Bar food doesn’t deserve to be this good.
Talking with the owners of The Pump Bar, Ian and Hailey McDermid, I said as much. Nobody puts this much thought into the food you eat when you’re drunk. And yet.
The weird truth about The Pump Bar is that the food is good when you’re drunk. It fills every need for sloppy, greasy, salty deliciousness.
It is even better when you’re sober.
Which is funny, because the McDermids never wanted it to be a restaurant. They just wanted it to be a really great bar. (It is.)
But drunk people need to eat. And if you’re going to serve food, it has to be good. It’s a point of pride.
Besides, as any restaurant/bar owner will tell you, they’re going to spend a lot of time there. A lot. So if the food sucks, they’ll be eating food that sucks. Ain’t nobody want that.
Ian let slip one of the funniest facts about one of The Pump’s signature menu items.
The tater tots ($5) are a giant basket of crispy fried tater tots. They come frozen. Of course. Because I don’t know if you’re ever tried shredding potatoes, but it’s a lot of work for very little payoff.
“The seasoning on top of the tots costs more than the tots,” Ian said.
The Pump gets a blend of white pepper and smoked sea salt from Savory Spice Shop. It is, pound for pound, the most expensive thing in the kitchen.
So why pay so much for seasoning? Because it’s worth it. That smoked salt is a game changer on a number of dishes. Besides, nothing makes you want another drink more than a salty snack.
That’s definitely the thought behind another classic bar snack: spicy pork rinds ($4). Freshly fried and dusted with picante-lime seasoning, these are just wonderful. It’s another example of the trashy being turned into fine art, which you’ll see a lot on The Pump’s menu. Puffed up and crisp, each rind will give you a burst of seasoning before the fatty, savory pork skin begins to melt. If you’ve never had a pork rind, this is a good one to start with.
I don’t have a ton to say about the pretzel nugs (served with either beer cheese or Nutella for $7) other than, “Yes. Dear lord. Yes.”
A perfectly perfect snack food, these salty nugs are chewy and soft and pair exceedingly well with the beer cheese. Is that even fair, though? What doesn’t pair with beer cheese? If I ran out of nugs and started dipping my knuckles in there, I’d be typing this with only my left hand right now.
The chips and salsa with cilantro queso ($5) were also quite tasty. The Pump warms up the chips before bringing them out, which adds a nice contrast between the chips and the cool salsa. The cilantro white queso is good, too. Not beer-cheese-eat-your-hand good, but good.
Is the Okie poutine ($10) an appetizer or a meal? It’s easy to share, in theory, but tasty enough that you won’t want to. It’s a base of tater tots (good) topped with cheese curds (great) and braised short rib (awesome) in a brown ale gravy (STOP DRILLING YOU HIT OIL).
This is one of my favorite things at The Pump and if you haven’t had it, I suggest you quit your job, get in line outside the restaurant, wait for it to open, order these, realize you need money to buy more and go beg for your job back.
No offense to tots, but much like the pretzel nugs, a layer of brown ale gravy and tender, beefy braised short rib would make carpet remnants appetizing. I don’t just want to eat this stuff. I want to form a business partnership that blossoms into a lifelong friendship with it. Then, after a plane crash strands us both in Antarctica, it makes the ultimate sacrifice and lets me devour it.
Anything would sound like a letdown after the Okie poutine, but let me caution you that my ardor for that gravy does not mean I cannot appreciate the glory of bison Frito pie ($8).
I love Frito chili pie. Love it. But it can be pretty gross if the chili is extra greasy and soaks the corn chips. Not a problem with bison, which is so lean that The Pump had to mix it with beef to make a chili that didn’t dry out immediately.
Another addition to the dish is pico de gallo, which is a wonderful idea. The freshness and acidity cuts through the richness of the bison and the cheese, giving it a sense of momentum. Each bite leads to the next and the next and the next and then suddenly you’re sitting there, so full you cannot stand. I mean, isn’t that the dream?
While we’re talking about pico momentum, we need to discuss the borracho nachos ($10), which Ian is convinced they will somehow lose money on. And I have to agree. There’s no way these nachos don’t cost more than $10 to make. It’s a pile of tortilla chips, of course, then a pile of shredded chicken and borracho beans with a cilantro-infused queso. And salsa verde. And lime juice sour cream. And then pico de gallo.
It’s a mountain of nachos and every layer is a delight.
“There’s nothing worse than bad nachos,” Hailey said. And outside of genocide or people using FaceTime in public, I agree. Bad nachos will ruin your day and possibly your life.
The pico shows up again in the delicious fried flatbread tacos, which are crispy and crunchy and filled with seasoned ground beef, black beans, salsa, corn, lettuce, cheese and pico. There’s a lot to unpack there, but I suggest you just eat them instead.
On the side is the Pump’s version of elote, which is a creamy, cheesy, spicy corn dish. Don’t try to dip the tacos in the elote. It’s too thick. Just spoon some on top and eat it that way. You will thank me.
One thing Hailey made clear is that the Pump Burger ($9) was her top priority. She and I are what you might call “burger enthusiasts.” I don’t need to eat one every day, but I certainly won’t complain if I eat two in one day, either.
This burger is a lovely 1/3rd-pounder (take that, Braums!) covered in bacon and greens and fire-roasted tomatoes on a brioche bun. The Pump is her place. Hailey is there a lot. Therefore, the burger must be good. And boy is it.
The meat is chuck, which might not sound appetizing (I’ve known a lot of guys named Chuck who I’d rather not eat), but this is from an exceedingly beefy section of the cow. Yes, every section of the cow is beefy, but there’s a lot of flavor in the chuck and it chars well. This is a juicy pile of happiness and I’d get it all the time except for…
The Philly cheese steak. At $12 it is the most expensive dish on the menu and it’s still a bargain. Using another verrrry beefy cow primal, the ribeye, The Pump shaves off slices of steak and grills them with with onions and your choice of beer cheese (correct) or provolone (less correct) and serves it inside a crusty baguette.
It. Is. Glorious. The Philly is my go-to order at Hobby’s Hoagies and this one might be better. Every bite is a cacophony of salty, sweet, cheesy umami goodness wrapped in chewy carbs. It’s damn near perfect.
That said, I won’t begrudge you for switching allegiances to try the Pho-rench dip ($11), which certainly piqued my interest. Using the same thinly sliced ribeye, it’s cooked with hoisin and paired with pho-friendly veggies like jalapenos and carrots and served inside a baguette. On the side, for your dipping pleasure, is a cup of hot pho broth. It’s a lovely tribute to our local Vietnamese cuisine and worth trying yourself.
The Buffalo quesadilla ($10) is the result of lots of testing and a bit of restraint.
It’s literally buffalo chicken and cheese inside a tortilla. Grilled and cut into wedges. It’s delightful. What it does not have is a big honking load of blue cheese shoved inside it. And that’s a good thing.
Speaking as a fan of blue (or even bleu) cheese, it has a place. But it’s something best savored in small quantities. Too much and you not only overwhelm all the other ingredients, you completely blow out the taste buds. That’s a major failure with the various Buffalo dishes out there.
Buffalo sauce is good on its own. Blue cheese is great sometimes, but it’s not like the two absolutely must be paired. There’s no blue cheese here and it’s a better plate for it.
Have you had enough of The Pump Bar’s new menu? I hope not. I’ll be returning soon with a review of the restaurant’s updated brunch and drinks menu.