I heard mixed reviews from friends who tried Baxter’s shortly after their December 2012 opening. As Benson’s newest pizza place, I had hoped not to hear such things as: “The wait is long,” “It’s expensive,“ and, perhaps the most foreboding warning, “It’s by the slice, but it’s nothing like New York style.”
Happily, I was able to debunk some of these notions.
But let’s back up a moment.
As the second offering from restaurateurs Johanna and Brad Marr along with Scott Stephens, Baxter’s has a tough reputation to live up to. Its sister restaurant, Lot 2, opened just one year earlier a few doors down the street, and was hailed as an instant classic by critics and hungry citizens of Benson. When Baxter’s opened and I started hearing both love stories and tales of woe, I wondered if Bensonites were being a little hyper critical.
With hours stretching past bar closing time on weekends, Baxter’s aims to feed those with drunger. (That’s drunk hunger, in case you didn’t know.) It’s a great compliment to the recent invasion of classy Benson bars. As Lot 2 Chef Joel Mahr told me, staying open late can keep some tipsy folks out of their cars. The problem is that the food seems far too good for “fourth meal” fodder.
The crust -- while crispy -- is still pliable enough to be folded and inhaled the way they do on the Lower East Side. It just seems a sacrilege to do so. The House slice ($3.50) comes topped with pepperoni slices, a handful of roasted mushrooms, crumbles of herbed, rich house-made sausage, and three or four melt-in-your-mouth cloves of garlic confit. At an early dinner, the late-day sunlight through broad front windows revealed flecks of dried oregano, and a great sauce-to-cheese ratio.
Based on my experience, individual slices can take anywhere from five to 25 minutes. A one-topping 15-inch pie will run you $15, which is a steal when one considers the same from Delivery Chain X costs, well, about the same.
According to Mahr, they weren’t trying to emulate any one style. “It’s thin crust, but I like to say it’s Benson-style pizza,” he told me.
The pizza menu -- about twenty toppings long -- is supplemented by a list of sandwiches, a few salads, and everyone’s childhood favorite, tots. While familiar in their cylindrical shape, these shredded potatoes are a far cry from what you’d find in your grocer’s freezer. The sweet potato version is especially difficult to forget. For dipping, Heinz devotees will be disappointed by the much thinner, sweeter house-made ketchup here, but that’s their problem.
From the sandwich list, the California Club ($7) is a classic you may risk perpetually craving for lunch. What sets it apart from the rest is the jalapeño bacon, delivering a bold flavor that could either eclipse the rest of the sandwich components, or add an element of excitement, depending on your palate.
On the other hand, the French Dip ($8) was spread with a comparatively mild horseradish mayo, and the batch of au jus was especially salty. I was pleasantly distracted by the accompaniments: a neatly stacked pepperoncini, cornichon, and single olive. Both sandwiches were served on toasted bread from one of my favorite area bakeries, Le Quartier.
Another standout was the Caesar salad, a chopped, perfectly dressed rendition of the classic standby. Peppery and creamy, with an ample dusting of sharp parmesan cheese, I can’t remember the last time I was this enamored with such a ubiquitous menu item.
To wash it all down, try a house-brewed amber ale. They were out of it when I visited, but I’ll get one of brewer John Fahrer’s beers next time.
Baxter’s is a smaller neighborhood place. The jazz and blues tunes harken back to an old timey Benson. The simple, elegant interior -- exposed brick, black and white photography, and lots and lots of wood -- reflects a less complicated time in history. I waved to some folks I know through the front windows. I chatted with the service staff.
Fun, friendly, great for lunches, and almost too good for late nights: Welcome to town, Baxter’s.
Baxter’s is located at 6113 Maple Street. Hours are Mon. - Thurs. 11a.m. - 11p.m., Fri. and Sat. 11a.m. - 2:30a.m., and Sun. 5p.m. - 10p.m. Call 402.614.0870 for more information, or just save the number in your phone for quick ordering.