Surly Wench Pub: Great food, spicy cocktails & friendly ghosts

Off the eatin' path

Gloria resides in the side storage area.

It’s an alcove just off to the left when you enter, hidden under a black curtain — a small, extra speakeasy currently used for private parties. Its walls are adorned with images of faces from the bygone and medical curiosities that staff often use as a breakroom. Vintage cabinet video games wait for repair in a space that’s rumored to become an old-school arcade. Among the beautiful gloom, this is a very bright promise.

Pinball and video games at the Surly Wench

Gloria will greet you with a puff of perfume, letting you know that she is present because Gloria cannot be seen. She prefers this room to the rest of the bar likely because it has the look and feel of a parlor set aside for refined ladies such as she — so it is thought. Gloria is not a mean spirit at all but she is spirited.

“Oh yeah. This place is totally haunted.”

Surly Wench co-owner and manager, Steph Johnston, along with her partner Jasmine Pierce, also manager and co-owner, can attest to at least two saucy specters occupying separate areas of the beloved tavern. Spirits among spirits you might say.

Co-owners, Steph Johnson and Jasmine Pierce

Co-owners, Steph Johnston and Jasmine Pierce

Food & drinks good enough to raise the dead

Although the Surly Wench is much more than a bar. It is a venue. A place without judgment or prejudice. A hideaway for the weird kids who grew up to be cool kids embracing their weirdness. A dance hall. And best of all, it is a pub with seriously good grub.

“You know most people don’t think that we serve food, said Johnston.”

Well, they do. In fact, the Surly Wench has served food since its inception in 2004. When Johnston and Pierce took over nearly seven years ago they wanted to continue serving food, if not better food. With the help of kitchen manager and chef Tori Haynes, they constructed a menu far beyond just fried bits you might expect from a saloon brandishing a giant painting of a gnarly pirate lady askew from their wall of booze.

Pirate mural above the bar

“Thing is, we’re not really a pirate bar,” said Pierce. “I mean, we are but we are far more than that.”

Drinking at the Wench is an absolute necessity but eating there should be on the top of your list. The race for the best Sonoran hot dog in Tucson is usually relegated to famed James Beard-awarded establishments or dusty plot carts with a line of dedicated followers queueing on the daily. But how about a dark bar on Fourth Avenue where you can listen to the Misfits and Madonna in the same sitting?

Sonoran Dog

The Sonoran Dog from the Surly Wench is fantastic. An all-beef dog topped with shredded cheese, bacon, caramelized onions, pinto beans, tomatoes, mustard, and finished with housemade jalapeño mayo. It’s delicious and perfectly messy to the point where I had to apologize for getting some on their tabletop Ms. Pac-Man.

Mercifully, the Surly Wench is the kind of joint that serves up honest cocktails, one of my favorites being the Prickly Heat, a hellfire of hot pepper-infused tequila, prickly pear syrup, and a glass rimmed with Tajín.

Assorted cocktails including the Prickly Heat

After consumption, you may wake up the next morning feeling a bit groggy but the best way to cure that ailment is to return and order their Hangover Tots.

Now, those who know are aware that I am tater tot-obsessed. These lovely ladies top the perfectly cooked tots with Swiss cheese, housemade poblano sauce, and then complimented it all with a fried egg. If that doesn’t scream “breakfast of drunken champions” then I don’t know what does.

Hangover Tots

Say it with me: Elote Nachos. Yes, very good.

That is exactly what the Elote Nachos are — very good and generous. Very generous. A stockpile of tortilla chips is nearly engulfed with elote spiced corn, cotija cheese, and fresh cilantro. Seeing that the Surly Wench is a popular hangout for those who participate in roller derby, some even being employed there as well, this is the kind of pre/post-match fuel you’re going to need. Even if eating it with a tissue shoved up your bloody nose gets in the way, it is worth the effort.

Elote Nachos

Then we come to where the bar food gods (or demons) look down (or up) to make sure things are moving in the meaty right direction: the burger.

As you sit between a couple resembling Magenta and Frank N. Furter, while the other two are more like Brad and Janet, you’ll be happy to know that their Royale Burger isn’t just a burger. It’s a history lesson.

