Pirates of the Mississippi

The unlikely union of the Heartland Cafe and the Benbow Room.

"Midwestern cuisine--it's an oxymoron, isn't it?" says Jay Wergin, the Green Bay, Wisconsin–bred half of the partnership behind West Seattle's Heartland Cafe. "In the Midwest, people just eat differently. I feel like I need to explain that a little more. Like, to the audience, you know?"What there is in the American Midwest is food—mountains of food, piled high to make up, perhaps, for the flatness of the geography and to lend a kind of artificial, edible horizon to views that can sometimes stretch forever. The Midwest is where the world's notions of how Americans eat were formed, and where Americans' ideas of who we are as an omnivorous people grew out of.The dearest images of Midwestern food are straight out of Norman Rockwell: hazy summer days with picnic tables groaning under the weight of bowls of potato salad, grilled brats, molded Jell-O desserts, and jugs of lemonade sweating in the heat; warm family gatherings for holiday meals of gleaming golden turkeys with all the trimmings and Dad standing by ready to carve; Betty Draper blondes in frilled aprons pulling tuna noodle casseroles from gleaming Maytag ovens; smiling, benevolent grandmothers laying out fresh pies to cool on windowsills beyond which stretch nothing but acres of corn and a million Lassie reruns.The Midwest is where many of America's less-than-cosmopolitan culinary influences call home—from Scandinavian housewives creaming herrings and German Mennonite farmers eating their bratwurst to the places where the strangest old fads still linger—ham with pineapple rings and savory gelatins and things made with cans of cream-of-mushroom soup. But it is also a place where cheese is its own food group and the notion of local cafes serving nothing but seasonal foods obtained from the farmer down the road is reality. It is the heartland of America. It is our soul and our belly, and occasionally our ignored conscience. American food was born in the long reaches of the Great Plains. But there is no "cuisine."It's just good food, solid food, food that somehow got lost with the sudden rush to "New American cuisine" and "American comfort food" and all the various jumped-up, Continental, fusiony interpretations of things that Americans have known and eaten for years. All of these "cuisines" serve to bury the actual foods they are meant to honor.But the Heartland Cafe exists to put that right.In the beginning, there was the Admiral Benbow Inn—a place so beloved by the people of West Seattle (and Seattle at large) that when it closed, pirates showed up to mourn its passing, the mayor made an appearance, and the fixtures were sold right off the walls.Since the Admiral Benbow shut its doors for good in 2002, the space has remained primarily dark. It was briefly occupied by a blues-and-Cajun joint, but, according to Wergin, all that place did in its eight-month existence was manage to ruin the space even further than the Benbow's closing-night party, estate sale, and final abandonment ever did."They did more damage than good," he says, referring to the way they painted the whole place in shades of black, white, and gray and marginalized the Spanish galleon–themed bar that was like a grown-up's version of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland—complete with rum and blood and smoke, real wenches, true debauchery, and a vibe that surpassed camp and made straight for that rare inner territory of honest love for the weird.When Wergin (the brains) and his partner, Jeff Loren (a veteran chef with 25 years in the whites), first picked up the space, they weren't necessarily thinking of doing a restaurant."We thought about making it into a place to sell sausage," Wergin explains. But with Wergin having spent 20 years in the printing business and Loren just being a white jacket with a nice resume, he admitted that there was just too much they didn't know about running a retail operation. A restaurant, though? They thought they could make that work.And then they saw what was left of the Admiral Benbow.What happened next either proves the existence of fate and providence or simply means that the food gods have a soft spot for pirates. Wergin explains that they'd started refurbishing the bar—cleaning it up, stripping the paint, returning the woods to their natural glory, and installing little shadow boxes full of piratey knickknacks that would speak to the joint's Treasure Island roots. But one of the big things missing were the four stained-glass panels that made up the ship's transom—showing either a sunrise, a sunset, or a guttering fire on the high seas, depending on your particular outlook. The panels were Italian, Wergin says, and they were beautiful. But they were gone, sold during the last-days bacchanalia when the Admiral Benbow closed up shop.Now here's the weird part. While Wergin and Loren were working, word got out to the guys drinking at the Shipwreck next door that they were looking for those original stained-glass panels. One of the drinkers was a contractor who'd been very fond of the Admiral Benbow during its heyday. So fond, in fact, that he'd bought all four pieces of glass and had been carrying them around for five years, just waiting to find something to do with them. When he heard