There was a place in my childhood called Vern’s, way back in my Rocky Mountain past in the old mining town of Arvada, which was a bar (primarily), with dark red lighting, sticky floors and slippery plastic booths that had these big gold buttons. Vern’s also had really good chicken chow mein. It was a bar (primarily), that’s why the old man drug the family there—and most the patrons were there to drink. What seemed to me egregious was that a place with good chow mein should be obscured by menacing drunks (adults) with an evaporating sense of their earthly bearings. I’d stir the Shirley Temple with the damndest frustration, and I’d imagine myself looking like Bud in Urban Cowboy watching Sissy dance with that brute Scott Glenn. Travolta was the ultimate in stoicism, and I was seven. I didn’t have the loinfire yet, so my frustration was strictly platonic culinary diss-tuitiveness, but still.
It’s been years since I’ve thought of it, but I have discovered Vern’s equivalent in Riverside—Joe’s Bar and Grill. This time it’s me (adult) who likes to do some imbibing and to scope the local talent. And here’s the kicker—Joe’s has a lot of Sissy’s hanging about at night, and that ain’t no (mechanical) bull. Not to mention sticky floors, a jukebox, a functioning popcorn machine, lots of vainglorious mirrors and neon lights. There’s the homeward smell of damp carpets from spills. The place is dark in the day, and wholly patronized. There are green lanterns and billiards, televisions running sports, unspoken camaraderies forming in the mugs. And, like Vern’s, damn good food in spite of itself—only instead of chow mein it’s bacon cheeseburgers and prime-rib burritos, steak and lobster, freaking thrice grilled mushrooms. That kind of joint.
I happened in on a Monday when the aforementioned prime-rib burrito is on the special’s card. Something about the ingenious concept of combining buffet royalty and a tortilla made the mouth foam like Pavlov’s dog, and so half of the meal was settled. Hearing from a friend of mine that the hamburgers were “undeniable,” I also ordered a bacon cheeseburger. Nietzsche said, “he who wants to learn to fly somebody must first learn to stand and walk—one cannot fly into flight.” Joe says “take flight from the ordinary, and experience the extraordinary” right there on the menu. These were a lot of quotes and adages and wise old beatitudes for my sorry state (hungry), and I realize writing this now that they don’t make sense stacked up together, but when the food was brought out I sided immediately with Joe. This was extraordinary food.
The cheeseburger was a cheeseburger, honestly—but that prime-rib burrito was a curtain call. What harmonies the ingredients shared! Thick cubes of juicy prime-rib, refried beans and a hot red sauce, things spilling out every time the fork pressed in. As with all blissful moments, nobody hunching at the bar noticed a thing—things were ordinary even in my extraordinary world. Not bad for a bop-off to a bar (primarily) that offers food as a sort of afterthought. It seemed like a nice kept secret, this prime-rib burrito and its transcendent qualities.
Greatest thing about the lunch? Under $20 for both platters and drinks. Just like Vern’s in the thin air of Colorado, I was eating this place up. Serious about the talent, too—the girls are ten-deep on some nights. Just an all around fine place to be, no matter if it’s food you want, drinks, philosophy or the feeling of old chow mein.
Joe’s Bar and Grill, 10909 Magnolia Ave., Riverside, (951) 637-3934. Open nightly until 1:30AM; AE, MC, V