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It Takes Pluck

Entrees come with a choice of soup, salad or Nana's coleslaw. It's a tough decision. The soup is chicken noodle, with a rich chicken-stock base and plenty of chicken pieces to balance out the thick egg noodles. The coleslaw recipe comes from Walls's grandmother, and it produces a fine slaw of fresh, crunchy cabbage that's both sugary sweet and tarragon-vinegar tart. You also get your choice of potatoes, and while the fries are fine, the real mashed potatoes are extraordinary. Another Stroud's-inspired offering, the spuds are skin-on and partly chunky, the ideal texture for smashing around in peppery cracklin' gravy.

The pan-fried chicken ($9.95 for a half) is a melt-in-your mouth must. But the kitchen also turns out other rib-sticking, comfort-food favorites. The chicken-fried steak ($8.95) came with its own brand of cracklin' gravy, which was thicker and sported the darker, denser flavors of beef. And the buffalo meatloaf ($9.50) proved to be one of the best ways that I've found to prepare this lean flesh, balancing the meat's dryness with juice-soaked breading and a medium-thick, onion-heavy gravy. The only miss in the meat department was the carrot-and-celery-laden Yankee pot roast ($8.95), which was stringy and chewy and tasted as though it had been cooked days before and dried out in the walk-in.

Otherwise, even when the menu ventured far from cowboy country, the prices stayed right and the dishes worked. The teriyaki-glazed salmon ($12.95) was a pleasant surprise, a hefty piece of fish cooked to just-doneness and thinly sweetened with a not-too-sugary sauce. The Pines pasta ($10.95) was another marvel, a savvy mix of penne pasta, mushrooms cooked down with sun-dried tomatoes, slivers of roasted garlic and pine nuts. It's the sort of yuppie combo that Castle Cafe's menu likes to mock, but we were too busy spooning it up to snicker.

Desserts returned to country-cooking territory. We somehow made our way through an oversized, hearty and skillfully executed bread pudding ($3.50) with a caramel whiskey sauce; a decadent, homey chocolate fudge cake ($3.50); and an apple brown Betty ($3.95) that had enough grains in it to bulk up a horse.

The Betty behind that confection bears no relation to Chicken Betty, who deserves a prayer of thanks for her role in bringing real pan-fried chicken to these parts. Walls also credits executive chef Jerry Good, head of the kitchens for all four restaurants and a part-owner in three of them, with setting the tone for Castle Cafe's food. Valerie Broom is the on-site kitchen manager, and she, too, deserves kudos for keeping things consistent while the staff starts up another batch of chicken every few minutes.

Yes, it's a pain in the butt to do pan-fried chicken to order. But no pain, no gain. By not chickening out and taking the easy way, Castle Cafe has made itself a welcome addition to the area's dining scene. And that's a rare bird.

Castle Cafe, 403 Wilcox Street, Castle Rock, 303-814-2233. Hours: 4:30-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 4:30-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.

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