Review: Work & Class delivers a square meal -- and an aha moment -- for a fair price
Work & Class
Danielle Lirette Gluten-free meatballs over polenta at Work & Class. Delver into their menu in our slideshow.
2500 Larimer Street
If I were Scheherazade spinning tales to save my life before a disgruntled king, I'd look to Work & Class for inspiration. Within the confines of this much-anticipated Ballpark restaurant, which opened at full tilt four months ago and hasn't looked back since, there are stories to last a thousand and one nights, maybe even a thousand and two.
See also: A Closer Look at Work & Class
My first story, the one I'd tell to pique the king's interest so I wouldn't suffer the fate of previous brides, would be about underdogs, because nothing gets people to the edge of their seats like rooting for the little guy. Delores Tronco, owner-buckstopper, as she jokingly calls herself, left a job in communications to take a risk in the food industry. Tony Maciag, owner-general manager, hails from Detroit, an underdog with a capital "U." Dana Rodriguez, owner-executive chef, grew up on a farm in Mexico without running water or electricity, moved to the United States with three young daughters, and worked her way up from dishwasher at Panzano to chef de cuisine at Bistro Vendôme. These backgrounds inspired the restaurant's name -- say it quickly and you'll hear "working class" -- and its concept, pitched by Tronco to investors as "a square meal, a stiff drink and a fair price."
Danielle Lirette The interior of Work & Class.
My next story would be about celebrities, because everyone likes to hear that kind, even kings. Besides, without one of our favorite culinary rock stars, aka James Beard award winner Jennifer Jasinski, there might not have been a story to tell. Tronco and Maciag overlapped at one of Jasinski's restaurants, and Jasinski herself took Rodriguez under her wing. "One day Jen told me I was ready to be sous-chef, but I said no because my English was not good," recalls Rodriguez. "She said, 'Oh, no, you're ready,' but I said no two times. The third time, I said, 'Okay, fine.'"
But no matter how suspenseful these stories may be, the one that matters most -- for a restaurant review, at least -- is about what it's like to eat there. So it's a good thing I'm not Scheherazade, and that my life doesn't depend on a cliffhanger. Given the lines snaking out the door, there's little mystery how this story will end: Work & Class is a restaurant that works, doing what it set out to do not just well, but brilliantly.
The restaurant's name reflects working-class roots.
And diners quickly recognized this, as is evident if you've tried to get a table at 7 p.m. on a Friday and been told to come back in an hour -- or two. But it's just as evident if you arrive earlier in the day and earlier in the week, as I did on my first visit, when the place was so packed that I wished the hostess had passed out noise-canceling headphones along with our menus. Work & Class is loud -- and not just because every square inch of the place is usually filled with people tucking into an eclectic mix of American and Latin American fare, but because it's full of hard surfaces that catapult, not absorb, the sound. The restaurant was made out of shipping containers, and that gritty, industrial feel is echoed within. Walls feature corrugated and powdered steel, brushed concrete and a photograph of an abandoned auto plant. The community table in the center of the narrow dining room, the one you'll squeeze past to get to the patio or chef's counter, is fashioned from a conveyor belt set into that great noise-absorber (ha, ha), concrete.
But the hostess didn't give us headphones, and the server didn't carry a microphone, so we shouted our order, then dumbly nodded and smiled as she said something in return. Exactly what, we didn't learn until later, after a trio of appetizers arrived. Green chili beans, a flourless recipe Rodriguez perfected for family meal at Rioja, got the burn going, with an electric purée of Anaheims, jalapeños, poblanos and tomatillos studded with beans. Gluten-free meatballs over polenta -- one of many gluten-free items on the menu -- boasted an unexpected but delightful kick, thanks to a chipotle-spiked tomato sauce. But it was our first bite of panko-coated Fresno poppers that filled in those missing blanks. "The Fresnos are running hotter than normal this week," our server said when we waved her over for more water. "I'm sorry; I thought I told you before."
Keep reading for the rest of our review of Work & Class.