The owners of Sapa Grill restaurant must have been channeling the Holy Spirit when they named the nearby bar they own Purgatory. In terms of a culinary experience, it’s neither heaven nor hell, but exists somewhere in the murky middle.
As bar food goes, it’s better than most, although there’s an overreliance on fried food. Still, the kitchen does some fun things with that. An impressive lineup of french fries, for example, is topped with everything from curry puree to enchilada sauce ($6-$9). And how about fried rice with Spam ($9)?
But you’ll find dishes that are unusual for most bars, with a decidedly Asian bent, including a fair number of vegetarian options. You have to remember that, as the legally required sign posted in the front says, Purgatory is a bar, not a restaurant. Every time I’ve been there, the food came out one or two dishes at a time, with as much as a 10-minute gap. While that can be awkward, it isn’t unusual in my experience with establishments where people primarily visit to drink and socialize, with food as an afterthought.
Purgatory is a nice-looking bar, built in a deep space that is split between indoors and out. An overhead door in the middle can be raised when the weather is mild. There’s nice variety in the indoor seating, from bar stools and counter-height tables to regular tables and chairs, plus a game room in the back.
It has a serious beer menu, with 20 selections on tap that can be ordered in half pints, pints or pitchers. Dozens more are available in containers, and the lineup of 15 or so craft cocktails is moderately priced ($4-$10). I tried the Smokey Lama ($8) on my first visit and loved the balanced blend of reposado tequila, mescal and grapefruit juice, spiked with lime and agave. On a weekend brunch outing, I sampled the bloody Mary ($4.50 for the 1 ½-ounce pour), a quite spicy version of that classic that had been dabbing at my brow.
The brunch menu is compact but adequate, with a selection of toasts and heartier fare that features eggs and meats. The baby arm burrito ($8) is an omelet stuffed inside a tortilla with chopped bacon, pickled red onion and french fries. Pretty basic bar breakfast, but it was tasty enough and good-sized. The Veeges’ burrito ($8) was overloaded with fries and skimped on the pickled onion. But it was packed with a wealth of other healthy stuff, including black beans, corn, quinoa and roasted cauliflower. Still, that wasn’t enough to save it from the sin of blandness.
Next time, I might go for the sunrise burger ($7), a nicely seasoned beef patty topped with a poached egg and a bun smeared with avocado. But why serve it on a plate barely big enough to hold it?
I’m not a purist when it comes to nachos. But the menu doesn’t specify that the chilaquiles breakfast nachos ($9) are made with house potato chips, rather than corn. Some people believe that is a mortal sin, so it should be noted to avoid surprises. Said chips are then layered with chipotle sauce, avocado, red onion and a poached egg. You can’t really go wrong with those ingredients, and those nachos were delicious. It’s just that nachos for breakfast is so out of the box. I couldn’t eat a whole plate of them, but I would be game to share for a brunch appetizer.
I didn’t try the basic omelet ($6) or The Cure, a soup made from dashi stock (flavored by kelp and preserved tuna) with buckwheat noodles, tempura veggies and a poached egg (pork belly is $2), but the latter sounds like a good antidote for anyone who had been up late at any bar the night before. It also comes in a vegan version ($7), made with mushroom stock.
The toast varieties range from avocado ($4) to classic lox and cream cheese ($7) and a tomato cheese with mozzarella and olive oil ($6).
The dinner menu, available after 4 p.m., is loaded with fries, more fried food and sandwiches but also some surprises. When I go back, I most certainly will order the cheesed corn ($4), a small plate whose eponymous ingredients, even with pickled onions, sounded rather plain. I elected to add shredded short rib ($2), and a plain Jane became an overflowing bowl of goodness that was so rich, I saved half for lunch the next day. Perhaps I was already half full from the spicy/sweet chicken ssåm ($6), a bowl of diced white meat mixed with shredded carrots and jicama and a major jolt of something hot, maybe sriracha. It came with crisp leaves of romaine, which added a nice crunch. You will definitely need beer.
Another good bet, this time from the larger plates menu, is fried chicken toast ($8). Two pieces of crisp white meat perch atop a slice of half-inch-thick toast slathered with a shiso-spiked cream sauce. Hot sauce makes an appearance here, too, but it enhances rather than inflames.
Cauliflower isn’t common on bar menus that I’ve seen, and it shouldn’t be, if Purgatory’s version ($7) is any indication. It’s advertised as a naughty threesome: mashed, pickled and roasted. But it was bland and cold, with little evidence of being pickled. You’d think if anyone could do pickling well, it would be a bar.
Fries are a quintessential bar food, but at Purgatory they come in all sorts of playful iterations thanks to the use of such ingredients as caramelized kimchi or jalapeño. The Japanese version ($7) is seasoned with dashi, slathered with that shiso-spiked cream sauce and garnished with fish roe. Despite that load, the fries were crisp without being greasy.
You can get fried on fried with the katsu wrap ($10). It’s like a Japanese chimichanga, fried on the outside and stuffed with panko-crusted fried chicken. A cabbage slaw adds even more crunch, while a curry puree imparts most of the flavor.
Udon noodles ($8) were pan-fried (again!) with a generous amount of shiitake mushrooms and cabbage but were much too salty for my taste. I added pork belly for $2, and it morphed into something too large and rich for one meal. Like many other dishes at Purgatory, it was a lot of food for the money.
I’ll go back to Purgatory because there are a few more dishes I’d like to try, including a short rib grilled cheese ($8) and that house fried rice with Spam. I might even forgive the first cauliflower sin and try the fried cauliflower wrap ($9). It has a blue cheese sauce, for goodness sake. And forgiveness, after all, is divine.
Purgatory Bar ★★ (out of 4 stars) Food: ★½ Mood: ★★½ Service: ★½ This downtown hipster bar was opened by the folks who own Sapa Grill around the corner, and its menu shows many Asian influences, from fried rice with Spam to a wrap made with chicken katsu. There’s an overemphasis on fried foods, but at least the lineup of french fries is varied and interesting. Try the spicy chicken wrap or the cheesed corn with pickled onions, which you can beef up with the optional addition of short rib. There are worse places to wait for a spot in heaven. Location: 62 E. 700 South, Salt Lake City; 801-596-2294 Online: www.purgatorybar.com Hours: Tuesday-Friday, 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Prices: $ Children’s menu: No. Must be 21 or older. Liquor: Full-service bar. Reservations: No. Takeout: In-person order only. Wheelchair access: Yes. On-site parking: Yes. Credit cards: Yes.