Ruthie's Boardwalk Social
Food Three-and-a-half stars
Service Three stars
Ambience Three stars
Address: 1397 Pearl St., Boulder
Contact: 303-444-4728, ruthiesboulder.com
Hours: 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Fare: Comfort classics, namely grilled cheese, tomato soup and fries, although there is a vegetarian and dairy-free avocado toast available, as well as gluten-free bread.
Noise Level: Moderate, with most of the sound coming from passerby as well as nearby buskers.
Ruthie's Boardwalk Social, smack dab in the middle of the Pearl Street Mall, is an eatery whose name doesn't necessarily indicate its edible stock in trade. When I first walked by this venue, I was relieved that I hadn't landed on an opponent's hotel situated there, and consequently wouldn't have to cough up cold cash. Happily, I later learned this fear was unfounded.
A large kiosk, Ruthie's doesn't offer seating, save for exterior public benches in close proximity. Service, however, is engaging and cheerful. While this certainly isn't fast food, wait times are reasonably quick.
Although breakfast burritos are available at Ruthie's in the a.m., the true stars of the show here are its grilled cheese sandwiches. Costing well under 10 bucks apiece, these are available with a variety of fillings, ranging from basic to sophisticated. A kid's half sandwich and fries goes for $4.75. A $5.50 avocado toast is available for those with an aversion to dairy. Gluten-free bread is also an option. Sides consist of tomato soup and fries.
For $3.25, one can sip a superior house-made lemonade. I thoroughly enjoyed the strawberry version, loaded with fresh berries, cut small enough so as to prevent any pesky clogging of the paper straw. My dining companion's ginger variant carried an assertively spicy flavor, besting that of mass-market ales.
Closer in profile to hefty steak fries than less-substantial fast food semi-shoestrings, Ruthie's french fries are among the best I've had in recent memory. A $4.75 large serving is plenty for two, and true to its Belgian inspiration, these smartly salted and twice-cooked spuds arrive in a paper cone. One caveat is that these potatoes are best enjoyed as soon as possible as they lose their noteworthy exterior crispness after several minutes. Inside, they're hot and fluffy, making for a textbook example of everything a perfect fry ought to be.
Dipping sauces for the fries extend well beyond basic ketchup. These include the mustardy Boom Boom sauce, chipotle mayonnaise and an Old Bay seasoning ketchup (tastes like cocktail sauce).
Given the heavy grilled cheese emphasis, it's not surprising that Ruthie's ladles out a fine tomato soup interpretation for $2.75 a cup. Unlike the voluminous assortment of cheesy sandwiches, there's only a single version of this soup available, simply accompanied by garlic croutons.
Ruthie's tomato soup has a subtly acidic brightness, which makes for a lively and comforting taste. Optimal seasoning and the earthy croutons, which also impart a pleasing garlic bite, nicely round out the soup's flavor. Ruthie's soup is not only better than that from a red-and-white labeled can, but it holds its own against full-service restaurant versions that cost significantly more.
At an earlier visit, I sampled the basic grilled cheese, reasonably priced at $5.25, with the option to add such ingredients as tomato, bacon or avocado for a modest surcharge. Made with a pleasingly gooey mix of American and cheddar cheeses melted between thick bread, toasted to a golden brown, Ruthie's basic interpretation effectively replicated the sandwiches of my childhood. But during my most recent visit, I realized the more creative options are the way to go. Ruthie's is at its best when it takes a more sophisticated approach, building upon the basic grilled cheese.
Case in point was my dining companion's $7 Caprese sandwich, featuring fresh mozzarella, pesto and fresh tomato. Viewed from the side, this creation evoked the colors of Italy's tricolor flag, a visually appealing touch reminiscent of a margherita pizza. The melted mozzarella created a solid foundation of creaminess, set off by ripe tomato and a top-notch pesto, rich with herbaceous basil and garlic.
I went for a heavy-duty starch-on-starch number, the $6.75 Mac Daddy, filled with a ration of mac and cheese, extra cheddar, and — my favorite addition to dish — green chiles. I wasn't quite as enamored with this sandwich as I was with the Caprese. In comparison, the ingredients weren't as bright or complex as the Italian-inspired selection. Granted, one shouldn't expect a high level of nuanced flavor from mac and cheese sandwiched between two pieces of bread.
When an eatery like Ruthie's stakes its reputation on variations of a single item, it better be good. Without question, Ruthie's succeeds on this score with its grilled cheese, and perhaps equally importantly, accomplishes this at a reasonable price.