Fast and Fabulous Food

Bar Snacks Don’t Need To Be Difficult — Quick ‘n’ Easy Treats with Signature Flair are Low-Cost, High-Profit Winners

No, those big, Bavarian-style soft pretzels at South Barrington, Ill.’s The Lucky Monk aren’t made from scratch in the back every morning, but they are finished in house ovens and served hot with three house-made cheesy dips. And yes, tortillas come in to Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap in Chicago ready-made, but staff deep fries the tortillas into chips, and the layers of BBQ-sauce-slathered, slow-smoked brisket, pulled pork, veggies and dairy goodness that top them to make Jake’s BBQ Nachos are lovingly prepared in-house.

In this world of artisanal/hand-crafted everything, it helps to have a few quick and easy bar snacks that can be prepared in a snap but still manage to deliver signature flair — all while impressing guests without killing your bottom line. “Times are tough and kitchens can’t afford extra labor,” says Brian Massie, executive chef for The Light Group, based in Las Vegas. “So it helps to have some fast items at the bar that don’t sacrifice quality.”

But what makes bar snack ideas go from daunting to doable? Some chefs say it’s best to stick with easy albeit delicious items — popcorn, raw veggies, potato chips, nuts, edamame — that can be made and signature-ized in minutes. Gonpachi at the Miyako Hybrid Hotel in Torrance, Calif., for example, makes edamame its own by tossing the meaty soybeans with sesame oil, garlic and soy sauce. Served warm, the Garlic Edamame (a $3 happy hour snack or appetizer) pairs well with Japanese beer, sake or Gonpachi’s Moshiso cocktail, created with vodka, fresh mint, shiso and lime juice ($10).

Other operators make snacks that can be built on high-quality pre-made or pre-prepped-to-spec platforms.   The Light Group produces some of its most successful bar snacks at its STACK and FIX restaurants. “We try to simplify our kitchen, farming out food pre-prep that is too tedious or labor-intensive, as long as it doesn’t impact our [food quality] performance,” Massie says. The “pigs” (sausages) for STACK’s top-selling Pigs in a Blanket ($14) are made according to a proprietary recipe by The Light Group’s meat company, rather than being made in-house. Before service, the kitchen staff wraps the sausages in dough, bakes them and — voilà — serves them, often pairing the “pigs” with the Ginger Mint (Level Vodka, ginger beer, fresh ginger and mint; $14). And the Kobe Beef Prime Rib French Dip ($16) on FIX’s “Late Night Fix” bar menu makes savvy use of the Kobe prime rib surplus from nightly dinner service in the restaurant area. Ready-made components include the baguette and the rich red wine demi glace served as the “dip.” To build the sandwich, FIX employees spread light truffle butter on baguette slices, top those with prime rib and serve with Asian togarashi-spiced French fries. Chef Massie’s favored cocktail pairing for the French Dip: The Cucumber Essence (Stolichnaya elit, cucumber essence and fresh lime; $14).

Popcorn and Pretzels Mean Possibility

Popcorn is perhaps chefs’ favorite fast-and-easy bar snack. There are plenty of possibilities: Salt & Vinegar popcorn ($3) at Atlanta’s The Porter Beer Bar is very popular, “which is great for us, because it makes you very thirsty,” says owner Molly Gunn. To give the snack its tasty tang, staff members toss fresh-popped corn in brown butter, salt and vinegar powder. Gunn’s beverage pairing is a Dale’s Pale Ale from Oskar Blues Brewery ($3.75).

To create his meltingly rich Bacon Popcorn ($5) at the Lobby Lounge in Chicago, Chef Christopher Karl renders out Nueske bacon to make meaty, soft-textured lardons, which are a nice textural contrast to the crunch of the popcorn. Also in Chicago, Chef Rick Gresh does Truffle Popcorn drizzled with white and dark chocolate, a touch of cayenne pepper and a seasoning of truffle salt at the James Hotel’s Jbar. (Gresh likes this fancy corn with an Old Fashioned; $10.)

The popcorn possibilities are seemingly endless. At BLT Steak in Los Angeles, Executive Chef Brian Moyers varies daily popcorn flavors (complimentary for guests at the bar) depending on his mood, ranging from hot cayenne to complex Cajun to smoked salt. And at Graham Elliot in Chicago, Chef Graham Elliot Bowles’ gratis popcorn is tossed with freshly grated parmesan cheese, fresh-cracked black pepper, sea salt and a drizzle of truffle oil. The suggested sip is the Wine and Roses cocktail (Prosecco, Koval Rosehip Liqueur, Pinot Gris and fresh lemon; $11). 

Popcorn, though delightfully simple, isn’t the only fast treat bars are selling. Also crunchy and complimentary: Chili-oil-infused Japanese “pocky” pretzel sticks at David Burke’s Primehouse Lobby Bar and Jbar, both at Chicago’s James Hotel. To make them, bartenders simply set the pretzels in chili-infused olive oil. The spicy sticks go well with Lynchburg Lemonade, which mixes Jack Daniels with lychee fruit, house-made sour mix and Sprite ($10).
Lynae Fearing and Tracy Rathbun, co-owners of Dallas’ Shinsei restaurant, serve an addictive complimentary snack mix that’s an Asian-inspired retread of ’70s cereal mixes. Dubbed “Asian-style Trash,” it combines corn, wheat and rice cereal, wasabi peas, cashews, pretzels and bagel chips, tossed with granulated onion and garlic, Worcestershire and soy sauces and butter. Rathbun says a wonderful pairing for the mix is the Shinsei Sangria, which, for $10 a glass, mixes sake, white wine and vodka with chopped pineapple, a Granny Smith apple, orange and lychee.

