Deluxe Fine Food & Spirits didn't invent the Hot Brown, but it was here that I first saw it on a menu. Driven by equal parts curiosity and masochism, I ordered it.
Yes, it is served hot. No, brown is not its primary color.
The Hot Brown is an open-faced sandwich — though you might struggle to spot the bread beneath its other components. At Deluxe, four half-slices of toast are topped by a heaping serving of roasted turkey — actual hunks of both white and dark meat rather than thin, water-injected slices of cheap deli turkey — which is in turn topped by bacon, tomato and, the crowning glory, a thick cheese sauce.
How much you like the Hot Brown, or at least Deluxe's Hot Brown, will depend on how much you like — I mean, really, really, beyond-Thanksgiving-dinner-and-all-the-leftovers like — roasted turkey. It helps that the turkey on this sandwich is very tender (as countless home cooks can attest, turkey tends to dry out if you even look at it funny). And while the flavor isn't distinctive, which is to say on the agreeable side of bland, the bacon, tomatoes and cheese add enough of an accent to keep you interested.
As I said, Deluxe didn't invent the Hot Brown. Turns out it was created 80 years ago at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky — hence the name. According to the hotel's own website, the sandwich was meant to feed guests made hungry by a night of dancing — dancing and, I'd bet, despite this being the Prohibition era, drinking, because while the Hot Brown will certainly sate your hunger, it might rival the slinger as the dish most likely to strike a drunk as manna from heaven.
Now seems like an apt time to note that Deluxe, which opened in September just south of Saratoga Lanes in Maplewood, is a bar as well as a restaurant. In truth, it looks and feels more like the former than the latter, with a rockabilly vibe that influences the décor, the music and even the onion rings. Cut thick and drizzled with hot-wing sauce, these are (wait for it...) "Rings of Fire."
Would Johnny Cash approve? I have no idea. All I know about the Man in Black's dining habits is that he detested cucumbers. (See the liner notes to the first of his wonderful Rick Rubin-produced albums, American Recordings, in which he cites biblical justification for his aversion.) I liked the onion rings just fine: The batter was crisp, and the hot-wing sauce walked the fine line between adding kick and overwhelming the onion's balance of sweet and sharp.
The rings fared better than another appetizer, shrimp-and-corn fritters, which, besides not lending themselves to an easy Johnny Cash reference, were deep-fried to a point between crisp and burnt, trumping any shrimp or corn flavor with the distinct note of frying oil. If you are tempted to order (or are horrified by) the appetizer known as "Chicken Fried Sushi," know that these are merely fried catfish nuggets.
The appetizers are representative of the menu as a whole, which straddles the categories of bar snacks, diner fare and comfort food. That might be a surprise if you know Deluxe's pedigree: Business partners Jim Russell and Suzanne Miller both have experience with more "upscale" cuisine, Russell at the Delmar Restaurant and Miller at the late Zinnia. Their backgrounds notwithstanding, at Deluxe Russell and Miller present food as fun — and as affordable — as it is familiar.
You might simmer a better batch of chili at home — I do — but when you're hungry and waiting for your sandwich on a cold afternoon, Deluxe's chili does the trick, thick with ground beef and kidney beans and spiced with just enough chili powder to have a kick without offending those with wimpy palates. Fair warning: A "cup" of chili (or soup) is as big as most restaurants' bowls, while a "bowl" is approximately cauldron-sized. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.)
A dish that rarely compares to Mom's is meatloaf. Here I can claim some objectivity because, as a kid, 1) my dad made the meatloaf and 2) I hated it. (Sorry, Dad. I also hated pickles and hot dogs. I know, I know: I'll renounce my citizenship as soon as I finish this review.) At any rate, I've grown to appreciate, if not love, meatloaf, and Deluxe's is a fine specimen, thick and moist with a rich beef flavor tricked out (but not, as is so often the case, overdone) with spices. Order the mac & cheese as a side for a simple pleasure of a meal.
Burgers are available as a single, double or even triple patty. This suggests a thin, fast food-style burger, but in fact the patties are medium-sized and hand-formed; one with cheese and bacon was a satisfying meal. If you want fries with your burger, I recommend the sweet-potato variety, which are crisp and flavorful. The ordinary fries have a decent texture but not much flavor.
The preferred seafood at Deluxe is catfish, available as the aforementioned "chicken-fried sushi" as well as an appetizer or an entrée. The batter is crisp but thin enough to allow you to enjoy the fish's flaky texture. There is also a tuna-melt sandwich, which is served open-faced and too heavy on the relish.
There is a brief wine list. The beer selection is broader, but offers only a few surprises, like a few of Boulevard's new Smokestack series of higher-end brews. In keeping with Deluxe's raffish charm, Pabst Blue Ribbon is the cheap draft beer of choice at $2 — and on Tuesday, the bar offers the frightening prospect of $2 pitchers of PBR. A significant drawback: Smoking is allowed at the bar, and very little space (and no barrier) separates the bar area from the dining tables.
Then again, this is exactly the sort of place you'd expect to find cigarette-smoking, beer-swilling rockabilly punks. Which, come to think of it, would indeed be a much less appealing name for a sandwich than Hot Brown.