Mar 22, 2014

At Governor's Quarters, the big guy's out, Cicerones and sausages are in, and is it deja vu all over again?

The bald guy’s report:

This trip we visit the recently-opened Governor’s Quarters (aka “GQ” and “the Guv”).  And just in time because I see he’s running for re-election and there’s a list of things I wanted to talk to him about. But, drat the luck, he wasn’t in, so maybe next time.  But they might do a better job of scheduling him, otherwise, like me, you’re just taking your chances.

Anyway, maybe it was for the better; he’d just be a diversion because besides, of course, beer and serious journalistic pursuit, word on the street was tonight there was going to be a gastronomical oddity that none of us had ever heard of but intriguing enough on at least two levels to warrant further investigation:  First, who would make this and second, who would make this the top draw?

Okay, so not “on the street.” I just said that to make us sound hip and connected.  

Truth is, Harry found Governor’s Quarters on Facebook and discovered tonight they were touting liver-and-onion sausage.  Now leberka (liver sausage) we both knew and we go way back with fried liver and onions from when we were struggling college students living in the haunted house across from Farragut School.  But liver-AND-ONION SAUSAGE?  Who makes that and what does it taste like?   If there’s Pure Michigan, then this is Pure Bay City because only in Bay City would sausage be a bar’s top draw and a weird one at that.  Just how different is this place? 

“Sausage on my mind.” (Baldo, 2014) -- I was thinking “sages” because to learn more, Harry, Doc and I headed over to the Olé Tyme Restaurant on Broadway to fuel up for hard-charging journalistic work with one of their boss breakfast specials and at the same time do some of that hard-charging journalistic work talking to the owners, Junior and Mary Jane Owczarzak.  Because when I thought of them, I thought the South End Sages ‘cause when you run a restaurant/bar, you learn a lot and you know things.   But when I first wrote it I typed, South End Sausages.  Never mind.  You’ll see why we went there in a minute.

Harry and I had conventional breakfasts -- toast, eggs, potatoes and, you guessed it, sausage. But Doc went off-special and got something he’d had before, the Polish omelet, a little something Junior the owner/cook created -- an omelet with Polish sausage and sauerkraut, a concoction I originally thought not for the faint of heart nor weak of stomach. But if you’re a fan of kielbasa and kraut, it might be worth trying.  Anyway, good enough to make Doc, with his educated palate, come back for more.

The other reason for going to the Olé Tyme was that the aforementioned Junior and his wife,
Co-owner Jeff Owczarzak
Mary Jane, also happen to be the parents and in-law of the three owners of the Governor’s Quarters -- sons Jeff and Craig and Jeff’s wife, Heidi, who also own the Meats and More complex on Wenona.

For background, at least from what I know, Meats and More (actual name Meats and Mooore) was Junior’s start-up shop when he struck out on his own -- a butcher by trade, learned from his father-in-law.  How I knew Junior (he has a real first name but no one ever uses it) was that we went all the way back to elementary school.  I was in the same grade as his older brother, Dennis, and Junior was one grade behind.  But this was St. Stan’s South End, so we all knew each other and their brothers and sisters and in many cases their extended family.  Sometimes we even had two grades in one room.  A lot of times you played sandlot games with your schoolmates and their brothers and sisters.  Seems to me I remember playing in some of them with Junior and Dennis in a field by some railroad tracks.

So I was able to help him out one time in my pre-geezer career with a little business problem, and Ollie’s, on Michigan, the butcher store where he got his start, was also where my ex-father-in-law worked on weekends.  At the time I didn’t realize what a tight-knit community this was but now, ’twixt Harry, Doc and I, we refer to it as “two degrees,” the usual for Bay City.  The reason we didn’t go right over to the Governor’s Quarters was because it was late morning and GQ doesn’t open until 4:30 p.m.  Man … more different.

Turns out that Junior and MJ were quite proud of their next generation striking out on a new endeavor, which came through in their eagerness to address the subject, including concerns over the pitfalls of startups.  But that’s not what they wanted to talk about.  What they wanted to talk about was what the beer eventually comes out of, heretofore known as the tap.  Unh-unh.  No longer.  Now it’s “the stack.”

They tried describing it to us, with handles and special tubing and different rooms and piping and unusual gasses, like it was some kind of sorcerer’s still out of the Wizard of Oz. But I’m what’s called a “visual” (versus a “conceptual”), meaning I gotta see it to register.   So all I got out of it was words a-jumble, but their enthusiasm and exuberance in describing it further piqued my curiosity. 