Painting of Frank N. Furter of Rocky Horror Picture Show

Based on a generational family recipe for Golumpki meatballs, this burger represents ghosts of many meals past. This burger could have been enjoyed by Dillinger himself. Annie Oakley, maybe. David Bowie. Whatever the case may be, it’s a sumptuous meatball-inspired burger and if you don’t order one soon it’ll haunt you forever.

Royale Burger and the Fried Chicken Sandwich

Ghosts like to have fun, too

“Then there is the cowboy that hangs out by the bathrooms,” said Johnston.

After closing time, when the doors are locked and the lights go dim, an image of a man leaning against the wall near the restrooms has been seen on more than one occasion. The building itself is over 100 years old and was countless concepts during that time, so it seems only fitting that the likes of Gloria and The Cowboy would hang out and enjoy the daily joyful ruckus of the Surly Wench.

While down in the basement, the pub’s staff sometimes hears heavy footfalls on the steps, sounding a lot like cowboy boots hitting well-worn, creaking wood. Shot glasses have flown off of shelves, lights over the stage have fallen for no reason, and one incident involved the alarm being activated at 4 a.m.

The stage at the Surly Wench

Johnston and Pierce were dead asleep when their alarm company called about someone trying to break in. Thing was that the alarm was tripped from inside the bar. It was an alarm on the exiting trigger on the stage door — a door you can only get to from being inside the Surly Wench.

Was Gloria trying to go outside for a pre-dawn stroll? Maybe The Cowboy thought it was time to wrangle them doggies before the sun rose. Either way, these occurrences have encouraged professional and amateur ghost hunters alike to creep around, ask questions into the shadows, and observe possible movements by the merch table through glowing green infrared screens.

Tucson has been named one of the most haunted cities in America, in fact, the most haunted city by a recent account. It’s no surprise that a lot of paranormal activity happens on the regular from a place that keeps a fully operational coffin underneath the stage.

Oh yeah, the Surly Wench has a coffin.

The good times are rollin’ at the Wench

“Everyone that works here is involved in everything that we do here,” said Pierce.

One of the best aspects of the Surly Wench is that it is a place to listen to great music, catch a fun, if not rowdy, show, and dance, dance, dance. On the first Friday of each month, there is a bawdy burlesque review where you can watch Johnston host, as Stephka Von Snatch, before a bevy of servers, patrons, and close friends. The second and last Saturday is where you can hear New Wave, Goth, and Industrial music spun by a variety of DJs including the occasional Surly Wench employee. Every first and third Saturday is reserved for the ever-popular 80’s Dance Party and it is encouraged to dress up as your favorite one-hit wonder from that decade. Kajagoogoo anyone?

When it comes to burlesque, the Surly Wench has won numerous awards for its bewitching tease-o-rama fairly consistently since it began in 2006.

Co-owners, Steph Johnson and Jasmine Pierce

Co-owners, Steph Johnston and Jasmine Pierce

Now, the Surly Wench may not be for everybody, but it is a place for anyone. A lot of people are thrown by the jet-black walls, skateboards adorned with slightly blasphemous images, bar staff and owners covered in tattoos, a band on stage blasting psychobilly music, showgirls, and drag queens (and kings!) mingling about before and after hitting the stage. However, the Surly Wench is an alternate to the alternative — a must-have haven for us creatures that like to go bump in the night.

“Some people have the assumption that we are a gay bar,” said Johnston. “We’re that too but we feel like we are more of a safe space. If you’re cool, you are most welcome. If not, well then this may not be the bar for you.”

Is it a pirate bar? Kinda. An LGBTQ bar? Sure. A punk rock bar? Yup. A bar with awesome video games and pinball machines, strong drinks, great food, and an incredible staff helmed by generous and fun-loving owners? Most definitely.

I mean, where else can Gloria or The Cowboy call home? Any place that doesn’t boast skeletons on the wall or Black Metal on the juke would just be a sin.

Patio at the Surly Wench

The bar is open from 4 p.m. – 2 a.m. (kitchen is open from 5 p.m. – 1 a.m.) on Wednesday – Friday and 2 p.m. – 2 a.m. (kitchen is open from 5 p.m. – 1 a.m.) on Saturday – Sunday.

Surly Wench Pub is located at 424 N. Fourth Ave. For more information, visit surlywenchpub.com and follow the Surly Wench on Facebook and Instagram

It was a Sonoran hot dog that made Mark switch from music journalism to food writing when he moved to Tucson from San Francisco in 2006. He hasn’t been the same since.

X