FNG - Highlands Brunch
From the moment one walks up to Troy Guard's 'FNG', especially on a lazy Saturday mid-morning, it's hard not to feel like you just happened upon one of the greatest neighborhood gems Denver has to offer. Situated on a somewhat less busy corner than its not so distant cousin at the bullseye of the Highlands hood, this one is the best of both worlds; to include a balance of classic highlands architecture but also a sense that you're just a little bit off the beaten path about to experience something uniquely down to earth. Surrounded by mature, tree-lined, uneven sidewalks (which I've come to know and love, throwback to my Cheesman Park days) there is a sense of historical Denver comfort. It feels like you're home.
The door opens, you walk in. To the left, you see booths lining the rollup doors lending to a more al fresco experience. You see community tables behind a unique, modern partition with old-school diner stools, and a prominent bar adorned with subtle edison lighting open to the patio. The studded leather chairs transport you to a simpler time where the beer flowed like wine. Dark wood and steel contrasts leave room for the creativity to emanate from the open kitchen at the back of the restaurant, as you hear the rhythmic clanking of plates and pans providing their own unique 'stompesque' soundtrack.
On this particular Saturday, we stepped up into an elevated booth with an ethereal view at 32nd and Perry. Thankfully, this unusually warm spring morning gave lift to the overhead doors and opened up the dining room with a refreshing breeze. Bloody Marias followed soon after, with beads of condensation slowly dancing down the glass. Just enough salt and heat to wake up
the palate, for what would inevitably be a gastronomic marathon ahead. Because unfortunately, my primary complaint about the new and well thought out brunch menu at FNG is that it's hard not to order one of everything. This thing is laced with comfort and soul food notes top to bottom, and for many these dishes will take you back to another place and time.
From some more familiar brunch staples like Benny's and Burritos to more unique offerings like Birria Grilled Cheese and Bologna Sliders (lot's of b's), the menu tends to lean more savory. There are some southern comfort notes with Chicken & Waffles and The Shrimp Boil, and some sweeter options like the Churro Donuts which could just as easily start the meal than finish it. Maybe both.
First impressions are often the strongest, which is why I'm particularly glad that I started with the Birria Grilled Cheese, starring Bison Brisket and a mix of Asadero and Oaxacan Cheeses.
On perfectly toasted sourdough, this sandwich hit some deep savory and umami notes, with a nice pop of acidity and color from the pickled reds. Word to the wise, order more on the side, and don't hesitate to dip away in the deep pool of au jus (which was a nice common thread between a few dishes). The broth game is strong here, but this one is the creme de la creme.
Said broth also found its way into the foundation of 'The Shrimp Boil' - a hearty, warming dish with andouille sausage, fingerlings and a healthy portion of shell-on prawns who must remain fully clothed as they impart their briny flavors into the rich creole broth. Not to mention a generous portion of the same aforementioned sourdough, which can literally soak without getting soggy.
How? It's a mystery. This dish is one of the highlights of an unpretentious and playful menu, in which one can not be too concerned about getting their hands dirty in a post-pandemic protest of sorts. Double-dipping is definitely an option, but you might want to reconsider a first date here as you revert back to your neanderthalese origins. Thankfully this is also available on the dinner menu, and it better stay that way. I'll be back for this one on a brisk fall evening, complemented by a nice Imperial Stout from their deeply local beverage offering.
Quick sidebar: When I eat out with my sister or mom - one thing always seems to be a staple, and that is French Onion Soup (more broth). Sometimes I wonder if they pick restaurants based on this one classical offering, and therefore I don't feel qualified to review this dish based on the fact that Steph is a consummate professional in her own right. All I remember hearing is 'ehrmagerd' as the fromage en croute flowed from the spoon like a molten disaster. She didn't share with me.
(insert Steph's tasting notes here).
Ok, so while my bro here is truly the word smith in the family, I'll do my best to give this ooey gooey French Onion Soup due diligence. First off, the fact that its even an offering on a brunch menu makes my heart sing. I admittedly am not much of a classic breakfast gal, I'll pass on the eggs, pancakes and french toast in lieu of a burger or fried chicken sandwich for brunch, so the variety of truly savory offerings at FNG are a major bonus. I had no choice but to get some of the soup and it did not disappoint, the broth was flavorful and rich, the "alpine cheese" was melty and the cheese pulls were next world. Is it weird to have FOS for Brunch? My hubby certainly thinks so but i'll let this freak flag fly cause i'll do it every damn day.
The Bologna Sliders might have been one of the more underwhelming dishes, but still creatively reminiscent of an elementary school lunchbox. Seared mortadella di bologna is piled onto a sweet Hawaiian roll and dressed with arugula, ruffles and secret sauce (spoiler alert, it's 1000 Island). Not a bad dish, but it was overshadowed both in balance and portion size by the more composed and substantive dishes on our table.
To end the main course on a higher note, enter The Chicken & Waffles. As one of the few sweeter options on the menu it doesn't have a ton of competition, but perhaps within reason. A crispy, juicy hunk of fried chicken soaks in a bourbon maple glaze, with a fresh balance of peppery arugula and pickled fresno chiles. The latter components are smart, and it provides a fresh break from what would otherwise be a very rich dish. This one hits all the notes - sweet, heat, savory, acid, and it transports you to a lazy morning in a Southern kitchen.
As mentioned previously, the Churro Donuts are a versatile offering to bookend either side of the experience. These little bites of heaven are not your average donut, and they bring this playful meal to a satisfying denouement. Once again inviting you to make a mess, enjoy one another's company and let your cares fade away.
To simplify some major takeaways, FNG is true to the TAG brand. Playful food that welcomes you to shed your inhibitions, get a little nasty, sticky, whatever. I still remember one of my first dates with Jess at a restaurant that is long gone from the Denver dining scene (and respectively grieved), that being 975. One of the OG's of the mile high culinary resurrection, I recall a plate full of cotton candy that landed on the table and obstructed the view of my smoking hot date. That little timelapse aside, I am happy that the TAG team after all these years hasn't lost that bit of spunk, and that they still don't take themselves too seriously. Good food and a memorable, unpretentious, interactive experience can once again coexist in an upscale environment.
But let's close with what I know you've all been wondering, what does FNG actually mean? If you're in the industry, you know what it means, and it can't be repeated here for the sake of retaining a broader audience. If you ask a server, they might give a G-rated response: 'Friendly Neighborhood Grill'. But I can honestly say that this place is no Applebees - and henceforth my answer to this existential question of sorts will be that 'FNG' stands for 'F'in Good". Dish It Up!