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Forged by the fire

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Despite his best effort, Joe Herbert simply can't outrun the slopper.

The Muggsy's Inn co-owner said last June, "Others do those tremendously well. We don't want to compete." But that was before his August opening gave way to a steady battle to attract attention to his somewhat hidden Pueblo Riverwalk storefront. So, when I arrived last week, there sat that soggy beast of goodness on the menu. Herbert's defense: Customers kept "constantly requesting" — no, "demanding" — it.

That's Steel City fortitude for you, fittingly illustrated in this revived steelworks-era relic. You can read about its history on the outfit's website, but here's the short version: To revive the vibe of the original Muggsy's, open from 1954 until the smoking ban supposedly killed it eight years ago, Herbert's crew refinished its original bar and reconstructed its tall wooden booths. In a new-built, mixed-use space, they wanted to re-create the "Cheers of Pueblo," the place where a cashed steel mill check got you good, cheap beer.

Hearty and heavy

But Muggsy's is a tribute to more than the original bar; it's also meant to honor Pueblo history and cultural legacies. The Dutch Lunch ($7.49) picks up the post-shift Bessemer tradition of assembling your own sandwich of cold cuts, still alive today at antique eateries like Gus's Place. At Muggsy's, small piles of salami, Capicola and plain ham and provolone are hidden with onion, tomato slivers and pepperoncini in a parchment paper-lined basket under dense slices of Vienna bread from 100-plus-year-old Zoelsmann's Bakery & Deli.

With mustard on the table and accompanying house-fried chips (bought pre-cut and frozen) that need a salt sprinkle to come alive, the plate is as unpretentious as they come. It's as if the line cooks had just raided a fast-moving family-reunion buffet line for you.

The Muggsy's Bojon Stew ($7.78) in a nice bread bowl pays homage to Slovenian immigrants who arrived in the late 19th century to man the mills. It, too, defines heartiness with three components: white beans, potato chunks and sliced kielbasa rounds from 65-year-old Frank's Meat Market. No carrots, celery or noticeable spices; just a starchy, heavy, chunky, tannish ooze spilling from the bread like so much molten iron poured at the blast furnaces.

That same sausage is found in a new 8-inch kielbasa special (which we weren't offered, $8.95), served with sauerkraut, peppers and onions on a roll from Banquet Schusters Bakery. Incidentally, that bakery is also responsible for a lemon chiffon cake we later sample ($3.50). To digress: That features a typical airy angel food texture with vegetable oil providing plenty of moisture, and sweet, citrusy frosting on three sides. The style has never been my thing, but I presume it's dead-on for fans of uncomplicated cakes.

Beefy and beery

Back to that subservient slopper and other burgers: Herbert originally wanted to work with a Fowler-based rancher for beef, but he says that became a supply-and-demand problem, so he turned to Shamrock Foods for a Denver-distributed Colorado label. So the truly local lovin' stops with two forms of Pueblo chilies.

One comes from Musso Farms, sliced and fried with garlic to meet pepper jack on The Spicy Mugger ($8.79), which we got on a basic, corn-dusted bun. (Wheat and sesame buns optional.) A medium-rare request was respected, but somewhat skimpy toppings were lumped unevenly to one side; on the whole, it was just an OK-flavored burger.

The slopper ($8.99) fares better, thanks to that second Pueblo chile infusion in the form of Nana's Pork Green Chili, which placed second at last year's Chile & Frijoles Festival. With giant pork hunks, it's not a firebomb, but a delightfully complex sauce thankfully heaped on with much less restraint than the shredded cheese. Missing (unless requested) from the still-superior classic version at Gray's Coors Tavern is the ideal diced white onion. But skinny, crisp fries (again pre-bought frozen) are awesome, served under the mess in a stainless steel mixing bowl that made me feel like my dog at supper.

After recent unhappy forays into the schlock-shock-value donut-bun burger style, we simply couldn't bring ourselves to order the bacon, egg, cheese and chile Cardiology Now burger ($8.99). We did, however, get the equally artery-clogging appetizer sampler ($11.49) of fluffy onion rings, fun "bottle caps" (fried jalapeño rounds), guiltily delicious and peppery mozzarella cheese sticks, and a trio of wings, graciously made in each style (hot, chipotle and teriyaki) for us. The teriyaki is the only dud, needing more sauce and personality; the other two sizeable drummettes are brightly vinegary.

It all goes down too well with beers also priced for a bygone era. Think $2, 20-ounce "Schooners" during weekday happy hours and premium New Belgium 1554 in a 27-ounce "Muggerator" for $4.50 anytime. Explains the staff shirts: "I Got Mugged at Muggsy's."

matthew@csindy.com

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