Named for pin-up painter Alberto Vargas, a Gayborhood gastropub serves finessed pub grub.
It’s a curious thing, having someone stare at you while you eat. Let alone nine someones with come-hither smiles and legs like sculpted ivory. Five blonds, two brunettes and two redheads peer down through long lashes, hand-painted on the ceiling over the bar like naughty angels in a Sistine Chapel where American craft beer is the drink of the house.
Welcome to Varga Bar, named for Alberto Vargas, the Peruvian-born painter whose va-va-voom pin-up girls were responsible for more than a few honorable discharges during World War II. An ironic theme for a Gayborhood lounge, but hetero and homo alike can appreciate Jenkintown artist John Albright’s detailed murals, as well as the finessed pub grub from former longtime Valanni chef R. Evan Turney.
As restaurant themes go, Varga Bar’s is admittedly ridiculous (a product of fanboy owner George Anni). But who am I kidding? I’d take an Arthur Kade-themed restaurant over this address’ last resident, Azul. Permanent as a poltergeist, the dearly departed tequila bar’s lively vibe seems to have soaked into floors and fabrics, even after Anni and Turney installed new floors (diamond-patterned black and white tiles) and fabrics (damask on the booths, Polygrip-green leather on the banquette). You wouldn’t necessarily figure Tenth and Spruce for the most happening corner in Philadelphia, but pass by after work, and you might mistake it for one of Maryann’s Dionysian woodland romps.
Blame it on the a-a-a-a-a-alcohol, a roster of 20 craft draughts curated by beer man Ian DeFabio, formerly of Triumph. Founders Cerise? Check. Stone Ruination? Check. Growlers? Check. And for good measure, hand-pumps hooked up to Yards Brawler and the enchanting Cape of Good Hope IPA.
Turney’s (mostly) all-American opus complements the serious list. Think wings—only wings confited in duck fat for five succulent hours, crisped to order, tossed in a sticky ginger-chili-pomegranate molasses, slick and served with celery and house-made Maytag blue dressing. And burgers made with Australian Tajima beef that gets top billing over at Barclay Prime and produces three sliders of uncommon juiciness at Varga Bar.
The memory of those sliders is still vivid. Turney added Boursin, bacon, caramelized shallots and tomato and packaged them neatly in fluffy LeBus brioche. All good, but the beef … damn. Each patty came with cores the color of bubblegum, perfectly medium-rare, surrounded by a trim brown seal. The attending bangle bracelet onion rings also happen to rock.
At Varga Bar, pickles, ketchup, mustard, pasta and ice cream are all made in-house. Ditto for the slew of unusual accoutrements served with cheese plates: roasted garlic dulce de leche, bourbon mustard, pickle-almond caramel and aged balsamic, fresh cherry and Victory root beer reduction, the last two of which Turney invented during a Dogfish 120 bender. Some direction as to pairings would have been helpful; you don’t want to disrespect any of these excellent American cheeses, particularly not the Up in Smoke, a captivating hickory-smoked Oregon chèrve wrapped in maple leaves and misted in bourbon.
That was a minor issue, though, as was the slight over-salting in a bowl of cute cockles mingling with roasted corn and fiery chorizo and another brimming with tender, hand-cut rigatoni tossed with broccoli rabe, sweet sausage and meatballs. Made with veal, pork and the Tajima beef, the mini-meatballs missed, the Tajima’s buttery texture reading as mushy in the soupy Grana Padano-and-chicken stock sauce.
Those Spanish and Italian detours returned to the heartland by dessert, where Turney cleverly recast cereal in ice cream. Forget the ice cream itself was expertly spun smooth and silky. Through a process of steeping and straining, Turney really captured each flavor. The scoops didn’t kinda, sorta taste like Honeycomb, Cocoa Puffs and Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch. They were like having a frozen bowl of the stuff.
The cereal ice cream might make you nostalgic for childhood. And the Vargas angels overhead might make you nostalgic for the 1940s. (Age-wise, the crowd at Varga Bar is mixed enough to elicit both emotional responses.) All I feel is glad this pub’s been born, and eager, for both the neo-Vargas Girls calendar Anni and Turney are working on and the Booberry, Frankenberry and Count Chocula ice creams expected to arrive sometime in October. ■
Dinner with Luke Palladino