13 Things About Atomic Cowboy

For one, the food's so-so; for two, the ambiance rocks

Atomic Cowboy

Guacamole $5
Sliders $7
Cheeseburger burrito $8

Atomic Cowboy 4140 Manchester Avenue; 314-775-0775. Hours: 5 p.m.-3 a.m. Wed.-Sat. (kitchen open till about 1 a.m.)

Atomic: Of, relating to, or concerned with atoms; nuclear; minute; existing in the state of separate atoms.

Cowboy: One who tends cattle or horses; a rodeo performer.

Atomic Cowboy: An exposed-brick emporium of art, alcohol and eats, planetary in size for what is basically a bar. Quite popular with midtown metrosexuals and south-city snobs since its September debut in "The Grove," the strip of Manchester in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood known for its alt-crowd clubs and bars (AMP, Freddie's, etc.).

Atomic Cowboy: "It's not supposed to be a great bar. It is a great bar." (From a recent e-mail exchange involving the planning of a birthday drinkfest for 50 invitees.)

Atomic Cowboy: A former cubbyhole of coolness along another burgeoning stretch of Manchester, further west in downtown Maplewood. Atomic Cowboy's first incarnation, unlike today's, felt somewhat austere and didn't play up its Western-themed moniker: The menu offered straightforward munchies like pizzas, sandwiches and quesadillas, while the space offered no suggestion of country-fried kitsch. Operated as a coffee bar/art gallery by day, a smoke-free DJ lounge by night, when it opened three years ago, the original AC tried its best to woo the hipsterati, who in turn tried their best to embrace it. But there were lots of concepts being crammed into one narrow slice of storefront, you couldn't smoke, and often you couldn't find a place to sit or even a decent place to stand. Plagued by blindingly white walls (bedecked with works by local artists), the erstwhile Atomic Cowboy gave off an eerie glow at night, kind of like sipping on a rum and Coke while standing in the command bay of the spaceship in 2001.

Atomic Cowboy: A home on the range — a space as vast as the plains of the Midwest but imbued with the panache and élan of a cosmopolitan dwelling — for local artwork and the people who drink margaritas while sitting in front of said artwork. The new Atomic Cowboy boasts a décor just as daring as the old but with a more rustic, open and welcoming feel, thanks to those brick walls and increased square footage. The front room contains booth seating, bar tables and one side of the rectangular bar. The other side of the bar, which is set at chair height, abuts a lounge area with low couches and chaises, which in turn abuts a coffee bar. Out back, where smoking is permitted, there's an open-air patio and a Quonset hut (reminiscent of an airplane hangar) with more booth seating (hard plastic, like you find at fast-food joints) and yet another bar. All told it's massive and impressive, as if downtown's sprawling, chic Lucas Park Grille up and moved to grittier digs.

Atomic Cowboy: "Is there a mechanical bull? Should I wear my embroidered cowboy shirt and a cowboy hat, or would that be too much?" (Overheard on the sidewalk outside.)

Atomic Cowboy: Purveyor of a "baja grille" menu, a niche cuisine that sounds tempting but also menacingly similar to "Fresh Mex" (as in Chevy's Fresh Mex). Tex-Mex staples such as chips and salsa, guacamole, quesadillas, beef, pork and fish tacos, and gorditas commingle with kitschier, fusiony choices like a cheeseburger burrito and "cowboy sliders" — a kicky quartet of mini-cheeseburgers topped with a mess of grilled onions and a smear of "special sauce." In the months since Atomic Cowboy reopened in its new locale, the menu has slowly expanded, encompassing items like shrimp skewers and, for dessert, a banana-caramel-cheesecake burrito.

Atomic Cowboy: Tom Budenick, chef and co-owner who, given the reins to an open-air kitchen with as much floor space as you'd find in, say, an entire dive bar — a kitchen so big it would make many other chefs fire off their six-shooters in glee, a kitchen outfitted with an actual, 500,000 BTU "baja" grill — produces grub that's tasty but surprisingly lacking in imagination — and occasionally in volume as well. Tacos come sided with a heap of house-fried tortilla chips and "Atomic salsa" that provides a nice sting. But no spoonfuls of refried beans, no rice, not even sour cream or shredded lettuce and diced tomato. In short, none of the hallmarks of a true taco platter. Pork tacos, with their fine shredded meat, ring authentic and true; fish tacos are polite and respectable, but far from stellar. Shrimp skewers couldn't have been tamer, lying neat and proper across tidy beds of rice with as much yee-haw as a cow in a pasture. The cheeseburger burrito is tantamount to a regular cheeseburger that has collapsed on itself from an excess of grease; the "Macho Nachos," an avalanche of ground beef, pico de gallo, cheese and sour cream, achieve the same unrefined, slovenly good status. House-crafted guacamole was delicious while it lasted but hardly memorable afterward.

Atomic Cowboy: "Tortilla soup should have a clear broth and lots of cilantro. This tastes like chili sauce without the chili." (Observation of a Mexican-American dining companion.)

Atomic Cowgirl: Member of the mostly female floor staff who waits on the booths and tables. Dressed in fitted black T-shirts and cropped denim jackets, a look that appears to owe its existence to Madonna's Marlboro Man fantasy video for her single "Don't Tell Me" (in which she does giddy-up atop a mechanical bull). Provider of letdown service. One, when asked what "gaucho French fries" meant, replied bluntly, "I have no idea," then proceeded not to go find out. On that same visit, water glasses were never refilled.

Atomic Cowboy: "Margaritas, woo-hoo!" (Birthday party-planning e-mail thread.)

Atomic Cowboy: A bartender who, one might imagine, trumpets his stash of tequilas as if every day were Cinco de Mayo — all the more so considering some of them cost $20 to $40 a shot. But there's no printed drink menu yet (co-owner Peter Venezia promises one is imminent), which means little is offered in the way of house-special margaritas or other tequila cocktails. One waitress said margaritas were available in regular, premium or super-premium (top-shelf Cointreau vs. rail triple sec, Grand Marnier floated on top, etc.). If the three classifications sound like grades of gasoline, that's apt: The super-premium tastes like rocket fuel (a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it). In a big glass tureen atop the bar sits sangría, portioned out with a ladle. It's fruitless, literally and figuratively, sullied by a bitter aftertaste and lacking in floral aroma.

Atomic Cowboy: An oenophile. While the specialty drinks roster remains but a promise, the wine list has graced the menu from the get-go. It's a brief selection (curated by Venezia and tweaked monthly), but it encompasses all the with-it varietals today's urban cowboys are sipping: burly Borsao from Spain, fruity Mark West pinot, the Wishing Tree shiraz, Leaping Lizard chard. Would that the Gouguenheim from Argentina was a malbec — truly the Marlboro Man of reds — but it's a merlot.

Atomic Cowboy: Nourisher of witching-hour drunks. Perhaps the best thing about Atomic Cowboy's fare is that it's served late — usually until midnight, sometimes until 1 a.m. — and that's not a backhanded compliment. Not nearly enough St. Louis saloons dish up after-hours chow, and providing the populace with a plateful of something belly-filling just when the evening's about to sag is not only a public service, it's a real treat. Sure, all food tastes better when you're tipsy and starving. But isn't the best kind of cowboy one who'll rustle up some grub when you need it most?

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