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Loose Behavior

Loosemeat sandwich.
Throw those words out at a party and you're guaranteed to elicit some sort of snickering response, if not an out-and-out vulgarity. Unless you happen to be talking to a Midwesterner. Because as anyone from Iowa, Nebraska or South Dakota can tell you, a loosemeat sandwich is not an obscene phrase that describes, say, a threesome of two gals and one guy of questionable morals. No, a loosemeat sandwich is spiced ground beef on a bun, sort of a sloppy Joe minus the sauce and some of the slop. It's one of those regional specialties that's quintessentially American--unaffected eats evocative of small-town diners and rural cafes.

Thanks to former Des Moines resident Curt Sinks, Denver now has its first (that I know of, anyway) loosemeat sandwich shop, which is officially known as Curt's Blue Platter Cafe. Not that the loosemeat sandwich is all that's offered at Curt's; the breakfast-and-lunch spot features a hefty roster of the usual solid-meat types of sandwiches, along with pancakes and egg dishes. This hearty fare is served in a cheery, if spartan, second-floor space that hints at someone getting a deal on bright-blue paint. But Sinks doesn't stint on the hospitality: A free carafe of coffee arrives with every order, and by the counter each morning are daily newspapers from eight cities across the country. Ed Dixon, currently starring as the Butler in Sunset Boulevard, frequents the place to get his New York Times fix, Sinks says. So far, though, Dixon hasn't been ready for a close-up with a loosemeat sandwich.

But the loosemeat's clearly the thing at Curt's. Although controversy still rages over whether the correct term is "loosemeats" or "loosemeat," and in some Midwestern states it's also known as a "Charlie Boy" or a "Tastee," there is a general consensus that the sandwich was created in the 1930s at the now-defunct Ye Olde Tavern Inn in Sioux City, Iowa. Proprietors Abraham and Bertha Kaled called their creation a "tavern," and not long after they first loosed their meats, a franchise operation named Maid-Rite, which is still around, made the loosemeat sandwich its trademark. "The Maid-Rites are where all the Iowa farmers go to bitch about their crops," Sinks explains. "Every county seat has a Maid-Rite. And some of them serve nothing but the sandwich, soft drinks, coffee and pie, and there are no tables--just counters."

Many Iowans refer to the loosemeat sandwich as a Maid-Rite--including Tom Arnold, who along with then-wife Roseanne was sued by Maid-Rite after the couple opened a diner in Iowa and advertised that it served "Maid-Rite sandwiches." "What does Roseanne care, anyway?" says Sinks. "She's got more money than God." Sinks doesn't, so the self-described "short, fat, white boy from Iowa"--who's been in Denver eleven years, eight of them spent working at assorted restaurants--is careful to refer to his sandwich as a "loosey." He makes it by steaming 93-percent-lean ground beef, pouring off the excess fat, seasoning the meat with secret stuff and packing it into a soft bun the only way it can be: loosely.

The regular loosey comes with the barest loosemeat essentials of pickle, mustard and onion. On our first visit, though, we were feeling more, well, loose, and so took on a cheesy loosey ($2.49) and a chili-and-cheese loosey ($2.99), both of which were appropriately unrestrained by their buns and quite tasty. The cheese was your basic American, the only choice for a domestic creation such as this, and the chili also was apropos: Midwestern-style all the way, dark red and cheap-barbecue-saucey and lumpy with kidney beans. For an extra 99 cents, a loosey can be made into a "basket" with fries and coleslaw, and the diner-style slaw (don't hold the mayo!) and decent French fries rounded out the meal nicely while still keeping it in the bargain range. The two sides automatically came with another Midwestern specialty, the pork tenderloin sandwich ($4.99). One fellow diner likened the breading on the tenderloin to "spackle," a fairly accurate description; the crunchy crumb coating made for some disturbing chewing action. Inside, the meat was slightly overcooked and significantly under-pounded (a good sandwich tenderloin has been beaten to death), but it had a clean pork flavor and wasn't at all greasy. And the sandwich was filling as hell.

