Every neighborhood needs a place to grab a sandwich, maybe a bowl of noodles. I'm thinking booths that are roomy enough for the whole family and service that's fast enough to get you home in time for the latest installment of Survivor. The ideal is Monty's Blue Plate Diner, with its excellent burgers and cozy vegetarian meatloaf. Unfortunately, Monty's east-side location puts it too far from my near-west-side home to qualify as a neighborhood joint. In my neck of the woods, the best candidate for an all-purpose bite is Bluephies on Monroe Street.
It's got the booths. It's got the quick, friendly service. It has some good food. But I always leave thinking, about one dish or another: That was weird.
Let's start with the fig salad. The greens are beautifully fresh; the grilled chicken is moist enough. But add a pile of sweet, chewy figs and cinnamon-flavored vinaigrette, and suddenly you're careening out of salad territory and into dessert land, which is not where I want to be before the main course has even hit the table.
According to the Bluephies website, this is known as "contemporary fun food." You can tell it's supposed to be a fun place because the menu columns are laid out at crazy angles, and the food shows up on oddly shaped plates or, in the case of the little rice balls, in a martini glass. These deep-fried nuggets of risotto and cheese, with a dipping sauce of roasted tomato aioli, are a tasty if slightly strange first course - sort of an Italian version of fried cheese curds. In general, the appetizers are a good bet. The sliders, three bite-size burgers with various toppings tucked into tiny, perfectly toasted buns, really are fun, like eating doll food for dinner. It helps that they're also delicious.
Sandwiches are another strength. I recommend the salmon BLT, with its thick slices of crispy bacon layered over grilled salmon, all held together with a slathering of garlic aioli. The flavorful pulled pork nestled into a beautifully warmed ciabatta roll is my favorite thing on the menu.
Now we come to the entrees, where the weirdness (excuse me, fun) really kicks in. Take, for instance, the spinach enchiladas. The spinach, pepper and cream cheese filling is tasteless, the only real flavor being a hint of sweetness. The enchiladas themselves are propped up on a pile of multicolored corn-chip strips, like kindling over dried grass. The chips are drizzled with a poblano sauce that is, again, too sweet for a main course. The overabundance of sugar, the chips, the campfire staging - it all adds up to more than I want to deal with in a plate of enchiladas.
Other vegetarian entrees, like the sweet potato quesadilla, are similarly unsatisfying. But meat-eaters often fare well at Bluephies. I like the meatloaf, which contains a rich mix of andouille sausage and beef tenderloin. Of the generally bland noodle dishes, the best is probably the curried bang bang noodles, with chicken, peanuts and Asian greens.
Alas, Bluephies really uncorks the fun on the dessert menu. In the mood for chocolate-chip cookie dough egg rolls? These little bundles of undifferentiated sweetness fail to provide the flavor I long for in a dessert. Instead, try the vanilla shake with your choice of mix-ins. It's served in the frosty metal cup in which it's blended, and I have yet to see a person who can resist reaching across the table for a spoonful.
The Bluephies shake is similar to the ones at Monty's. Both restaurants are owned by the Food Fight chain, yet only the east side gets the full array of flavors: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, coffee, Oreo and Dreamsicle. Food Fight, why? What do you have against the near west side?
It's enough to drive you to drink, and Bluephies makes that easy in the attached "Vodkatorium" - a futuristic bar with lots of vodka on the menu. Added last summer, the Vodkatorium seems to be an attempt to drag Bluephies even further down the contemporary fun road. To judge by the sparse crowds I've witnessed on recent weekend nights, the plan may not be working. Is it possible Food Fight has misjudged what the near west side wants in a neighborhood restaurant? How about a little more flavor and a little less fun?