Cowboy Slim's runs roughshod over old Uptown

All hat, no cattle: The crowd at Cowboy Slim's

All hat, no cattle: The crowd at Cowboy Slim's

The first time I drove up to Cowboy Slim's, in the former home of Campiello on the corner of West Lake Street and Girard, my first instinct was to turn around. Slim's back patio looked like a fraternity party, with its swarms of young people standing around smoking cigarettes and clutching plastic cups. I pulled into the lot and found a spot before realizing how much it cost: $9 for the privilege of parking in Uptown? Seriously? Where the McDonald's across the street lets its customers park for free? (Turns out the Cowboy Slim's folks don't manage the lot, but still, it makes a poor impression of their hospitality.) As I crossed the lot, several steel-pony-riding hellions blasted past, revving their engines loud enough to create the sonic equivalent of a drive-by shooting. I hadn't yet set foot in Cowboy Slim's when I uttered the phrase, "I hate this place already."

I wasn't really sure if I wanted to review Cowboy Slim's in the first place, as it seemed more like a bar than a restaurant. But news of its arrival in Uptown had carried significant heft, and I knew a lot of people were curious about it. Cowboy Slim's, and its new sister restaurant in Plymouth, Cowboy Jack's, are owned by the group that runs the Cabooze, the Joint Bar, and Sally's Saloon and Eatery in Minneapolis, among others. They were promising a full menu of Western-style, scratch-made food, and a little part of me was dying to see the party girls eat tater-tot hot dish.

So through the swinging doors I went, into Cowboy Slim's faux saloon. The large, open room looks as rustic as a horse barn with its plank floors and wooden-barrel tables. It's furnished with all sorts of Western schlock: lanterns, wagon wheels, saddles, and skulls. On the host's stand, a few small cacti had been plunked into a ceramic pot shaped like a pair of Daisy Dukes. The feel is less authentic than gimmicky—like so many tropical, gangster, or outer-space themes designed to help guests remember which of the interchangeable watering holes they visited the previous night, even if they can't recall what they drank.

The Cowboy Slim's patrons milling around in amoeba-like collectives looked to be in their early 20s, or perhaps a little older—though not yet past the age at which one stops basing weekend plans on whatever everyone else is doing. This was a crowd that put effort into its appearance but didn't stray too far from social norms. A few people watched a basketball game. Several flirted. All drank. The scene looked a little like New York's famous Coyote Ugly, though the evening was a little young for Midwestern women to dance on the bar or tack their bras to the wall. And I'm pretty sure I was the only person in the place who had brought her parents.

I had somewhat accidentally invited Mom and Dad out for a night at Cowboy Slim's, and they were a good three decades out of their comfort zone. Fortunately, my parents are the ultimate good sports. Waiting beside the host's stand, they stared openly at an older woman dressed like a teenager who appeared to be having her thigh rubbed suggestively by a stranger, but they didn't complain about the rock-show-like decibel levels. I approached the hostess, who was dressed in cowboy boots and a miniskirt, and told her that we'd like to eat. "Let me figure that out," she said, scanning the dining area, where a burly employee in a beer T-shirt moved large wooden tables by hefting them onto his back. I turned around to see my father reach his hand into a barrel, shell a few peanuts, and toss their husks on the floor. "This is my kind of place," he enthused.

The hostess seated us in a roomy booth, and we scanned the list of pork chops, pizzas, sandwiches, ribs, and steaks—a more ambitious menu than you might expect from a saloon. We ordered the meatloaf sliders and rated them average bar food (good buns, but the meat and barbecue sauce were rather bland). The pan-fried sunnies were better, as their crisp, peppery breading had a little kick of heat, though they could have used a spritz of lemon. Knowing that most cowpokes rarely see fresh rations, I was impressed that the fish came with a side of roasted red peppers, zucchini, broccoli, and onions. When I called Slim's later, I was told the vegetables are seasoned simply with salt and pepper, though I could have sworn they were splashed with some sort of balsamic vinegar-herb mixture, which overpowered their inherent flavors. My mother commented on the cuteness of the bright red Fiestaware.

