- Walter Novak
- Horseradish-crusted salmon arrived gently broiled and enticingly moist.
There's been a tavern in the vintage building on the corner of West 11th and Fairfield in Tremont for about as long as anyone can remember, from old-timey beer-and-a-bump joints all the way up to contemporary incarnations that increasingly reflect the 'hood's incipient hipsterization. Sure, it hasn't always been smooth sailing: While the physical space seems to have an inherent good vibe, recent owners haven't always known how to harness that energy to best effect. Happily, current owner Sherman DeLozier seems well on his way to getting it right.
DeLozier, former bartender at both the Treehouse in Tremont and the Blind Pig Speakeasy in the Warehouse District, took over the space about a year ago. What was initially intended as a quick redecorating project turned into a massive remodeling, pushing back the reopening until this past August. But one look at the newly stylish spot is all it takes to see that it was time well spent.
Even before stepping over the threshold, guests can't help but stop and marvel at the patio that has sprouted in what used to be a vacant lot next door. The warm-weather furnishings may long since have gone into storage, but an arched iron gate, tracings of blue and white mini-lights, and a dreamy mural on a rear wall, by local artist Scott Radke, help make the space look intriguing and inviting even in the dead of winter. Once inside, the changes become even more arresting. Old brick walls have been returned to their original raw beauty. Ceramic-tile pavers line the floor. And the venerable bar -- now a broad, granite-topped slither of gentle twists and turns -- has been flipped from its original location to the opposite side of the room and repositioned, so that it now occupies nearly half the available floor space.
The new look is very clubby and chic. What it means for diners, however, is less room for tables and chairs: Only 10 four-tops fit into the remaining space. Worse, there doesn't seem to be any policy in place for assigning those tables to incoming guests: no hostess, no apparent waiting list, and enough crowding and noise -- especially on the weekends -- to make negotiating for one of them nearly impossible. Factor in a greater-than-ideal level of smokiness and the dim, moody lighting (sexy, but not so practical for scoping out the food), and one can be forgiven for wondering whether management really wants to offer dining after all.
Our solution -- an effective one, it turns out -- is to push through the crowd to the rear of the room, find a server, and ask for help snaring a table. That approach got us seated in about five minutes on a busy Thursday night and within 30 minutes on an even busier Saturday night. And once we'd had a chance (with the help of our little tabletop oil lamp) to scrutinize the neatly bound menu, we felt a whole lot better: With so many promising options, we figured, there was no way food service here could be merely a second thought.
Not that chef Joe Dubbs's offerings -- nachos, wings, burgers, and hot dogs among them -- delve into uncharted culinary waters. Except for a vaguely Asian accent, not much here is especially novel. About as chi-chi as it gets, in fact, is the lobster bisque: not transcendentally creamy, a little light on the lobster meat, and served not much above room temperature, but still good-tasting and brought forth in ample portions.
What the food lacks in glamour, it almost always makes up for in intelligent, attentive preparation. Horseradish-crusted salmon, for instance, arrived at the table gently broiled and enticingly moist, with a well-balanced heat that enhanced, but never masked, the flavor of the fish. Slices of pan-seared pork tenderloin, tickled with ancho- and guajillo-chile powder, were lush and toothsome, while an accompanying roasted-corn-and-tomato salsa provided a tart and juicy counterpoint. Two gargantuan slabs of grilled meatloaf, made with pork, beef, and a bit of chorizo, had a deliciously and unexpectedly delicate texture. And our forks slid through a massive brick of yielding, super-cheesy lasagna like a hot Henckels through a block of butter.
So maybe our "build-your-own" burger was dry and on the small side for its alleged 10-ounce weight; a thick layer of sweet caramelized onion and pungent blue cheese crumbles still made it worth eating. And an optional side of fat, golden onion rings, snuggled inside a crunchy, relatively greaseless tempura breading, roused our taste buds with their country-fair goodness.
Dubbs's assertive use of seasonings extends to the kitchen's homemade sauces and dressings. A curried mustard sauce, for instance -- its wasabi-like sharpness gentled with a touch of honey -- turned plump, crisp-edged chicken wings into an almost-religious experience. And a starter of ho-hum coconut-crusted shrimp (one of the kitchen's few frozen products) may not have been above average, but the spicy citrus-soy sauce that accompanied it certainly was.
Even those orphan-children of the plate -- the dreaded and often dreadful "veggie-of-the-day" side dishes -- sizzle at The South Side. No rock-hard, unseasoned broccoli florets here. One day, it was a sleek sauté of fresh zucchini, onions, and summer squash; another day, it was a plain-jane toss of frozen green beans, carrots, corn, and limas, surprisingly seductive with proper cooking and a generous application of salt, pepper, Mexican oregano, and butter.
The South Side's bartenders shake up a mean Chocolate Martini ($7), made with Godiva chocolate liqueur, Bailey's, Kahlua, and Frangelico, and can draw a pint of Guinness (on the pricey side, at $5) as well as anyone. DeLozier has also put together an interesting international wine list containing seven red and seven white varietals, at prices ranging from $19 to $30 a bottle, or $5 to $8 by the glass. Not only does he clearly list each wine's name, producer, vintage, and place of origin, he also offers general tasting notes, recommended pairings, and a pronunciation guide, resulting in a wine menu that, while limited in size, is big on user-friendliness.
Servers are friendly, too, as well as exceptionally efficient and good-natured, especially in light of the often large and noisy crowds. Little considerations, such as offering us a drink while we stood waiting for a table and taking the time to cheerfully describe dishes as we pondered the menu, went a long way toward making us feel welcomed and comfortable, despite the general hubbub. (The South Side is also open for lunch.)
"Comfortable" and "welcoming" have always described the vibe inside these old brick walls; this also helps explain why the location has long been known for its amazingly diverse crowds -- young and old, punks and posers, those on the prowl and those happily coupled. That all these types, and more, are back on the barstools again is certainly something to celebrate.