Toasting & Tasting
Steel Bender stays busy on Second Street
We looked up at the colorful beer board guarding the entrance and made our selections. I went for a 10-oz. Sparkfitter amber ($4) while my father tried a 10-oz. Spell Bender pils ($4), plus chips and guacamole ($6) as well as fried green chile strips ($7) to start. I paused a moment to take in the cheery, open atmosphere—including a round bar, indoor tables and an outdoor patio community area—before our drinks and appetizers arrived. Once they were placed before us, we toasted and tasted. My amber brew was intense and bitter with a toasted malt flavor. My dad declared his pils to be totally refreshing, light and clean on the palate. The house-fried tortilla chips were neon yellow as well as perfectly crisp—perfect for shoveling the smooth, bright green guac. The star of the whole meal took the spotlight as soon as I picked up an 8-inch beer-battered green chile strip, dipped it in the creamy, house-made red chile ranch and took a bite. The fried exterior made a light crackling sound under my teeth, and the verdant interior was fleshy and tender. Paired together, the green and red were perfectly spicy and salty: a true New Mexico snack that I would happily eat any day.
Next came our smorgasbord of entrees: a beer brat with Asiago truffle fries ($12), a beer-braised pulled pork sandwich with a garden salad ($12), a cup of green chile stew ($5), and an oven-roasted chicken sandwich ($12). My dad and I cut everything in half, redistributed on our metal trays and dug in. The house-ground, Sparkfitter amber-simmered brat was nestled in a fluffy roll and topped with mustard and pretty fuchsia sauerkraut. The most incredible thing about the whole affair was how juicy the meat was. It was nicely spiced and salted, and the pickled cabbage was crunchy and tart, but something just seemed to be missing. That’s when I tasted the drizzle of beer mustard by itself and realized it didn’t taste like anything at all except a whisper of bitterness. I asked my waitress for mustard (which I unfortunately had to request three times before I actually got it), and, with the proper application of the tart condiment, the brat tasted right. The French fries where rich with the truffle oil and flavorful with the Asiago, but were a bit on the greasy side and cool to the point that the cheese was a solid mass.
The chicken sandwich was fine—the pesto mayo had an oddly stringent taste, but the chicken was moist and perfectly cooked. The cup of green chile stew was rich, salty and yummy—particularly perfect on such a dreary day. I’ll warn readers that it is actually not a stew, but a chowder, and that should fix peoples’ expectations—rather than frijoles, beef and thin broth, it features a heavy, creamy body with ropes of melted cheddar cheese swinging from every spoonful. Yum.
Finally, the pulled-pork sandwich: It was my favorite, second only to the fried green chile strips. The Sparkfitter amber-braised pork was tender, zesty and nicely chunky rather than completely shredded; it was covered with a sweet barbeque sauce and topped with a playfully crunchy coleslaw. While pretty messy, each bite was toothsome and balanced. The garden salad was pleasantly fresh with mixed greens and savory with the reappearance of the red chile ranch dressing. The Jack cheese on top was a bit heavy, but that seemed to be the trend with most of the plates: hearty and rich.
We filled the very last ounce in each of our stomachs with the Los Ranchos peach brûlée ($6). It came in a small glass cup topped with a dollop of whipped cream. While the peach flavor was on the weak side, it was certainly creamy and not overly sweet.
As I walked back outside, stuffed to the gills and sleepy with a pending food coma, I reflected on my meal. Were there places where flavor or service could be improved? Yes. But I have no doubt that Steel Bender will continue to be riotously popular.