603 Vanderbilt Avenue, Prospect Heights
(718) 484-8704 Rating: 4 out of 5 L's
Prospect Heights honky-tonk Branded Saloon pours on its country-western charm with a heavy hand. Saddles decorate the wood-paneled walls. Overhead, wagon wheels affixed with old-timey lanterns stand in for chandeliers. Patrons shimmy up to the bar, settle into wooden booths, or head through swingy saloon doors to a back room that offers more seating and an upright piano. Downstairs, there's a pool table and a couple of decked-out bathrooms—a sink sits on an old barrel, its copper basin carved with ten-point stags, and plywood shingles are layered over the walls of the loo. During our visit, Spoon and the Shout Out Louds blasted from the sound system. We couldn't decide if a little Willie Nelson or Townes Van Zandt would've made the décor feel a bit more authentic—or if country music might've pushed the gimmick a little too far.
They've also got an array of countrified house cocktails, too. A sweet tea-bourbon mint julep ($10) was cut with seltzer, making it considerably weaker than a traditional julep, but the pulpy watermelon margarita ($9) is served in a hefty mug and uses real fruit. Still, most urban cowboys would be more likely to order one of the ten beers on tap – or go straight for some whiskey. You can soak up your brown liquor with Branded Saloon's satisfying signature fries ($5.50) – thick cut and topped with fresh minced garlic, parsley, and chives – or some run-of-the-mill buffalo wings (10 for $9). The centerpiece of the bar snacks menu may be the Frito pie ($7), which would be more aptly described as "Frito nachos." A plate of Fritos is topped with melted cheese, chili (meaty or black bean, your choice), a huge dollop of sour cream, and a sprinkling of jalapenos. While some of us felt guilty about feeding our inner-rednecks, the least food-snobbish member of our party exclaimed, "Wow, I'm glad somebody invented this snack!" It's big enough to share, so ask for a few forks.
For now, the brand new Branded Saloon feels a bit themey, but this big, friendly bar seems like it will benefit from a little breaking in. With a little more grime to roughen up its faux-country edges, this tavern is poised to age well.