dinner. Hovik, late of Samba Room, works from a tiny, afterthought kitchen wedged into one corner, personally manning two burners, a flattop grill and one deep fryer barely large enough for a couple of baskets. To save time and effort, the same ground beef goes into Blue Collar's burger, Salisbury steak and the meatball "poppers." Runners occasionally shuffle back and forth between his station and a vintage walk-in fridge, allocated in part to the storage of ingredients, more to the bar's throwback beer collection.
The limitations imposed by this setup show here and there. Hasty expediting by this one-man operation left beautifully crisp fries powdered in salt...using "powder" in the sudden-blizzard-capable-of-turning-black-diamond-slopes-into-treacherous-deathtraps sense of the word. The Cobb salad features a neat line of sliced chicken breast, juicy and golden, the interesting pineapple-teriyaki-ish marinade intensifying into something both acrid and brassy. But the remainder comes across as dry and lifeless. Fat rounds of fried cheese strike a single, relentless note. And store-bought okra lacks the weird, oily-gritty oomph that makes the fresh stuff both loved and reviled.
For the most part, however, Hovik performs admirably enough, despite cramped conditions. His chicken-fried steak will cause traditionalist Texans to cringe, but the thick, barely brutalized cut of meat and hearty pan gravy—the latter pocked with sausage, reminiscent of the first S from the mess hall favorite, SOS—is filling enough to win them over. Green beans sautéed with slivers of toasted almond in butter counters the sharp-mellow flavor of nuts with dense, perhaps even over-aggressive, seasoning. The fried pickle appetizer matches eye-popping slices, sharp, sour and hand-cut, against a clean, somewhat nutty crust. Even the chef's interpretation of state fair-style fried Twinkies (this is not a place for the cholesterol-phobic...or those recovering from bypass surgery) manages to very nearly quell the overly sweet, artificial character of Hostess' sponge cake product with a sprinkle of coconut and a few spoonfuls of strawberry.
Blame the emphasis placed on Blue Collar's bar, staffed in part by Nikita diaspora veterans Alicia Adams and Sherry Maddox, for some of the kitchen's attenuated efforts. Well, that and a diffident waitstaff.
My dinner companion one evening asked for the fried cheese appetizer—or attempted to, anyway. Our extremely literal waitress blinked for a few moments then bluntly corrected the order. "They are cheese balls," she said.
Yep—right there on the menu: fried cheese balls.
That same waitress proved equally helpful when consulted for wine, responding to a request for the house white with a blank, "Huh?"
"What white wine do you have?" my guest said, clarifying the question.
After some pushing, she admitted to stocking Chardonnay, as well. The waiter for my third visit placed the order, forgetting to mention it was for a one-top. As a result, Hovik started my Cobb salad and chicken-fried steak at the same time. Then he—the waiter—became engrossed in a series of bar tricks involving cans of Red Bull, forcing the chef to bring both entrée and dessert to my table.
Such foibles can be attributed to Blue Collar's relative youth, although diners are unlikely to suffer service blunders for long. Otherwise, the bar-restaurant manages quite well, often surpassing by some distance the modest expectations set by name, menu and décor; serving whopping portions for reasonable prices (only the flat-iron steak, at $15.50, will set you back more than 10 bucks); remaining true to the blue-collar theme without slipping—too far—toward the insulting.
In every concept restaurant, there's a point where one more decoration, one additional twist to the menu, nudges things into that territory where guests are no longer able to suspend disbelief, where masquerading as a working-class rube no longer seems like good, clean fun. Occasionally, restaurateurs who push too hard survive for a few months on fad appeal—consider, for example, the short-lived places selling cereal and real TV dinners. Pedack admits to flirting with the siren of concept restaurant doom. Fortunately, Blue Collar Bar is more of a throwback than a theme park.
If they can manage the vicissitudes of service...ah, but right now the place sways unsteadily not on the precipice of concept, but on that perilous divide between bar and bar-restaurant. On my first visit, in fact, staff members were gearing up for a ladies' night promotion, stuffing pink-trimmed T-shirts and such into gift bags while a video of "Rock Lobster" blared on a flat-screen. Less than an hour later, as I drove home, Jack FM played the same bit of lame pop nostalgia.
Now, most people are conditioned to heed basic cultural superstitions. Comets, broken mirrors, trolls—all at least draw comments like "careful, that's bad luck" or "hello, Mr. Rove." Even skeptics routinely step over sidewalk cracks and walk casually around propped ladders.
"Rock Lobster" twice in one evening...you understand my concerns.
1924 N. Henderson Ave., 214-826-2164. Open 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Friday, noon-2 a.m. Saturday, noon-midnight Sunday (kitchen closes at 10 p.m. daily). $-$$