Southwestern Comfort

Bar Abilene
1300 Lagoon Ave., Mpls.; 825-2525

Are your walls whirling? Head pounding? Is every particle of light a veritable ham hock lodged in your cerebellum? Is your breath stinky? Then you, my lucky friend, are a full-fledged participant in the Great American Hangover Week, and you've got no one to blame but yourself. Well, no one but your brain and its ingenious chemistry. Curious as to what's going on? Want to know how to make it stop? Then speed your eyes to Roger Highfield's The Physics of Christmas, a book that puts nearly all of the holiday season's mysteries--from the quantum mechanics that Santa uses to deliver all the presents, to the dreaded New Year's hangover--into plain English.

Highfield, the eloquent science editor for the London Daily Telegraph, first points out that drunkenness is mostly about inept communication. Alcohol by-products cause surges of activity in different parts of the brain, while simultaneously preventing the release of neurotransmitters that would allow those areas to communicate with each other. (Lots of noise and activity, little useful communication--as with the party, so with the brain.) Of the next morning, he writes: "One of the most disturbing feelings experienced by many revelers is 'whirling-pit syndrome'.... The disorientation and dizziness are caused by alcohol's disrupting a balance sensor in the inner ear. The sensor consists of a sac and three semicircular canals containing fluid. As we move, the corresponding fluid motion is detected by tiny hairs lining the organ. The hairs translate the movement into electrical impulses. The brain uses this information to help calculate balance. To do this it assumes a certain density of the fluid. But as alcohol diffuses into the fluid, this assumption breaks down, causing dizzying shifts in the sense of balance, even if there is no actual motion. This also explains why the 'hair of the dog' actually works. It is not the absolute density of the balancing fluid that causes disorientation, but changes in its density. During the period of sobering up, when alcohol diffuses out of the balancing fluid, the density changes may be too rapid for comfort, producing a distinctly unsteady feeling. A little alcohol may cut the rate of density change, restoring balance and removing the feeling of fragility."

Aha! As for what causes headaches, Highfield tells us that while the brain itself has no pain receptors, the blood vessels in the membranes between the brain and the skull do, and they're probably sensitive to some of the compounds, called congeners, which are formed during the fermentation of alcohol. "Brandy, cheap dark rum, and bad red wine produce the worst hangovers, being high in congeners," the author writes. "By contrast, pure alcohol, gin, and vodka are relatively low in congeners, producing less severe hangovers." And again, the 'hair of the dog' steps in: Fresh alcohol prevents one congener, methanol, from turning into headache-causing formaldehyde and formic acid--at least temporarily.

Which brings us to Bar Abilene. After all, what better way to fend off a headache than a panoply of restorative fresh-squeezed citrus juices mixed with high-quality tequilas? Add tasty snacks and the option to duck down the block to any one of three movie theaters when life's pit gets too whirly, and you've got the best hangover remedy in Uptown.

Bar Abilene is the zippy kid sister of Edina's Tejas--the two share head chefs, managers, and a couple of key recipes--but Tejas is in the wine-and-beer-only Siberia of Edina, while Bar Abilene has 72 100 percent blue agave tequilas and a much more casual and affordable menu. Those tequilas range from bar pours from the Sauza line--which other restaurants use as their premium tequila--to very, very rare tequilas made from the first spring sap of mature agaves and aged like brandy in charred oak casks. (Got money to burn? Order a shot of Porfidio Barrique for $75, or Herradura Suprema for $55.) Don't feel like you know enough about tequila to tell the difference? Fear not: Not only are the bartenders terrifically knowledgeable about the world's finest beverage to come out of a fleshy green succulent (not a cactus!), but Abilene also offers "flights" of tequila--essentially, do-it-yourself tequila classes consisting of three half-shots you get to choose from a list.

The margaritas are just as varied: 25 different ones, made with freshly squeezed citrus juices. My favorites: the Sunburnt Señorita ($6.95), Sauza Blanco and Chambord raspberry liqueur with fresh lime and orange juices; and the Baja Breeze ($4.95), crafted from Sauza Blanco, Triple Sec, cranberry juice, and fresh grapefruit juice. The standard margarita ($4.95), made basic and right, is also very nice. But if you do opt for one of the juicier margaritas, consider ordering it without the salted rim; without the dominance of lime, the excess salt tends to clash with the fruitier taste.  

Once you're cozy with cocktails, Bar Abilene surprises further with some wonderful food options. The jewel of the lot is the iron-skillet-steamed mussels ($5.95), a dozen or so mussels served in a wonderfully tasty spicy sauce of smoked tomatoes, tamarind, tequila, and serrano chiles. At $5.95, potato-chipotle-Gouda flautas (deep-fried stuffed tortillas) were absolutely addictive, their rich mashed-potato centers nicely contrasting with a smoky tomatillo salsa, a fresh, mild tomato salsa crown, and a dab of smoked tomato aioli. Guacamole (market price), made tableside, is another pleasure. Your server simply mashes both halves of an avocado with some fresh housemade salsa and lime juice. Close your eyes and you're nearly on a beach.

