This is the first in a new blog series about bar food and the people who cook it. It is another attempt to look at aspects of food culture that slip through the cracks. God help us all.
The Surly Wench Pub is a bar at 424 N. Fourth Avenue. I’ve been hearing about the food there for some time, but mainly about the cheese steaks and burgers. When I started hearing about deep-fried Twinkies and Oreos, among other eclectic takes on standard pub grub, it was time for a visit.
I arrived to find kitchen manager Dave “Tacklebox” Carroll in the middle of a frustrating day that included workers accidentally blowing drywall dust into his kitchen. You wouldn’t have known it: The place was cleaned to a high sheen. Even the pictures of nude women plastered everywhere were neatly placed and wrinkle-free.
Carroll worked at a number of local eateries, including No Anchovies,Trident Grill and the Cup Café at Hotel Congress, before making the move to the Surly Wench. He also plays in the local band Inoculara, and has been a regular in the downtown scene - where I first met him some ten years ago - for quite some time.
TW: What makes good bar food?
DC: Good bar food, man, is a lot about how quick you can get it out and whether or not you can make a drunk person remember that they ate some fucking good food. Like, our appetizers are mostly deep fried, because what you want at a bar is to keep people buzzed, not drunk, so whatever helps with the absorption of that alcohol. We’ve got burgers and cheese steaks and all that for people with larger appetites, too.
TW: Tell me about your menu.
DC: Well, we’ve got all sorts of stuff. We’ve got potato tacos and hummus plates and vegetarian sandwiches like the Scooby Don’t, because Tucson has a large number of vegetarians and we cater to them, and vegetarians love to drink. We do the fried Oreos and Twinkies for people who’ve got that sweet tooth. We do the standard stuff and some more interesting things, like deep-fried pancake batter served with a side of maple syrup.
TW: What do people mention as memorable about the food?
DC: Really it’s the weekly specials I’ve been doing. We bring the staff in and let them try it first so they can brag about it. We just did one called the Hesher, which was a burger with peanut butter, cream cheese and jalapeno jelly. This week it’s the Beast, a sandwich with chopped chicken, steak and bacon, lettuce and tomato, provolone, and fire-roasted poblano aioli.
TW: What’s on your menu that you don't find other places?
DC: There's the Black and Bleu Derby Burger, because we’re a hangout for the Tucson Roller Derby, which we also sponsor. The Jeff Thomas burger, a veggie burger with bacon and swiss, is named after the dude who got killed in the Fourth Avenue underpass on the Spooky Tooth bike. It was his favorite burger. There’s also the Cooter burger. I mean, do I need to explain that? What do you think of when you hear the word “Cooter?”
TW: I think of the Dukes of Hazzard.
DC: Most people think of something else.
TW: What makes eating at this bar different than eating at a regular restaurant?
DC: The difference between here and a fast-casual place, like the Cup at Hotel Congress, is that this is pretty much a one-man operation. You come to the window and the same guy who takes your order cooks it and delivers it. There isn’t like a hostess, a busser and six people in the back all involved. Here it’s a little more personal.
TW: Any benefit to pub grub over other kinds of food?
DC: The first thing is that you don’t have to interrupt your drinking to go eat. Work smarter not harder, you know, the convenience factor brother. Also, if you eat at the bar you drink at you usually know everyone, from the door guy to the cook, and everyone can tell you what’s good that day.
You can check out more on Surly Wench Pub here. Click on the kitchen tab for a look at the menu. The place also runs some killer happy hour specials from 5 to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday; and 2 to 6 p.m., weekends.