Jeff Smith 6 p.m., Feb. 27
Victorious menu expansion for the "Urban Palate"
So far, it looks like Empire House is making a serious bid to break the curse that's hung around its location. Ostensibly half-a-block too far west, the building has housed a glut of unsuccessful restaurants in recent years, but Empire has managed to soldier on and make a name for itself in the super-competitive Hillcrest scene. The place has built its reputation on wings, burgers, and beers (see Mary Beth's assessment from a while back), but they've been wanting something to distinguish themselves for a little while. A couple new dishes on the menu just might do the trick.
"Tot pots," which might be a shareable starter or a nutritiously indifferent entree for about $10, smother tater-tots in various toppings. "Fired up" tots get hot sauce, peperoncini, feta cheese, and olives for a spicy, Grecian riff on everybody's new favorite french fry alternative. "Totchos" are just what they sound like...tater tots dressed up like nachos.
The real winners are the "big sky country sandwiches" ($10) that are based around thick-cut pork loins, breaded, fried, and served as a kind of schnitzelburger. Very, very good idea. Not necessarily a new idea, but neither is pulled pork and I'm always happy to see a restaurant put that on their menu, especially if it's done well.
And EH's pork sandwiches are done well indeed. The generous slabs of loin are a different beast than the thin, crispy cutlets that are usually given the schnitzel treatment. They're juicy enough that they could have been brined, though I didn't taste the saltiness that usually accompanies such treatment. Perhaps just a careful hand on the fryer and strict control of temperature is all that's going on to make the pork chops grand? Whatever the reason, the "bossman" sandwich on a kaiser roll with green apple cole slaw, red onions, and chipotle aioli is a great example of doing a sandwich justice. Toothsome, yet manageable, the big sky sandwich held together to the last bite and let the pork be the center of attention as the toppings didn't take over, although a few more onions might have contributed a better zing of acid to the sandwich.
Adding sweet potato fries for $3 increases the price of any sandwich, but is well worth it. So many times in the past I've ordered sweet potato fries and been left thinking, "I hate these." I couldn't tell you why I always try again, but it finally paid off. The fries at Empire House were big, thick chunks of orange sweet potato. I don't care for thick fries made from regular potatoes, but cutting the sweet variety thicker let the insides form something like a sweet potato custard under the conditions of the fryer that was awesome and vaguely Japanese in flavor and texture. Dipping them in chipotle aioli didn't hurt either.
Kudos to Empire House for expanding their menu and really upping the ante. The new sandwiches give the menu something to brag about. The closest thing I could think of would be the perennial favorite pork sandwich at Carnitas' and being lumped in with the Snack Shack is a good thing any way you slice it!
127 University Avenue
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