The crowds cycled between the bar and the patio at a traffic jam's pace as the stereo played the sort of classic-rock tunes found on a Guitar Hero play list, including "Free Bird," "White Wedding," and "Pour Some Sugar on Me." I watched women teeter past in high-heeled boots, stilettos, and wedges, and worried about the peanut-shell hazard. "There are a lot of guys who look like deer in the headlights," my mom remarked. "And the girls are all traveling in packs." I struggled to finish my Cowboy Slim's ale, a sweet, malty brew that's both an easy drinker and something to be tired of quickly—a description that might also apply to the sort of person a Cowboy Slim's patron might go home with at the end of the night.

It seemed that funky old Uptown had finally become the new Downtown—possessing all the latter's raucous action, without the cover charges and parking hassles (At Slim's, I couldn't help but have flashbacks of Tonic, Uptown's pioneering nightclub-slash-eatery, which was eventually supplanted by Stella's, which was joined soon thereafter by Drink, whose name seems intended as a verb in the imperative tense). Idiosyncratic neighborhood hangouts such as the Rainbow Bar, Two Pesos, the old Uptown Diner, and McPunk's—places that drew the hip, arty neighbors out of their crumbling vintage apartments—had been pushed out by a wave of national chain stores and condos. The mohawk-and-safety-pin crowd had long since moved on, and even Campiello's fortysomething wine drinkers had been replaced by whiskey-shooting twentysomethings.

Sure, I was no longer a bus-riding teen headed to Oar Folkjokeopus to buy Green Day's first album, but over the years Uptown had changed, too. Its quirky, neighborhood character had dwindled to the point that the place felt more like a collection of businesses that might just as well be in Cleveland, or Vegas, or the Bloomington FantaSuites.

A FEW DAYS LATER I was back at Cowboy Slim's, eating tater-tot hot dish out of a cast-iron skillet and sipping a plastic cup of cherry-and-tobacco infused Jameson (it tasted like someone hit the whiskey with a splash of maraschino cherry juice). My friend ate a flat-iron steak, which is a newly popular cut that comes from the top shoulder of the chuck. It is said to have the tenderness of a rib eye or strip steak with the flavor of a sirloin or skirt steak; my server's description was limited to "it's juicier than the filet." The steak was better than the little smokies, lukewarm mini-dogs in a too-sweet sauce, but not as good as the tater-tot hot dish, which had a robust seasoning that made it taste like a poor man's beef Bourguignon. On this visit and on the previous one, the kitchen was still having trouble with the fried onion strings that come with nearly every dish—they were thin and crunchy like those on a green-bean casserole, but tasted mostly of burnt oil.

When we had eaten what we could, I paid the check and hung my purse on the back of my chair while I shoveled nearly five pounds of tater-tot hot dish into a to-go box, the way my farm-dwelling grandma used to scrape plates into a plastic hog-feed container kept under the sink. My friend and I chatted for another minute or two, then we stood up to leave and I reached for my bright red, oversized purse only to find it was...gone.

There was nothing I could do but report the theft to one of the managers, who suggested a vigilante-like response. "You know how they tell you to call and report your credit cards as stolen right away?" he said, leaning closer. "I wouldn't do that. When my buddy got his wallet stolen, we went online to see where they were using the cards, and then went over there and got his wallet back."

I looked up at the guy, whose build was about a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than my own. "I don't think I'm going to do that," I replied.

People whose problems outweigh their integrity can be encountered anytime, anywhere. Intellectually, I know that I can't hold Cowboy Slim's responsible for the theft—the time my mom had her purse stolen, it happened at church. Still, the environment at Slim's—the chaos, the crowds, the alcohol—is more conducive to that sort of chicanery, and frankly, I don't really like to patronize big, anonymous places where I feel like I'm participating in a human cattle call. (Would you get your purse stolen at Cheers?) And so I decided, due to the extenuating circumstances, to cancel my third visit and recuse myself from an official review. By the time my next column runs, I'll be back to my usual self, with just one regret: Assuming they eventually get one, I don't think I'll ever ride Slim's mechanical bull.