It had nothing on the order of two homemade leaden biscuits under a black-pepper-speckled blanket of country gravy ($3.99) that constituted my second meal at Curt's--and made eating anything else that day impossible. My guest scored with the day's special of lasagne ($4.99), a large portion packed with ricotta and covered with a thick, hearty red sauce. The accompanying garlic bread was dry, though, and the salad's sopping of creamy Italian dressing had a bottled quality, even if the menu did claim that all dressings were homemade (at the very least, Curt's should offer a non-creamy option or vinegar and oil). We ended our meal on a winning note, splitting a piece of gooey, recently made peach pie ($1.99) that tasted like it had just taken the blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair.

On my third visit, I devoted myself to the loosey ($2.09) and was once again rewarded with an inexpensive, satisfying sandwich that benefited from simple preparation and whatever flavor boosters Sinks uses (Worcestershire sauce? Garlic? Seasoned salt?). I washed it down with fresh-squeezed lemonade ($1.49 for a large) and walked out gnawing on one of Curt's baseball-sized cinnamon rolls (99 cents), another item on which Iowans pride themselves. Sinks has reason to be downright arrogant about his: The pastry was sweet, sugar-sweaty, cinnamon-clogged and delicious.

The cinnamon roll ($1.70) at Apples Corner Brunchery in Aurora, another diner-style breakfast-and-lunch spot with down-home appeal, has a different accent--but that's because owner Les Romero hails from New Orleans. Romero bought the corner plaza space in 1988 for a doughnut shop, and three years ago he decided to turn it into a full-fledged restaurant. Unfortunately, the odd octagon shape made renovations awkward, and it feels as though the kitchen is right out in the dining room. Countryish decorations and checked tablecloths help, but from certain tables, diners are treated to a view of the guy washing dishes.

At least those dishes arrived at our table bearing good, homemade food. The cinnamon roll was gooey, buttery and rich, just the kind of sugar shock welcome early in the day. And the sinful Mississippi mud muffin ($1.50) went far beyond mere sweetness; its dense chocolate cake encased a creamy substance and was roofed with fudge icing and rife with walnuts. The sweetness of those two starters was balanced by the spiciness of the entree we split, a combination platter of red beans and rice and gumbo ($4.95) that was an incredible deal. Romero says he put the beans on the menu in honor of Monday being "beans day" in New Orleans, when blue-collar types on lunch break look for the small cafes that serve the cheap but stomach-stuffing dish. This version called for cooking the garlicky kidney beans with white rice for so long that the two components were almost inseparable, with added kick coming from a credible andouille sausage (the menu says it's Italian, but since that was printed, Romero has found a good source for the Cajun). The okra-glued gumbo was another Southern specialty, filled with chicken shreds, fresh tomatoes and the Holy Trinity of green peppers, onions and celery; its bite was provided by cayenne and white pepper. Romero proudly credits his mother with both recipes.

But he and his staff claim full responsibility for the fried spaghetti ($3.75), a preparation inspired by the "propensity for leftover spaghetti noodles at home because you never measure it right," says employee Steve Williams. The kitchen fries the already cooked noodles in oil with garlic and parmesan until the cheese gets all crispy and greasy. Yum. When the richness of the dish got to be too much, we dipped into our salad, a typical diner model made atypical by the dollop of homemade blue-cheese dressing created from crumbled cheese, sour cream and mayo.

Back for breakfast, we tried the pancakes with eggs and bacon ($4.95)--the cakes were heavy and enormous--and a side of excellent potatoes ($1.85). The tubers had been sliced, then baked, then quickly grilled with a paprika-flecked seasoned salt and showered with parmesan. You can get crunchy, overcooked home fries anywhere; these soft, barely buttery spuds were a real find.

Just the thing if you're a loosemeat and potatoes kind of gal.

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