A herculean commitment to all-local food and beer means this convivial kitchen is always driven by the time of year, but the family-style spirit feels simply perfect for this season.
Beer is the main draw at The Kitchen [Next Door] in Boulder, Colo., but the vegetables are next in line. Most of them are just-plucked from farms a short truck ride away. But a small portion of them are plastic; those are kept in the back stuck to a magnetic wall, with kids shifting beets and beans into produce forests and heads of cabbage into faces with chili-pepper eyebrows.
Fake and fresh, produce has become the nexus of this 5-year-old, family-friendly gastropub just off the University of Colorado campus, driving the seasonal menu, luring locavore regulars who pop in twice a day, and inspiring a nonprofit arm that establishes organic gardens at elementary schools. Chef Kyle Mendenhall, a SoCal transplant driven to a culinary career by his grandmother’s roast chicken, aims to serve Colorado ingredients year-round, a process that requires unusually close relationships with farmers like Ann and Paul Cure of Boulder’s Cure Organic Farm, and an honest surrender to whatever pops up on their land. “I would never call up Ann and say, ‘I absolutely have to have 50 pounds of carrots on Wednesday,’” Mendenhall says. “Instead, she’ll say, ‘The spinach is crazy this year; is there something you can do?’ and we’ll create a few dishes centered around her spinach.”
Mendenhall realizes his job is more than sustainable sourcing and sliding portions of vegetable ratatouille across the kitchen; he and the rest of the staff have an understanding that they’re creating more than a dinner rush. “We need food to sustain our lives, but we also need to sit down and spend time with people to feed the emotional side of our lives,” he says. “We try to create an environment that goes beyond just providing food.”
Such connections are well-lubricated by [Next Door]’s beer list, curated by general manager and beer director Ray Decker. It, too, maintains the same backyard ethos, pulling from the state’s overwhelming craft crop: The 10 taps have never poured a beer made outside Colorado. The draft-only selection keeps the restaurant’s waste down, and ensures a consistently changing (and constantly fresh) menu. “When there’s new beer on the menu, we always taste it as a staff and talk about pairing options,” Decker says. “And our guests have come to have faith in us. They ask me to pick them a beer; they say, ‘Just go get me a beer; I trust you.’”
Communication with the kitchen and cues from the weather mean the styles on offer gravitate toward the seasons—these days, glasses atop the communal tables are full of wintry pours from Upslope, Funkwerks and New Belgium, and one of Decker’s all-time favorite stouts: Avery Czar. And if you’re of the school that says stouts are meant for steaks and chocolate soufflés, there’s a veggie antipasto plate on [Next Door]’s menu that says otherwise.
TRY IT: THE KITCHEN [NEXT DOOR]’S BEET BURGERS
How to pull off a cookout in the grilling off-season? Make these flavor-rich veggie burgers, and let the kids top ‘em however they like (The Kitchen [Next Door] does them up with balsamic onions, feta and lemon-dressed arugula). The patties can be made and refrigerated up to 3 days in advance.
makes 5 burgers
2½ cups diced roasted beets
1 cup onion, diced small
½ cup celery, diced small
½ cup carrot, diced small
salt, to taste
½ cup mashed chickpeas, packed
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
black pepper, to taste
¾ cup panko breadcrumbs
• In a pan over medium-high heat, sauté the onions, carrots, celery and a pinch of salt until the vegetables soften and the onions are translucent.
• In a large bowl, combine the cooked vegetables with 21/2 cups of the beets, chickpeas and eggs. Add the cumin and paprika, season with black pepper and additional salt to taste, and mix well until the ingredients are well-combined; the mixture will be very wet. Add the breadcrumbs slowly and mix thoroughly; the mixture should form and hold a patty, but not be so wet that it loses shape, nor so dry that it crumbles.
• Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place a square of parchment paper into a burger mold, stuff enough of the burger mixture into the mold to form a patty, and remove the patty (still on the parchment) onto a baking sheet; repeat with remaining mixture. Bake the burgers until hot in the center but not too dry on the edges, about 15 minutes.