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The Collective brings humble bar food but killer cocktails to the far east side

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A chili burger with a cold cup of minty bourbon. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • A chili burger with a cold cup of minty bourbon.

To figure out The Collective, it helps to understand sister outfit The Wobbly Olive.

When Wobbly hit the chain-dominant Powers Boulevard corridor in 2014, it introduced craft cocktail culinary culture to an area sorely lacking. It not only stayed open, but thrived, winning many local awards. Though it's a cliché elsewhere, truthfully the people make the difference — in particular, the bartenders, including owners Sean and Inez Fitzgerald, who earned a loyal fan base with showmanship, customer engagement and big personalities. They've been backed by interesting, diverse eats, including a mix of blue collar fare, like poutine, plus ethnic fusions ranging from Moroccan to Indian (whatever then-chef David Cook mused over), often utilizing lesser-seen ingredients.

As the Wobbly enters its next evolutionary phase under chef Harrison Caubarreaux, The Collective finishes its second month in business three miles away. It's on the doorstep of Banning Lewis Ranch, between a sea of homes to the west and a lot of open grass and development potential to the east — well placed to carry out Sean's desire for a simple neighborhood bar and "classic bar food done in an elevated way."

For this, he made a co-owner out of bar manager Philip Arana, a bar manager out of former bartender Jade Platas, and an executive chef out of former sous chef Justin Edgar. All three came to the new venture, along with many regular patrons, who now divide visits between both, Sean says. To the faithful, the crew choices explain The Collective's concept.

But I wouldn't fault a newbie for finding a dissonance between a smart cocktail bar; a stylish simple, modern decor ("oh hey, is that the Wild Goose's community table?"); and a menu with items like the It's My Cheat-Oh Day Burger. It's made with Flamin' Hot Cheetos, smoked gouda mac-n-cheese balls and a "house sauce" composed of ketchup, mayo and the tangy, A.1.-like UK condiment, HP Sauce. Eating it (yes, it tastes devilishly good) with a citrusy, aromatic Woody Creek Rye, amaro, Aperol and lemon juice concoction called a Paper Airplane kinda feels like rich people slumming it — a little finer-things nuance next to unpretentious American eats turned gratuitous.

Leaving culinary class-appropriation aside — after noting that suggested tips on receipts start at 25 percent — the dressy burgers and dogs (from commercial Angus meats, nothing grass-fed or souped-up) generally hover in the $10 range, as do cocktails. It's easy to ring up a bill, but rewarding if expectations are set upon humble comfort food. For the less-decadent, a garlic hummus starter with crisp veggies plays party platter easy enough, and an iceberg wedge salad hosts sufficient crispness and red onion bite under a rich house blue cheese dressing to feel light. Wings stay less-heavy with the familiar barbecue or peppy buffalo sauce, or muter-than-we'd-have liked smoked Thai apricot glazing. But they're punishing to a stunt-food level with the "blast from the ass" jalapeño-Anaheim-ghost chili sauce; I made it through two wings, miraculously finding flavor under the burn.

You might think yourself at a backyard cook-out with either the California or chili-cheese burgers, the first creamy from mayo and avocado (cooked one temp past requested), and the latter on-point at medium rare, with a brightly seasoned but generic homemade chili. The loaded, poppy seed-garnished Chicago dog arrives bright too from a wild drizzle of yellow mustard atop jalapeño coins, red onion and sport-pepper bits, with tomato and cucumber wedges, plus a full pickle spear. (Game time!) You'll think you've found Captain Caveman's misplaced club once your bacon-wrapped corn dog arrives, with breading so thick you can scarcely taste the swine strip or bite in without looking a fool.

To desserts: Funnel cake fries made with coconut milk taste hella good dipped in homemade salted caramel. And creamy peanut butter takes the synthetic edge off Hershey's syrup, baked together in cast iron and served with a torched marshmallow cap and graham crackers for dipping. So utterly white bread, yet so guilty good — I hate myself. I'm way too sober for this.

For cocktails we try excellent mules in the form of the Lee Spirits Ginfuego and housemade grenadine Born to be Wild, and Tres Agaves tequila and house habanero syrup Nighfall in Juarez. Both bite with ginger and fresh lime, segueing into a smooth vegetal chili smolder.

The fine, Julep-invoking Slow Ride sees Larceny bourbon, mint, ginger liqueur, honey and lemon, served under too much ice in a stainless steel cup. The Gypsy Road starts down a Sazerac path with an absinthe rinse, but deviates with Woody Creek vodka laced with Aperol for orange bitters notes, plus lime and grapefruit juice for layered citrus. Aromatic is a word that also rushes to mind with a sip of the Ketel One Vodka-based Lean on Me, with crème de violette, elderflower and a potent chamomile tea syrup; it's floral on steroids. Arana first developed it for last year's Artini, and he believes he's the first also to coin an Amaro-cano. It replaces Campari in the classic Americano cocktail with Averna-label amaro. It's less wormwood-potency bitter and citrusy than Campari, deeper and sweeter with more medicinal root flavor. The Amaro-cano's simple, with just sweet vermouth and soda water, but brilliant.

At times three ingredients can outshine complexity. Here, it's the charming people, high hooch and everyman food. Not as groundbreaking as its big sister, but it's a playful annex at least.

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