“Where’s the liver-and-onion sausage?”  (Clara Bellor, nee Belarczak, in a never-aired local Wendy’s rip-off commercial, ca. 1985) -- Harry, being the bona fide reporter among us, asked about the exotic sausage.  Somehow we’d both gotten the idea it was going to be like a dinner with a potato, coleslaw and a roll and cute, little fried LnO sausages, like my dad’s fingers. (A machinist and tool-and-die man all his life, his hands were so strong his fingers looked like thick little pork sausages -- and yet he played a beautiful stride piano with a touch of  Teddy Wilson thrown in. But I digress.)  Junior didn’t really know about it but said that sometimes Craig will make up a special batch of something, sometimes experimental, (the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree) and so that’s what that’s probably all about.  I got the feeling he didn’t Facebook.

Harry and I cleaned our plates but only because we shared and Doc packed up his half-eaten Polish omelet (their portions are huge) and we were on our way.  As we left, both Junior and MJ yelled out, “And never come back!” Just joshing.  They thanked us for our patronage and got in one more, “You gotta see the Stack!”  And so we would.  Another draw:  The Governor (when he’s in), the sausage, the beer and now the stack. 

“HOSANNAH!” (Angels.  Christmas. Ought-one.) --  Because their FB page said  it’s in the basement of the Arbeitoer Hall on South Wenona, I knew right where it was (even though I’d never been in it) because it’s a big brick building that looks like a hall not too far from where Wenona melds into South Henry, a little north of their Meats and More complex and next door to the Lenten fish fries at Holy Trinity and across the street from my cousin’s place, John Groya Plumbing and Heating.  I often pass it on my way to Putz Hardware.   (I know it’s someone’s name and I shouldn’t make fun but am I the only one who finds humor in that name?  Like a hardware store only for putzes or where you’d go to find hardware for your putz?)  I offer these establishments not as shameless plugs -- well, maybe my cousin’s -- but as landmarks for those not as familiar with the territory.

Finding the bar itself was a little trickier.

Coming from the south, high upon the building, you see signs for both Arbeitoer Hall and Owczarzak Lounge. And out in front, its wheels buried in snow, was a mobile lighted sign that
"The Stack"
had something about bingo on it.  Probably a leftover from when the Arbeitoer was the DAV Hall.

And coming from the north, there’s likewise those signs for the Arbeitoer and Owczarzak’s Lounge but in this case the mobile sign says simply “Governor’s Quarters.”

So we parked on the north side and entered through a basement doorway marked, not surprisingly, “Owczarzak Lounge.”  (Geez, you can’t swing a dead cat around here without peening something­­­­­­­­­­­­­ Owczarzak.)  You walk in out of the light, down a couple of steep steps and enter into a windowless,  already dark basement darkened even more by dark paneling.  That’s a lotta dark.  I had the impression of walking into a cave or down a mine shaft but the sensation may’ve been heightened by the fact we spent the time ’twixt Ole and the Guv at Tubby’s shooting pool, and of course, sharing a wee drap or two.

Even before my eyes could adjust to the dark -- how could you miss it? -- like the light at the end of a tunnel, atop a bar pedestal made out of glass blocks backlit by multicolored lights, sparkling in the gleam of overhead spots like a golden idol,  (alert the Philharmonic and the harps), something inside goading me, “Walk to the light, my son, walk to the light (and CUE the music:  A resounding New York Philharmonic  “Ta-Da”  followed by legions of beautiful women in long silk gowns playing sweeping harp arpeggios:  THE ALMIGHTY STACK!

It was easy to picture a chorus of angels hovering above singing, “Hosanna in the highest!” or  hordes of beer-zombies pouring through the narrow door and lurching forward with outstretched arms, tunelessly droning, “The Stack!  The Stack! The Stack!”

In a slightly more serious mode, coming out of the “cave” into a well-lit part of the basement, here sits atop the bar this chrome-plated, bright and shiny long-ass tube with 20 taps, each sporting a distinctive handle. Simply put, it was hard not to notice. 

“It’s not just a bar, it’s an experience.”  (Jeff Owczarzak, February 2014) -- That kind of Vegas-y hyperbole is pretty hard to live up to but bear with me because as I found out this is not your father’s bar, nor mine.  This is a whole new world here.  Serious beer dudes and dudettes with a whole new focus, a whole new language.

