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El Scorcho's hip, hard-drinking crowd spices up the night in Maplewood
By By Sean Hixson Photo by Josh Monken
Posted On: 09/01/2007   

Longtime readers may remember me chiding the local press -- myself included -- for prematurely praising up-and-coming neighborhoods. Two years ago, when writing up Boogaloo, I knocked Maplewood for being more sleepy than slick, contrary to what many local writers claimed. In 2005, Maplewood didn't deserve the "hip and cool neighborhood" attention it garnered. Well, in 2007, Maplewood's reality seems to be catching up to its trendy rep.

Today, along Maplewood's Manchester strip, the hip-to-sleaze factor is finally better than 2-to-1. To compute this novel ratio, divide the number of quality bars/restaurants/boutiques (the hip) by the number of liquor stores/pawn shops/fast-food restaurants (the sleaze). If the ratio is better than 2-to-1, you can freely christen an area "cool." In 2005, that wasn't the case for Maplewood. Fast-food fried chicken joints were as prominent as the boutiques, helping kill the ratio. Now, well ... congrats 2007 Maplewood, your hipness exceeds your sleaziness, thanks in part to a new addition. The new and lively El Scorcho may have just put you over the top. Your nighttime streets are no longer empty. People now walk from bar to bar. Maplewood, you are cool.

A self-described "Late Nite, BBQ, Tex-Mex, Tequileria," El Scorcho carefully hides in a tiny old storefront across from Shop 'n Save. First-time visitors may have a tough time finding it; the exterior sign, seemingly painted by a third-grader, is not much help. Inside, El Scorcho is garish and kitschy, decorated by flame and heat -- orange walls, red ceiling and red-tinted lights. Paintings of Our Lord and Savior and Catholic saint candles mingle with voodoo dolls, sunbaked steer skulls and a real jackalope head. Dozens of cowboy hats, ready for patrons to wear, dangle from the ceiling above the bar. Drawn on one wall's chalkboard are flames, a Tabasco bottle and messages urging guests to buy shots; drawn on the other wall's chalkboard is a busty pin-up cowgirl. There's one TV and no jukebox; the sometimes-too-loud music is instead supplied by the iPod of a waitress/bartender. During my visits, I heard it all -- '60s Rolling Stones, '80s Johnny Cash, Hall and Oates, Snoop Dogg, David Banner and Mariah Carey.

It's important to note that seating comes at a huge premium at El Scorcho. If you don't have a table or barstool, there is nowhere to stand. Four of the dozen or so barstools are fashioned from saddles, complete with stirrups and a horn to steady drunken patrons; tables and chairs line one wall of the narrow space; and in the rear, a small jail replete with bars (really) and shivs (not really) offers additional seating. But if you do have a seat, there's quite a bit to take in.

El Scorcho's clientele is perhaps best described by snippets of overheard conversation. One bottle-blonde thirtysomething girl to another bottle-blonde thirtysomething girl: "I'm wasted!" One of the bartenders to a thirtysomething tat-sleeved male patron: "Are you guys doing a shot? You can do Bazooka Joes with me." One mid-20s brunette girl to the table of her margarita-drinking, mid-20s friends: "No, my cup size is bigger than all of yours!" One of the tight-T-shirt-clad waitresses to a friend: "Come dance on the bar with me. That's what the cowboy hats are for."

As you can probably guess, El Scorcho is popular with the rowdier drinking crowd, drawing mostly from Maplewood and its neighboring inner-ring suburbs. Though it's less than three months old, El Scorcho already has regulars who seem to know both each other and the waitresses/bartenders. For non-regulars, the interaction with the waitresses/bartenders is so friendly and cheeky, one wonders if it's part of the show. Then again, who cares? It's fun.

El Scorcho's drink menu offers upwards of 35 tequilas, from cheap to expensive. Those of higher quality should be sipped neat, although it's doubtful this crowd has the self-control to not shoot any Mexican booze. Tequila Jell-O shots have been featured on weekend nights as specials and always sell out. The cocktail menu isn't innovative but gets credit for using ingredients like habanero-infused tequilas and vodkas.

As this is a Tex-Mex spot, there's no excuse for drinking domestic beers. The Tex-Mex beer selection is good for bottles (Carta Blanca, Corona, Dos Equis, Lone Star, Modelo, Rogue Chipotle Ale) and horrible for drafts (only Dos Equis). The poor draft selection is strange, given that El Scorcho has what it calls "table kegs," a very novel but very unpractical concept. Imagine a 3-foot-tall, umm, water pipe with a tap at the base rather than a tobacco bowl. With the capacity to hold 10 pints of beer or mixed cocktails, they should do as much damage as your college water pipe. But, alas, the table kegs can't keep the liquid cool, so few order them. Perhaps the symbolism of the table keg -- what it says about the type of place El Scorcho is -- is more relevant than the table keg itself.

The very affordable food menu is served late into the evening and is evenly mixed between regular bar food (burgers, wings, etc.), barbecue (pulled pork, ribs, etc.) and Mexican fare (tacos, fajitas, etc). At three for $5, I highly recommend the tacos, available with an assortment of seasoned meats and fish. The chips and salsa are confusing in that they're not complimentary; one orders salsas/dips and gets all the chips one wants. Personally, I think it's a great idea as I have a tendency to gorge myself on free chips and salsa at Mexican restaurants. I usually leave such places feeling like hell from stuffing my face with reckless abandon. At El Scorcho, if you lack self-control, you'll leave feeling like hell for other reasons.

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