Nuts to You

If popcorn and pretzel mixes leave you wanting more, nuts are another inexpensive snack that satisfies the hungry consumer. At the Highland Kitchen in Somerville, Mass., Chef Mark Romano roasts peanuts, almonds and pistachio nuts in a brown sugar, rosemary, cayenne, salt and butter mixture to make Spiced Nuts ($3.95), “our own version of a salty-spicy-sweet ’70s party classic.” While the nuts go well with many quaffs, Beverage Manager Joe McGuirk likes them with the $6.50 Dorchester cocktail (vodka, triple sec and pink lemonade), which he describes as a “very summery and refreshing complement to the spicy nuts.” Also a quick hit? The Spicy Marcona Almonds at Aquariva in Portland, Ore. While Chef Andy Arndt says about 99 percent of his menu is made in-house, this is the exception: It’s “one of two items we bring in [at] an almost-finished state.” To spice the pre-roasted nuts, Arndt tosses them in a smoked paprika/cayenne/fennel spice blend with olive oil, roasting them for about 10 minutes. Arndt says the finished product has a good kick and works well with draft beer like Captured By Porches Invasive Species IPA ($7 a pint) or the Pinot Noir and Syrah blend of Penner-Ash Rubeo from Oregon ($11 a glass).

Looking for an alternative to the salty snacks? Breads are a versatile departure platform for any bar snack menu. For his Warm Pretzel Trio ($9.95) at The Lucky Monk, chef Matt McMillin gets large soft par-baked pretzels from the same baking company that prepares his hamburger buns. He finishes baking them in Lucky Monk’s ovens and serves with three creamy dips: Wisconsin Cheddar and Beer Fondue, Tomato Fondue (sweet plum tomatoes, cream, basil, olive oil, onion and parmesan cheese) and Honey-Mustard Butter. Paired with a wheat beer, this cost-saving yet savory snack is Lucky Monk’s biggest-selling bar app.

Also under the bread umbrella are toasted pitas; this seemingly clichéd choice becomes especially popular when dandified dips make them special. At Zaya in Atlanta, general manager Richard Smuck says hot toasted pitas with house-made muhammara (spiced dipping blend of lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, chili paste, pepper jelly and pomegranate molasses) is the craveable gratis snack guests like with Almaza Lebanese beer ($6) as a prelude to meals.

Dips, Strips & Chips

House-made dips also can elevate even the most pedestrian potato chip. At his two Chicago-area Dunlay’s restaurants, owner Doug Dunlay says it’s the blue-cheese bechamel sauce that makes his restaurants’ Blue Cheese and Chips ($8.50) such a hit. Kettle chips are smothered in the sauce and topped with fresh blue cheese crumbles and a few shakes of Tabasco sauce (Buffalo style).

Sometimes the most popular snacks are the easiest to make and the most cost effective. A little innovative thinking goes a long way for operators who can turn a side into a bonafide moneymaking appetizer or transform pre-made fare into creative dishes. Ben Pao, a Lettuce Entertain You concept in Chicago, keeps ravenous customers satisfied by offering ready-made, eaten-by-the-handful wonton wrappers, cut into strips and seasoned. Offered as a side to the restaurant’s Dim Sumwiches, the wonton strips have proven so popular that partner Ed Culleeney now serves them at the bar on their own.

And rather than make tortillas by hand, Executive Chef Bob Andrea at Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap in Chicago cuts them into wedges and deep fries chips to form the base of his BBQ Nachos ($10.95). Since the barbecued meat is made for other dishes served in the restaurant, using it to top a snack at the bar requires no extra labor, skill or skus. Chef Doug Weston uses the same creative cross-utilization of gourmet ingredients at Vertical Wine Bistro in Pasadena, Calif., to make his Not ‘Cho Supreme $9 gourmet nachos: tortilla chips topped with pork ragout, Epoisses cheese, tomato and a fried egg. (The tony snack goes down well with an Old Fashioned; $7.)

An unconventional ingredient that’s an inexpensive retro treat shines in the Spam Fries at Violet Chan’s Rack & Rye Gastropub in Denver. For Chan, who grew up in Malaysia and ate Spam regularly, the crunchy-rich fries ($5) are a nostalgic revival. To make them, she cuts low-sodium Spam into French-fry-sized spears, dredges them in self-rising flour and deep fries until crispy. She serves the fries with a spicy, sriracha/ketchup blend and Thai Sweet Chili aioli.

Obviously, bar food has many iterations, from nachos to French fries, nut mixes to popcorn, but it doesn’t have to be difficult, and it certainly doesn’t have to be boring. By adding some easy treats to your menu, you’ll keep guests happy and keep them longer. And that’s something to which guests should raise (another) glass. NCB

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