Most of the rest of the next stuff I learned from Darin, a young, dark-haired, full-bearded
Darin the bartender
man dressed in retro black who was the only other person there at the time.  He was writing daily specials on a chalkboard when we came in and left his work immediately to greet us, dusting the chalk off his hands as he walked over.

The stack has 20 taps, including 18 craft beers.  What’s a “craft” beer?   Beer that should come with a lexicon and financing plan.  Just kidding.  It comes with a lexicon.  (Actually, a menu, but more on that later.)   It’s beer made by small local or regional breweries making less than 35,000 gallons a year. (I don’t know if that’s in toto or of a particular brew.)  In fact most of the beers on the stack are Michigan-made.  (See, Honey?  Not only is it a serious journalistic pursuit -- not the boondoggle you imagine -- but supports our state economy as well.  How fortuitous.)

Craft beers are generally more complex in taste, smell and color than the issue of mega-breweries like Miller and Anheuser-Busch but definitely more expensive (that’s me talking now, not Darin). If you’re looking for $1 cans of Busch Light, you won’t find them here.  They do, however, have two token megas on tap, PBR and guess what?  Of course, Bud Light.

Another characteristic of craft beers is that they usually have a higher alcohol content, expressed in ABV (Alcohol by Volume).  American light beers are in the 4.2% range, regulars are in the 4.7 range though some go into the 5.0’s.  Ice beers are higher yet, generally in the 6.0 range, some even going to the 8 level, almost into wine range.   The night we were there, they had a Perrin Double IPA at 8.9. (Digression:  IPA is Canadian, I think, for “You only rent it awhile.”)

The beer is propelled not by the conventional CO2 but by hydrogen or nitrogen, I forget which, and results in a smaller bubbled foam so carbonation doesn’t overrun the subtle flavors of the product.  I might try telling you more about what all those things mean but better yet, stop in and have Darin tell you.  He’s a lot better at it than I am and these are just a couple other things that makes this place different. 

“Cicerone is pronounced “sis-uh-rohn”  (Cicerone website, 2014) -- There’s a reason I have so far avoided the word “bartender” to describe Darin because that’s not what he is.  When I asked if he was the bartender, he stepped up and proudly proclaimed he was  a certified beer server and went on to explain it was the first step in becoming a master Cicerone.  “Cicerone” is the name given those who have studied beer at the Cicerone Institute in Chicago. According to, Cicerone is an old term for a guide, one who conducts visitors and sightseers to museums, galleries, etc., and explains matters of archaeological, antiquarian, historic or artistic interest…. However, the word has been trademarked in the United States for use in a beer sommelier certification program.”

A fellow can study for most of the CBS on-line.  In America right now there are 25,000 certified beer servers but only one in three who take the test passes.  Eventually through this school, one can become a master Cicerone (MC), which pretty much teaches you everything about beer from seeds and microbes to how to market and what food pairs best with what beer.  As stated, it’s the beer equivalent of wine’s sommelier.  Per the Cicerone web site: “Over the days of May 8 and 9 in Northern Illinois, 11 candidates sat down to take the Master Cicerone® exam…. Only one candidate achieved the passing score, and he is now the seventh Master Cicerone to join the ranks.”  Only seven in the entire United States.  Impressive.  So “certified beer server” and “master Cicerone” are not just schlock titles like sending away from the back of a Popular Mechanics for your official ordained minister certificate-cum-secret-decoder-ring.  It takes some time and effort to attain these ranks.

So our certified beer server (that’s going to take some getting used to plus it’s too long; from now on it’s “CBS”) was Darin, who broke away from the chalk-board to dazzle us with his
Even the PBR gets a cool handle
knowledge of the beer and the workings of the stack all the way back through the freezer to the microbrewery from whence it came.  Later, when he was joined by Jeff, one of the co-owners, and they got talking, these two knew more about beer and things beer-related than anyone I have ever heard or known.  Listening to them reminds me of my older brother and his gearhead buddies getting together and talking about carburetor porting they have known and loved.  But Jeff struck me a very savvy businessman who knew exactly what he was doing and  where he wanted to go.

One more thing about Darin.  Except for the “sparkle”(diamond ear stud and diamond beauty spot glued high on his right cheekbone, with his retro black uniform, shirt buttoned to the neck, starched cuffs and a matching, bushy black beard (like one of the Smith brothers, from the cough drops?  Too old a reference?), he could be one of those guys in those ol’ timey pictures on Jake’s wall.  Nor would it be surprising nor out of character were he to sport a derby.  Also, he was attentive yet not intrusive, polite, informed and fast without being rash (meaning “spilling”).  Some of that they can teach at beer school but some of that they can’t.  Some of that comes from within.

