YOU WOULDN'T THINK you'd be plucking delicate rounds of squid from a bed of greens and olive oil in a place like this. Instead, you'd expect the calamari deep-fried in a cocoon of panko and week-old grease, accompanied by some kind of condiment with a vague resemblance to cocktail sauce. Happily, this isn't the case.
In front of me is a decidedly lovely plate of calamari with tiny blossoms of tentacles. It's flavorful. It's tender. It's understated. It's not bar food, which is strange, because I'm in a bar: Slayer is playing full blast on the sound system, a few people huddle out front shielding a flame from the wind as they attempt to light a smoke, large photos of tattooed men hang on the wall above my booth. The place is one smidgen of respectability beyond a dive.
The Slingshot Lounge has been in business for about as long as people have been trying to re-brand the surrounding neighborhood "FoPo." Since opening it has been a place for rock music, games, and copious amounts of booze. Food? Not so much.
Now, thanks to Chef Jeff Sprague, every table is graced with a simple menu that offers standard bar grub and a sprinkling of options more commonly found beneath the banner of cuisine. (Polenta and Rainier, together at last.) Many items, certainly the calamari, are very good. Problems arise, however, when others aren't. The contrast is frustrating.
Consider the burger. It's a fine option with house-ground Cascade Natural chuck, seasoned well and perfectly cooked medium rare. It arrives standard with piquillo pepper aioli, onions, and tomato on a roll from An Xuyen Bakery, just down the street. Very good, and a steal at $6. The house-made veggie burger, on the other hand, is hampered by a soggy interior that comes off more like a mixed vegetable mash that spent some time on the grill. The flavor is there, but the texture is not. Frustrating.
The polenta slab beneath the marinated prawn skewers is just right—creamy in the center with a thin, crispy, charred skin. Paired with a light tangy tomato sauce, the effect is lush and dynamic. Unfortunately, on my visit, the prawns were burnt and had an unfortunate bleach flavor. Frustrating.
Those frustrations aside, there is much to be truly jazzed about at the Slingshot. The tomato toast, for instance, is a treat. Essentially an unruly bruschetta without the mozzarella, this snack tops huge slices of grilled bread with a mélange of grated tomato, garlic, olive oil, and little flecks of basil. It's far more satisfying, and just as delicious, as the polite Italian version.
On one visit, the soup of the day turned out to be a sublime chicken soup with homemade, wide, rectangular noodles that had more in common with dumplings. The broth was beaded with tiny slicks of fat and the vegetables were still snappy. All this and big chunks of chicken made the soup wonderfully comforting and homey. Just what you need when you're on a bender.
Pair that soup with a sandwich like the Italian sub and you feel practically invincible. Here mortadella, sopressata, and spicy coppa are stuffed in an inoffensive French roll with roasted pepper, onion, and fontina cheese. It's a mouthful, but no more so than the grubbin' chicken Parmesan sandwich loaded with homemade marinara.
Clearly the menu has some epicurean options, while it's also chockfull of drinking food. But it's drinking food meant to please the palate as well as fill you up.
The Slingshot brunch menu is built the same way. There are the standard post-bender breakfast options with eggs, meat, and home fries, but then you come across aebleskivers (Danish pancakes). The little spherical pancakes are fantastic. A bit larger than golf balls, the aebleskivers have a typical pancake exterior and an interesting fluffy interior. They're odd little morsels, but quite tasty.
Other standouts on the brunch menu are the scrambles and the breakfast sandwich. I'd recommend going with the house-made sausage patty in the sandwich, it's big enough to be mistaken for a hamburger patty, but it has decent texture and a lighter sausage flavor than you might expect.
With all of this, it's tempting to describe the Slingshot as a gastropub. It's not. It's something different. It's a dive bar with a gastronome's heart. Unlike a gastropub, there is little pretension. The main purpose of the joint is to drink and have a good time. If you can have a good meal while you're at it, so much the better.
The folks at Slingshot appear to care very much about what they are presenting to the neighborhood. While sometimes the small staff can get a bit too busy, they honestly seem to be incredibly happy about what's happening at this bar.
I'm happy about it as well. Because there's nothing better than finishing a delightful plate of calamari and knowing you have the entire night in front of you. A jukebox full of rock and roll, a generous bartender, and a couple pool tables in the other room. That's what I call satisfaction.