Flush with kitsch charm and hard-to-beat deals set to a rock 'n' roll soundtrack, the RIVERSHACK TAVERN makes it worth the dicey turn on River Road. By Sara Roahen
Heading out along the levee from Riverbend after dark is as close as I've come within a city's limits to a countryside road cruise. Out there after a rainstorm, while thumbprint frogs puddle-jumped through potholes and the moon hung white in the West, I wished I had dug out that Born to Run cassette. I leaned into the dicey curve around SnoWizard headquarters, passed a hitchhiker outside Live Bait, and picked up speed by Mat & Naddie's, which I once thought was the last place worth eating on River Road. At the crossing of Shrewsbury Road, a tuft of trees opened to the clapboard building of the Rivershack. As I stepped across the gravel lot, the last refrain of the Eagles' "Take it Easy" snuck out with a handful of revelers clutching go-cups who pushed through the bar's heavy, French-styled doors into the swampy night.
It was a slow Sunday evening; I practically had my pick of the 'Shack's mannequin-legged designer barstools (created and patented by owner Jimmy Collings). One man sat astride a model clothed in Scottish plaid pants and golf shoes; his muscular friend was stuck with black lace panties, bare legs and blue jeans bunched at the ankles. I played it safe with rubber fishing boots and a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale from the tap, settling in with the Cody Stampede rodeo. A disco ball twirling between stained-glass chandeliers freckled the scene: the men down the bar rattled away in Spanish, the bartender (a philosophy student) pulled himself an espresso, and John Cougar Mellencamp's "Ain't That America" reverberated through the sticky wooden room.
I asked the bartender why Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill, at 50 cents a glass, was the only wine "temporarily out of stock." "You don't know how many complaints I've had about that one," he answered. And he wasn't the only jokester in the room. At the bottom of the blackboard wine list, someone had chalked in "Complimentary lipstick served with each glass."
And so it goes along every inch of roadhouse wall, inside and out. If there's a piece of memorabilia -- local, political or pop culture -- Collings hasn't found, one of his customers will bring it in. Upon entering, Jerry Springer smiles dead ahead; Elvis and Alfred E. Newman got your back. An autographed O.J. in a Hertz shirt hangs between Paul Prudhomme and Tiger Woods. Painted advertisements for Luzianne Coffee, Dr. Pepper and Tabasco on the ancient building's exterior were restored from its earlier existence as W. Teoulet's grocery-pharmacy-bar. Sheriff Harry Lee in his salad days is suspended in a life-size photo above the trees, exclaiming the day's specials in a chalkboard word bubble.
Enter the Rivershack's edible dimension, which won't be outdone by back-to-back Journey songs or the bar's extraordinary collection of tacky ashtrays. Although the rumor mill favors the 'Shack's "boigers" (medium-thick, juicy specimens), deftly fried shrimp po-boys rocked the picnic table outside where friends and I passed a Friday evening. Buffalo shrimp "shack-a-tizers" outdid them both. Although the only cook clanged his tip pail in my face when I ordered more, he tossed the perfectly-crusted devils in mustardy barbecue sauce and speared the top few with cocktail toothpicks.
My teeth couldn't match leathery pastrami in a "Ben D. Rules" sandwich, and I would have needed a flashlight to locate its sauerkraut. All trespasses were forgiven, however, when a pack of Hogs rolled in, when "Night Moves" swung through the front doors, and when a friend passed down half of her "Shank-You" burger. A mix of beef and hot sausage, it was charred to a lovely crisp and improved with a squirt of housemade remoulade sauce.
The 'Shack's food matches its surroundings: carefree, imaginative, unexpectedly amiable and offered with sass. Like the cheeky but choice special available three nights a week: 8-oz. spice-crusted sirloin steaks with 8-oz. draft beers and "8-mm." salads (a.k.a. iceberg, mushrooms and cheddar cheese) for just 8 bucks.
At lunch, when all specials ($6 to $8) accompany one pint of beer and you're likely to hear at least one Chicago tune, sunlight flaunts the homier angles of this pack rat's paradise. A server in a gypsy headscarf and gold hoop earrings glowed when we ordered fried catfish strips with white beans that she had slow-simmered herself with fragile ham hock. She also approved the tomato-based shrimp stew with sausage and okra over rice that twanged like a courtbouillon. The ultimate plate comprised a chunky, pecan-battered catfish fillet that puffed cartoon-like steam swirls at the suggestion of a fork; the fish crowned a salad of baby spinach and roma tomatoes gleaning with oil and studded with andouille. Another server talked us into her chocolate-frosted chocolate cream cheese layer cake, evoking summer cookouts and unlimited black-bottom cupcakes.
So if you've ever lamented the sacrifice to homely surroundings that often accompany down-home, good food; if you've ever found yourself parched and penniless rollerblading along the levee, wondering bleakly if the Rivershack was roadhouse or mirage; if you've ever wanted empirical proof for how well Fleetwood Mac and Peter Frampton pair with Anchor Steam on tap, head to the Rivershack now.