Digression Alert:  Does the placement of face sparkle mean something?   Like BITD of non-pirate, early male ear piercing which ear(s) it went into meant gay, straight, or convenient.  Or is it just ornamental?  Plumage, so to speak.  Or practical, covering some kind of tattoo, keritosis, zit or lesion from a deadly flesh-eating disease?  Next time I stop in I’ll have to ask him. 

At this point, Jeff and Darin had business at the other end of the bar which afforded me the chance to look around.  The “cave” half of the place looks like the DAV hall it once was, a basement bingo hall, with standard Formica banquet table formations but with comfortable chairs.   Along the north wall are some high-tops.  Everything that’s not floor or ceiling -- including the support pillars -- is dark brown.  The bar half of the place has rheostat-controlled lighting and the walls are covered in knotty pine.  I flashed on the thought that the DAV’s leaving had to have left a huge hole in the local bingo constituency, so as different as this place is it wouldn’t surprise me to see them offer bingo on off-nights to get the babas and beer-savants together.  That would be a hoot.  I’d come for that. 

“I never sausage a sausage. Uck-uck-uck-uck-uck.” (Popeye, King Syndicate, ca. 1939) -- Someplace in all this, Harry again asked about the liver-and-onions sausage -- we couldn’t smell anything cooking or frying -- and again got a kind of non-committal answer.  I think Jeff mentioned something about maybe Craig bringing something over.   The vagueness only whetted our appetites.

By now, Harry, Doc and I were seated at one of the brown Formica-topped tables and the place was starting to fill up. There were two couples at a table behind us, two guys at one end of the bar, two more at the other end and a young couple, probably dating, off by themselves at one of the high tops.

In short manner, there was commotion behind us as Heidi started putting paper plates and crackers and napkins and bottles of mustard and other condiments on a table against the west wall and then started passing them out.   Then Craig came in bearing not cute little fried sausages, but platters of freshly-made cut up sausage to go with the crackers.  So it wasn’t going to be the dinner we’d imagined (at least not yet; they’re in the process of getting their kitchen up and running)  but that didn’t matter a whit because by this time we were ravenous.

In a matter of seconds, Heidi had placed before us a paper plate heaped with chunks of delectable-looking sausage. There was a German sausage, a sausage I didn’t recognize, something turkey I think, and then, what my older brother would call the “coop of grace” (coup de grace), the long-awaited liver-and-onion sausage.

In the ’70s, when there was a party, that usually meant weed.  And at some time during these parties, at what was usually the perfect time (read: when the munchies set in), the host(s) would bring out goodies to delight our palates.  I remember one party where everyone was pretty well baked when the host brought out Starbursts.  This was the first time I’d ever had Starbursts and they were the perfect accompaniment for the moment, filling my mouth with a sweet-sour explosion of sugary goodness, elevating the event to a level my parents likely never experienced.

Less the sugar, this was one of those moments, a compendium of anticipation, thirst for beer and a hunger for knowledge and sausage.  The perfect storm.  Synchronicity.  I dove on the sausages like a feral dog on the head of a dead homeless guy. (Crossed a line there, didn’t I?  Got enthralled with the interplay of the “d” and “g” sounds, cuz that’s how an English major do.)  OK then, like a normal dog on a plate of sausages.

In short shrift, the basement was filled with the heady air of sausage and snarfling noises as the patrons gobbled it up.  The sausage was good and very good and in between eating-noises, because we’d learned all this beer stuff, we made noises not in jest like we were sausage connoisseurs, commenting on the relative merits of each sausage in texture, color, binder, meat/fat ratio, etc., but never ceased stuffing them heart-stoppin’ chunks down our necks.

The liver-and-onions (LnO) sausage was in the “very good” category.  And very fresh.  How fresh was it?  If you held it up to your ear you could still hear it oinkin’.  And if you brought it up to your nose, you could feel it sniffing back.   No, that’s hot dogs; I don’t know where this liver comes from.  Probably bovine.  So you could hear it mooin’.

Since this was a first, there was nothing to compare.  Using Grampa Tony’s LnO dinner as the standard, (imho the best around) it was a little less onion-y than expected.  But it had good “mouth” (like “hand” in laundry and “nose” in wine) and paired well with the crackers proffered, Ritz, Town House and saltines.  Not only “shelf,” but free.