about the two guys trying to remake the bar next door, he dropped by. And lo and behold, he and Wergin knew each other from some work the contractor had done in the past. In the end, he sold the four panels, still in perfect shape, to Wergin and Loren for less than he'd paid during the Benbow's estate sale.Once they had the glass, Wergin and Loren knew they'd be able to put the old bar back together again. It's called the Benbow Room now, and it's just as weird, cool, and mind-bending as it ever was—a dark and bizarre world of hawsers and Jolly Rogers, Seattle's own alley-entrance rabbit hole to an alternate world.Well, a second alternate world, really. Because I'm not sure which is more unlikely: a pirate ship–themed bar ensconced in a Midwestern restaurant, or Midwestern sausage and casseroles being offered to the people of the Pacific Northwest."There's just not enough restaurants around here that serve sausage," says Wergin. Sausage was how he and Loren got into the space, and what drove their plans for the restaurant that it became. "It just felt like we were lacking that American-style food."By which he means Midwestern-style food—soul food for the pasty, white, and frequently snowbound. His answer to this lack was the Volcano—a massive mound of mashed potatoes, shaped Richard Dreyfuss–in–Close Encounters-style, whose well is filled with green-bean casserole, gravy, and French-fried onions. Or the Tater Tot casserole, made, in the inimitable fashion of his Wisconsin forebears, from ground beef, onions, peas, and carrots, all swimming in cream-of-mushroom soup, topped with Tater Tots, topped again with cheddar cheese, and then baked 'til all golden-brown and bubbly and weirdly, hugely, wrongly delicious. This was junk food from the days before all junk food came in bags, cans, and cellophane—comfort food made for alleviating massive suffering (like dust bowls and Great Depressions and whatnot), or just making it OK to live in places like Nebraska.Loren takes the form a little bit further, doing scratch-made everything (except the Tater Tots) and bringing a trained chef's talents to the Middle American canon. For breakfast, he does donuts, made fresh in the little kitchen that once serviced the pirates and now supplies food for both the Benbow Room and the plain, farm-styled dining room in the front of the building. There's cinnamon-roll French toast; brats-and-eggs and homemade corned-beef hash with too much stuff in it (peppers and onions have no business in hash); a full spread of lunch and dinner plates; and salads and appetizers that all have as distant ancestors the 1920s farmhouse suppers that he and Wergin were aiming for when they designed the menu.They'd originally solicited suggestions from the neighbors, from folks online. he told me. "They're longing for that type of food." But unfortunately, mostly what they were longing for were the nth-generation convenience versions—everything made with gravy, fried onions, and cream-of-mushroom soup from a can.So what he and Loren did was to walk back a couple generations, to the days before cans of Campbell's and Durkee onions. The latkes are hand-cut and formed, and studded with big chunks of onions. The burgers are made with Wisconsin beef of excellent quality and come in various configurations—including a good one with sautéed apples, caramelized onions, and sharp cheddar, and that rarest of burger styles: the Wisconsin butter burger, made with a melted pat of butter on top. The meatloaf is an odd blend of chicken, ground beef, and pork sausage, heavily spiced, which lends a kind of Slim Jim flavor only partly disguised by the peppercorn gravy. The chicken-fried steak is a New York cut, pounded, breaded, fried, and served thick and hot and smothered with an excellent scratch-made sausage gravy all rich and shot through with crumbled sausage (made in-house, of course).The kitchen serves until 3 a.m. on weekends. Loren does a fish fry on Friday, and a special Sunday supper with fried chicken and meatloaf and family-style service across the picnic tables that run down the center of the dining room. But the menu's centerpiece remains the sausages—the split brats that top the Sheboygan burger, the grilled-sausage sandwiches, the sausage in the meatloaf and the gravy, and the plain "Signature Sausage" sampler, a rotating board of four different handmade sausages with classic Midwestern garniture: thin and spicy beer mustard and a couple of cold Milwaukee's Bests.One of these days, Wergin says he and Loren will probably get back to their original plan of running a sausage business. He talks about getting into the farmers markets, maybe running a sausage cart someday. But for now, the Midwestern cafe with the pirate ship in the back is getting all the attention."It's a different kind of place," he says. An American place that's all about the food and rarely about cuisine. A place for those who love brats and potatoes, fried food and gravy, and Tater Tots and cheese.And, of course, pirates.jsheehan@seattleweekly.comPrice Check

  Donuts  $4.99

  Corned-beef hash   11.99

  Brat sandwich   9.99

  Latkes  $7.99

  Butter burger  $9.99

  Meatloaf  $10.99

  Chicken-fried steak  $13.99

  Volcano  $9.99

  Tater Tot casserole  $11.99

 

 
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