Victory in Inman Park is a cool neighborhood bar.
You know the kind of place I’m talking about. The musician dude with the long, dangling necklace is making the drinks. The ice queen with perfect eyelashes and two armloads of tattoos is coolly taking your order. The older guy at the table in the corner is giving out sage advice on repairing motorcycles. A late-20s millennial from MailChimp is buying rounds for a table of early-20s millennials who are considering jobs with MailChimp. In the back room, a ping-pong table is getting worked by two guys who think they’re the Federer and Nadal of table tennis.
I spent a good portion of my early adult life either hanging out or working at places like this. Maybe the back room had foosball instead of ping-pong, maybe a different company had the cool desk jobs, but the big picture was more or less the same. There are lots of places out there like that and they’re always fun to hang out at.
Another thing those places have in common? Nobody really cares about the food.
The unusual thing about Victory is that you can actually enjoy the food, rather than just abide it. I don’t mean to say you’ll have any revelatory culinary capital-E “experiences” at Victory. That’s not the point. It’s that you can wander in the front door, drop down on a stool, catch a bartender’s eye, order a $4 sandwich and a $5 beer, and a have a smarter, more interesting, better tasting meal than $10 tends to buy.
Sandwiches and beer generally aren’t where chefs and bartenders show off their egos. Part of what makes Victory’s menu work so well is the absence of ego. Melissa Allen has been the executive chef for the company (which also has a location in Decatur) for three years, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the menu or the website. This isn’t about Allen’s “personal story” — we are not meant consider which sandwich evokes some Proustian flavor memory from her childhood.
And, yet, take one bite of the Beeter, a riff on the Jewish pastrami-on-rye that puts thin slices of beet in place of the brisket and an Asian-ish spin on the coleslaw, and you will notice that this a thoughtful, knowledgeable, clever little creation. The beets are truly smoky, the pastrami spices just present enough, and the crunch of those mandolined slices is just right. The concept is a funny pun on beet and beef, an absurd reversal that unexpectedly works.
The whole thing is light years ahead of those bland grilled vegetable sandwiches that chefs like to punish vegetarians with. In other words, it’s the work of a chef, though you can happily scarf it down without thinking about all that.
Not everything on the menu is that clever, but much of it is just as good.
The Castro is a by-the-books mini Cuban sandwich. Served with the Paloma, a sickly sweet Jarritos grapefruit soda spiked with tequila and lime juice, it reminds me of a meal I had outside a convenience store in Tampa 15 years ago. That’s strong praise.
The Tea Bird, a chicken sandwich with ghost pepper jack cheese and sweet tea mayo, will light you up. I didn’t taste the sweet tea, but that’s fine. The ghost pepper was plenty enough flavor. Order a Jack and Coke slushie (exactly what it sounds like) to cool off the heat.
The snacks and sides are less inspired. A recent roasted poblano veggie dip special reminded me of the boring, indistinct flavors more typical of a neighborhood bar.
Service is deliberately, completely casual, which means you’ll need to work to get someone’s attention every once in a while. That’s for the best. A gate-keeping host or fussy “let me tell you how the menu works” service would kill the whole vibe.
The refreshing lack of ego goes for the bar, too. Before he left earlier this year, Paul Calvert put a program into place that appears to be still intact. The cocktails tend toward classics (Sazerac, Corpse Reviver, Dark and Stormy) and slight riffs on classics, like a Desert Negroni, which subs mezcal for gin.
This is not a menu contrived to show off an extensive knowledge of obscure amaros, but rather to make good, accessible, cheap drinks. They tend to be a little on the short side, but that’s probably what keeps the prices around seven bucks a cocktail, which is nothing to complain about.
And everything on the menu goes best with an Emergency Drinking Beer, an easy-drinking, wonderfully subtle session beer that was conceived through a collaboration between Victory, Calvert and Wild Heaven Brewery. Easy-drinking canned beer is not a typical bartender’s ego trip, but it may be Calvert’s most lasting contribution to the place.
You can get it just about anywhere now, but it makes the most sense as Victory’s house beer — smart but unpretentious, tasty but without the ego.
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