I have so far avoided talking about specific aromas  because what can start out smelling good doesn’t always end up that way.  To wit, Sunday mornings, 5:30 a.m. at St. Stan’s, you’re a
The bar, with illuminated glass blocks
Catholic paperboy with a morning route hence the early mass, sitting in front of one or more guys who spent all Saturday night drinking beer, smoking cigars and eating, near as you can tell, liver sausage, pickled eggs, onion rings and a side of horseshit, every now and then sighing in their hangovers and expelling their fetid breath on you as you sit there dreading the next belch and cringe when you hear it, knowing in a second you’ll be engulfed in an almost-palpable cloud that would bring tears to Chuck Norris.

You might ask why not just move?   Because I drank the Kool-Aid.  Let me explain: I would take  the opportunity to offer my suffering for the poor souls in purgatory (under the theory that the more I suffered here on Earth, the less some poor unfortunate soul would have to suffer in purgatory -- which was hell without the fire; what here on Earth I used to call “work”) -- and which act would be reciprocated when I myself, being imperfect, ended up there.  Banking some good behavior seemed like a good idea at the time.

So, aroma aside, would I buy it?  If I could only have one, I'd pick the German because it was also very good and more conventional.  But if I was throwing a party and wanted a spread, I would definitely love sharing this Bay City exotica with the world.  I think the best indicator of how the sausage went was the huge grin on Craig’s face as the house gobbled up his sausages amidst gustatory oohs and ahhs.

And so, the mystery revealed, it became time to bid adieu.  There’s more I could tell you, like the menus with descriptions like “tempting ... aromas tempered by a grassy, lemony nose all leading
Dragonshead handle
to a finely balanced, fresh, delicate flavor of peppery hops with a lingering dry finish,” the distinctive handles, like Dragonshead, with a kitschy dragon coiled around the center, beer names like Hobo’s Breath and Dogfish Head that are both off-putting yet intriguing, that beer is not the only alcohol here, they have a full bar as well (see Harry’s report about Doc’s shot of bourbon, not surprisingly a bourbon aged in old wooden beer barrels)  the fact they’ve gridlocked on at least two successive weekends (no one gets in until someone gets out), but it was time to go. 

Fad or future? --  Back in the middle ’60s, I was in the Navy with a guy named Miller who was a stone electronics nut.  Where every other sailor had a sexy pinup hanging in his locker, Miller hung a water-color he’d done of a 6J6 power diode.  Granted, the 6J6 was a very popular and versatile, dare I say even sexy, diode as vacuum tubes go, but puh-leez.

One Saturday, he came back from San Francisco all a-twitter.  Look what I got, he said, holding a small piece of folded tissue paper in an outstretched hand.  I took it from him and unfolded the wrapping.  Inside was a little gold square about the size of a small fingernail.  It was only $40, he said.  (Another $5 and it would’ve been half his month’s pay.)  You got took, I thought, whatever it is.  Something that small for $40 has got to be a rip-off.  I gave it back, asking what it was.  In his excited, squeaky, Millerish, electronics nerd voice, still holding it out, his hand shaking slightly, almost breathless,  his answer made me think he was even more nuts, “What is it?  It’s the future.”

Just to show you how wrong a guy can be, it was a chip.  And the world changed.  And Miller knew.

The question now, is the Governor’s Quarters experience or experiment, aberration or evolution?  With apologies to Yogi Berra, history will tell if this is deja vu all over again and I’m once again seeing Miller’s chip but this time I’m taking it more seriously.  Checking out the beer coolers in Meijer’s and Kroger’s, I see the craft beer section keeps growing and encroaching on the megas.  Kim Coonan tells me he has a selection of craft beer on tap, as does the Empire Room and Bart’s. And, of course, Tri-City Brewing is all craft.    Even Traxler’s Party Store is advertising craft beers on its sign out front.

Meanwhile, I’m keeping an eye on the Governor’s Quarters Facebook page to see what Craig or any of the group might dream up next.  That aside, I’m going to stop in again and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a visit to anyone.  If nothing else, “You gotta see the stack."

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s Disneyworld, but for me at least, Jeff was right:  The cave, the stack, craft beer, the bubbles, the certified beer server, and undoubtedly probably the once-in-a-lifetime liver-and-onion sausage-fest, all in all it’s been a truly unique experience.

See the hairy guy’s report on Governor’s Quarters: A basement bar with crafty brews, a name in limbo, knotty pine and tiny bubbles


mary said...

Gotta go....sounds awesome!!!! U would have to b a "putz" not to see that it sounds like a dang good time ;-)

Baldo said...

Well said, Mary.