Maybe it's because I'm a sucker for a good pun and some cheesy wordplay, but I had a good feeling about Bootlegger when I checked out its website and came upon its version of the Our Father prayer—a beer creed in which, instead of “give us this day our daily bread,” it gives thanks for foamy head. Given that indulging in craft beer is apparently still frowned upon in my delicate condition, I'll leave the beer analysis to other more esteemed experts—or at least CityBeat's Ian Cheesman. I'm going to stick to mulling over the food.
There are days when it seems we've reached the saturation point in this whole gastropub phase. But then another newbie joins the scene; I scan the menu, I'm intrigued, and, before I know it, I'm buried under a pile of wacko snacks. And Bootlegger will suck you in with a heaping bowl of fried black-eyed peas.
Instead of a basket of chips or a dish of peanuts, you get a lightly crunchy, high-fiber snack and the opportunity to make jokes about Fergie wetting her pants. The peas have an oily, potato-chip crispness with enough heft in each bite to stave off starvation between sips of beer. There's a bit of salt and a breath of malt vinegar that's barely there, yet somehow flavors every bite, and before you know it, you're spooning the peas straight into your mouth like corn Pops. Gimmicky, maybe, but when a clever little appetite-inducer like that is done so well, I can't really criticize.
Definitely take a spin around the small plates menu, particularly during happy hour, when smaller versions of each dish cost only around $5. The cornbread, baked to look like ears of corn, comes served with glistening honey butter and a quivering cup of zingy jalapeño jelly. Nothing earth-shattering here, but I never get tired of a sweet, cakey cornbread, and I enjoyed Bootlegger's version just fine.
The crab hushpuppies were a slightly more sophisticated option—a drier version of a crabcake, but a meatier and edgier take on the traditional sweet cornball. With bacon and a hint of bitter greens, as well as a healthy serving of creamy garlic remoulade, these were tasty bar nibbles that would go great with a bitter IPA.
There are traditional entrées (large plates) and a few “T.V. Dinners” complete with compartmented tray and hot, fruity dessert. The beer-battered chicken and waffles comes with a pool of maple gastrique (tastes like hot syrup with a fancy name) and a scoop of butter filled with caramelized shallots. (Fun tip: Do not forget it's butter and bite into a large forkful thinking it's an unadvertised bonus pile of mashed potatoes.) The chicken has a dark and crunchy coating with a good balance of seasoning all covering the relatively tender and juicy meat inside. The waffles were a bit limp—I don't think Roscoe's will feel threatened—but I do appreciate any attempt at the breakfast-for-dinner concept.
Bootlegger wraps around the corner of Eighth Avenue and Market Street, where the uninteresting Lucky D's used to live. The décor gives you lots to look at, with bright, colorful, vintage-vibed signage and a faux-biker edge to give you a chance to pretend you're dangerous. Plus, a larger-than-life photo of Johnny Cash gives you the bird every time you walk by or pass through the men's-room door.
There are some duds in the Downtown bar scene and no shortage of joints hopping on the craft-beer-and-fancy-food train. Fortunately, Bootlegger looks to be a standout. Forever and ever, barmen.