Abilene also does very well with sandwiches. One of the restaurant's best assets is a great grilled burger ($6.95)--big, meaty, and crisp-seared. Add a side of garlic mashed potatoes ($2.95) and you've got a meal to beat the ham hock out of any hangover. As for salads, the Southwestern Caesar ($4.95) is the fine, smoky one you'll recognize from Tejas, while the iceberg wedge with candied pecans and smoked-tomato buttermilk dressing ($3.95) was as good as dessert.

More ambitious dishes weren't as thrilling. Chile-seared catfish ($12.95) with roasted vegetables was greasy, the accompanying annatto rice was bright red and bone dry. I was even more displeased to find that same rice in the paella ($14.95), which also featured plenty of overcooked, underseasoned seafood. And I've reconciled myself to the fact that I'm never going to like tortillas as pizza crusts, such as the one that lurked under the smoked shrimp pizza with sweet corn, asiago, and onions ($8.95); a tortilla simply doesn't stand a chance of holding its own against rich toppings. Still, I'm delighted to know there's a place in Uptown where one can get good casual food from noon till late night. (The kitchen doesn't close until last call in the bar.) It's exactly what the neighborhood was crying out for.

I mean, how was it that there was nowhere to go in Uptown after a movie for a piece of cake and an Irish coffee ($4.25) without sucking in smoke and shouting above the din? Speaking of which, Diablo Cake ($3.95), looking positively angelic in a pool of vanilla sauce, was quite nice. (The "devil" comes in with the use of powdered ancho chiles, which are added to the chocolate cake batter; though their presence is nearly undetectable, the cake's chocolate resonance owes them something.) The sweetheart dessert, though, was pumpkin-honey flan ($3.95), a not-too-sweet custard that supplied a welcome coarse texture in contrast with the big flavors of an accompanying whiskey-cinnamon sauce. It also looked lovely, crowned with a loop-the-loop halo of caramelized sugar.

Happy hour was yet another happy shocker. I didn't think anything could persuade me to endure this ritual in Uptown again, but the proximity to the Lagoon, the high, smoke-diffusing ceilings, and the absence of head-butting drunks has lured me but good. Most drinks (including three of the margaritas) are priced at $2.75, plus there's free popcorn, and chips accompanied by Abilene's smoky homemade salsa. Or, for $2.75, there's a choice of snacks, including those lovely flautas I mentioned above, as well as smoked-chicken nachos. (Happy hour runs from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. to midnight weekdays; weekends it stretches from noon until 7 p.m. and from 10:30 p.m. to midnight.) Just be sure to make a hard left upon entering: The reduced prices only fly in the bar.

Now on to the problems. (Why wouldn't there be problems? With champagne, hangover. With snow, shoveling. With a president who genuinely likes and understands women, fellatio and impeachment. Why wouldn't Bar Abilene follow the pattern of life?) Perched high above Abilene's tables is a series of monitors, standard sports-bar issue, upon which old Westerns are broadcast. Or rather, all during my visits, one old Western: South of Santa Fe, starring Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes. I probably saw that film half a dozen times, and aside from the fact that I'm a bit of a film snob and think that's a disrespectful thing to do to a movie, the fact of the matter is that while you can't really see the movie, you can't really ignore it, either. The effect is to take a very nice restaurant and give it an ersatz, corporate-imagined, cheesy edge.

Double-dog ditto for the music. Bar Abilene seems to pride itself on playing a preset rock mix. I say "pride" because the volume is turned up very loud at all times, and in addition to being piped into the restaurant, the tunes are also broadcast outside, onto the blameless corner of Fremont and Lagoon. For patrons, any gap in conversation is paved over with this repeating mix of loud classic rock only vaguely Western in theme (I noted the Doobie Brothers, Bob Seger, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the Eagles), which becomes a significant and annoying part of the dining experience. For those of us who prefer not to contemplate the Doobie Brothers, the net effect is that of being trapped on a road trip in some stranger's car.  

Do I sound inordinately crabby about the Doobie Brothers? It's not unusual for this time of year, you know. My new friend Roger Highfield says there's even a Swiss word for it: Weihnachtscholer, which translates as "Christmas-unhappiness." On the other hand, Highfield also points out that "pleasure is itself an antidote to the stresses of modern life," and that "modified hedonism" may well be the true path to health and happiness. In that case... Barkeep, send me a flight.

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