For decades, the corner of Fifth Avenue and 17th Street in Brooklyn was anchored by a spacious women’s department store called Aaron’s. Today, across the street from there, a faded, flaking billboard proclaims: “Unless your husband’s in the business, you’re better off at Aaron’s.” Alas, Aaron’s bit the dust about two years ago. What happened to the ladies (whose husbands were not in the business) who bought the below-the-knee skirts and sweater sets? Worst case scenario: dead—or now going naked. Best case: moved to Florida and voted for Obama.
Part of the space deserted by Aaron’s has been turned into a restaurant called Ellis Bar. Before the place opened in July, a banner announced that Ellis Bar would be serving “new Southwestern American tapas.” That combination seemed like a very, very bad sign, especially the part about the tapas, which is a word that has generally come to mean food that bears no resemblance to Spanish bar fare—and instead signifies shrunken dishes at inflated prices.
But Ellis Bar turns out to be an interesting place: It’s hard to tell if it’s a fratty bar, a hipster bar, or a restaurant. Specials are written all over the plate-glass windows: 25-cent Rolling Rocks, $3 PBR, pub quizzes, “power-hour shots,” live bluegrass, free-taco night. One cold Wednesday evening, the weekly whisky-and-bluegrass event was completely packed—no wonder, because shots of whisky were 25 cents. (“And it’s not bum juice,” the waiter assured us, charmingly.) Plus, the lively bluegrass band parked in the middle of the room was rollicking.
If Ellis Bar stuck to cheap drinks, wings, and nachos, it wouldn’t catch anyone’s attention, but it turns out to have a surprisingly ambitious Southwestern menu, a rarity in New York. (And I mean actual Southwestern food, not fake-y Mexican.) There are refried pinto beans, succotash, cornbread, rattlesnake skewers, homemade red-pepper jelly, Navajo fry bread, and sopapillas. The chef, Seth Ellis, started cooking as a teenager in Tempe, Arizona—where his family goes back five generations and includes one of the first sheriffs of Maricopa County—and he uses many of his family’s old-school Arizonan recipes at Ellis Bar.
Not everything on the menu succeeds, and, in fact, there are some spectacular flops. But there’s something endearingly odd about the way the restaurant tries to be all things to all people, while serving a cuisine that’s so particular and has such strong personal history behind it.
Most notably, Ellis Bar is the only place in New York where you can get fresh Navajo fry bread—and it’s wonderful. The artery-clogging treat is basically fried dough, but airier, and it’s often made into gigantic, puffy tacos and stuffed with beans and cheese or meat. Order the sopapillas for dessert, and get a slightly smaller version of the fry bread, seasoned with salt and sugar and drenched in honey.
Fry bread originated 144 years ago, when the U.S. government forced Arizonan Navajos to move to New Mexico onto land that wasn’t viable for farming. The feds, in their infinite wisdom, doled out white flour, sugar, and lard to the tribes, and the Navajos used those ingredients to invent fry bread, which kept them from starving. The staple became a symbol of Native American survival and resourcefulness, but now, as diabetes and heart problems plague the Native American population, prominent members of the community have spoken out against it. This summer, Native American musician Keith Secola was quoted in Smithsonian Magazine as saying, “Fry bread has killed more Indians than the federal government.”
Maybe that’s true, but it still tastes ridiculously good. At Ellis Bar, you can get fry bread plain; as a “taco,” topped with refried beans or four-bean chili con carne; or as a “pizza” spread with garlicky cilantro pesto and Jack cheese. The chili is bland, but the refried beans are pleasantly soupy and well-seasoned. The fry bread itself has a denser crumb than the ideal, but it’s gorgeously bubbly and crisp-edged, having been sizzled properly in a cast-iron pan.
On the other hand, Ellis’s menu format doesn’t make much sense. There are three categories of “tapas”—priced at $8.95, $12.95, and $15.95—and there is absolutely no reason to call these dishes “tapas,” except a misguided (and dated) attempt to sound trendy. A large slab of meatloaf is not a tapa, and neither is a cornmeal-crusted catfish fillet. Here, you can add two sides to any “tapa” to make it an “entrée,” but that’ll cost you an extra $3.
Among the “tapas” are several items that bomb: The rattlesnake skewers, for one, seem to have been put on the menu just for novelty’s sake—perhaps no one had ever ordered them before, judging from the dubious look our server gave us when we did. Out it came: “Who’s ready for some rattlesnake?!” she said, placing the plate in front of us. As it happened, we were not ready for some rattlesnake. The chunks of meat, strung on the skewer, are tough and completely tasteless (although they do, we swear, taste like chicken). The snake seemed to have been languishing in the freezer for longer than I’ve been alive.
The other disasters include a muddy-tasting, gummy catfish and a garbanzo-bean couscous that’s swimming in water and in desperate need of salt. But it’s funny that a restaurant capable of such problems is just as likely to serve you something excellent.
The homemade pepper jelly, an old Ellis-family recipe that shows up all over the menu, is sensational: Bright-red, quivering, sweet, and sharply hot, the jelly gets slathered on chicken wings, tops goat-cheese bruschetta, and even features in my new favorite dessert—a Nutella, pepper-jelly, and goat-cheese quesadilla.
Meatloaf covered with rich, salty black-bean gravy is hearty and bovine. And the thick, brick-red chipotle sauce that clings to grilled shrimp and moistens a chicken quesadilla is wonderful—all smoky, slow-burning heat and garlicky sweetness.
Although a friend was subjected to a martini that inexplicably contained seltzer, the drinks are mainly worth ordering. The 25 cent shots of whisky are, as promised, not “bum juice,” and the pineapple chile-rita tastes tropical, with the welcome edge of a red-chile burn.
As you stumble out of Ellis Bar, either very satisfied or disgruntled, depending on what you’ve ordered, you might notice the sign across the street immortalizing Aaron’s. I move that it be changed to the moral of this story: Unless you can eat in Arizona, you’re better off at Ellis Bar.