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Haunting Grounds: John Cirillo and GhosTown play the renovated Henfling's Saturday.

Alive and Cooking

After a recent fire, Henfling's returns to its mountain mix of international music and food

By Ann Parker

It's hard enough deciding whether to serve white wine or red with salmon, so imagine the challenge of matching menus to music a dozen times a month. And then consider that this eclectic music schedule includes bands from all genres specially imported from literally dozens of countries.

That's what the good folks at Henfling's Tavern in Ben Lomond have been up against for the last seven years. Under the direction of owner Albert Kent and concert coordinator Tom Miller, the legendary landmark offers music nearly every night as part of its International Folk Series, which also pairs appropriately themed meals to the music for weekday shows.

Henfling's recently suffered a minor fire, panicking its many fans before reassurance went out that shows would still run, housed temporarily at Felton's Trout Farm Inn. Kent, a retired stage manager, said so many people pitched in to help--from Trout Farm owner Louis Darosa to county officials--that they were back at Henfling's only nine days later, opening Nov. 29 to a sold-out show with It's a Beautiful Day.

The fire also had an upside, offering the proprietors an opportunity to clean and refurbish the historic venue. Built in 1920 at a location up Love Creek, the Henfling's structure was moved to Ben Lomond just before World War II and expanded in 1953. Kent took over the tavern's ownership in 1996, the same year the International Folk Series was created. Miller, a Henfling's veteran since 1990, says the themed meals evolved organically: "We have music and we have a kitchen."

And just how do those quirky and often puzzling music/menu combinations come about? Well, the Pinenut-Stuffed Trout With Baked Potato was created for singer Rosalie Sorrels because, as Kent explains, "Rosalie's from Idaho, where trout and potatoes are regional specialties."

Dishes are often inspired by the musicians' place of origin, such as fish and chips or bangers for a British band and Chicken Tandoori for a group from India. I once spent a memorable evening sitting about 10 feet from Chirgilchin, the astounding Tuvan throat singers, and sampling "Booz," a traditional Mongolian dish containing dough balls filled with lamb.

For anyone who hasn't experienced Henfling's, it's an unusual recipe in itself. Imagine a lively roadhouse setting, with a rough-hewn bar and rough-hewn bar patrons. Add a nice little seating/dance area and a perfectly presentable stage. Top this all off with an astounding mix of Americana music, legendary blues and slack-key guitar, jumping jazz and sweet acoustic ballads. Now stir in a spicy medley of top-line acts from all over the world--a Brazilian village band, an Irish/Indian group, gypsy performers from France, a band of Russian Indians, or a father/daughter duo from Africa.

And did I mention the room capacity of 80? Not only is there not a bad seat in the house, there's hardly a bad inch in the house. The unusual setting makes for musical events that are uniquely intimate. When I saw Jo Miller & Her Burly Roughnecks recently, one dancer got up and entertained us all with his loose-limbed moves, earning applause along with the band.

Henfling's has served up many outstanding music/menu combinations, such as the Eastern European hot-folk band Kaila Flexer & Third Eye, which inspired a "Klezmer Country Dinner." And damn, why didn't I make it to the show by French group Ad Viella Que Pourra? I can just see the folks at the bar munching their Duck à l'Orange.

On the other end of the spectrum, all-American rockin' group Trailer Park Troubadours was teamed with "Belly Burgers," tiny hamburgers packed with chopped onions, cheese and a bit of beef--"NO lettuce." A similar tribute to culinary Americana was the Red Dirt Rangers' down-home "Cattle Drive Stew and Yahoo Yams."

"Sometimes," says Miller, "we'll look back at a menu and wonder what we were thinking. Once we offered 'Rockabilly Rockets'--I have no idea what it was."

Vance Gilbert, an African American folksinger from Boston, thought his featured entree of was hilarious; he joked throughout his act, "Do I look like Veal Gorgonzola?"

Don't ask the Henfling's folks when they "reopened," because they're proud of the fact that they never really closed. But, as Albert Kent says, "It's great to be back home."

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From the December 25-31, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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