I dined at Howley's Place, formerly known as Sweet Peppers, on a Tuesday afternoon, and the transformation from Windy City Italian to regional American bistro was apparent with the store's fresh new atmosphere and décor. The dining room was repainted in warm and inviting earth tones—mahogany floors and gray walls hung with rustic wood frescoes by local Corrales artist Stephen Bennett. The modest sidewalk patio area was noticeably nicer than usual, with comfortable beige chairs and matching tablecloths.
“Renovating this place was like a reality show—’Extreme Restaurant Makeover in Eight Days,'” said Bill.
As it was a slow afternoon, I had plenty of time to chat with Bill and Tia, and these two make a comedic culinary duo that will surely scoop patrons in with their easy wit and infectious humor. I would venture to compare them to the old Sonny and Cher. (Of course, without the face-lifts and the arboreal demise.)
“You know it's a good day when Billy's dancing in the kitchen,” said Tia, who was my server.
The menu includes a few Sweet Peppers-era favorites like Frank's sausage parm sandwich ($6.50) and CeCe's meatball hoagie ($6.50), but is bulwarked with new creations like Bill's three-pepper buffalo chili ($5.50) and the Howley burger ($7.50). This burger is a fat, half-pound slab of tender buffalo meat, grilled rare to your liking and topped with spicy melted habañero-jack cheese and Bill's signature scotch bonnet ketchup. Its sheer size was a pleasant surprise, and I was impressed by Tia's recommendation that I order it rare-to-medium. I asked Bill how he liked his buffalo, and he grinned and said, “Knock off the horns, wipe its ass and throw it on a plate.”
The Thumann ripper deep-fried hot dog ($3.25) was definitely the pinnacle of my lunch. Styled after the famous New Jersey “dirty dog” right off a street corner cart, this meaty treat is a huge tube of beefy goodness, fried so that the skin burst open like a '70s tuxedo jacket and loaded with mustard, sweet kraut and Bill's special onion sauce.
The sauce is what makes it, and the ingredients are actually quite simple. Bill slow-simmers onions, tomato sauce and Sriracha (also known as cock sauce or Vietnamese ketchup), and the result is a thick, screaming-red paste that cuts the taste of the mustard and kraut. It also gives you surprisingly non-Jersey-dawg breath after you've eaten.
My post-luncheon chat with the proud owners revealed that they've taken quite a gamble by buying the restaurant and making it their own.
“We used our kids' college fund to do this, so we'd better put it back,” said Tia.
Howley's is currently open for lunch hours only, but dinner plans are in the works, along with a deep-fried snickers bar dessert that's being tested as you read this. The fried hot dog isn't going anywhere, either.
“We're thinking about having t-shirts made to promote it—they'll say ’get ripped,'” Tia said. That was much better than my suggestion, which was “get dogged.” Either way, Howley's Place is a sure wiener.
Calamari with marinara and sweet and spicy Vietnamese chili sauce
The black-n-bleu salad
The “ripper” with kraut, relish, Bill's onion sauce and green chile (for a native New Mexican touch)
Howley's Place: An American Bistro; 521 Central NW (on Sixth Street between Copper and Central); 842-1273. Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Mon-Sat, dinner hours TBA, closed Sunday. Price Range: Inexpensive. Beer and wine coming soon. Major credit cards accepted.