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By my twelfth cup of coffee, the walls were starting to vibrate. My tongue tasted like a leather strap dipped in Pennzoil. Through the big front windows, I could see the lights of Romantix glowing through the fog hanging close over I-25, interrupted now and then by the dirty white nimbus of passing headlights. If I cocked my head just right, I could see the towering billboard advertising Tecate in Spanish, lit from below by massive quartz-halogen floods that threw their blazing titanium light skyward, like they were proudly illuminating a religious icon. Christ of the Andes, maybe. Or the Olinger's cross on Mount Lindo. I knew -- was absolutely convinced -- that somewhere in the intersection of beer signs, porno and high-speed interstate transit as seen from the counter of a 24-hour roadside diner at midnight, there lurked an important observation on the American character. Some knowledge, deep and potent. One of those universal truths people can find in near-death experiences, or that weird clarity at the tail end of a whiskey bender.
300 W. Mississippi Ave.
Denver, CO 80223
Region: Southwest Denver
Chicken-fried steak and eggs:
Chicken-fried steak dinner: $6.25
Hash and eggs: $5.25
Hot turkey sandwich: $5.25
Ham-steak dinner: $5.95
And I was ready for it. I'd come to Breakfast King with American gothic mysticism on my mind, looking on the wrong side of the tracks for that same greasy enchantment that had so charmed Neal Cassady, Thomas Wolfe and Tom Waits. I'd staked out my seat at the counter around eleven in the evening, ordered a cheeseburger, fries and a thick chocolate milkshake -- classic American road food meant for easing you into the particular kind of revelation I was after -- and set in to wait. I started out my sojourn as open and willing a vessel for enlightenment as any Christian pilgrim or pretzled-up yoga master, but that soon began to fade. Around two in the morning, I was no longer convinced that inspiration was going to come waltzing through the door, sit down and pay for my coffee. Half an hour later, I was pretty sure she wasn't even in the state.
And by three, with insight still lacking, I was almost positive that the company I did have -- a tall, lean cowboy with blown-out methedrine eyes, a dusty black Stetson and mud on his boots -- was getting ready to kill me. Against my direct orders, my feet kept tapping against the worn step at the base of the counter, dancing to caffeine rhythms quite different from the Seals and Crofts tune whispering out of hidden speakers. Except for the occasional tick of a fork against a plate or the squeak of a waitress's sneaker as she turned a corner on her rounds, my tapping was the loudest sound in the dining room.
And it was annoying as hell.
The first time I visited Breakfast King, it was for the chicken-fried steak. That's the dish I look for on a Sunday afternoon when I want to sit alone somewhere, smoke a few cigarettes, read the paper, have someone bring me copious volumes of black coffee, and otherwise be left the fuck alone. I'm not a church-going man and have never cared much for football, so I've never known exactly what to do with Sunday afternoons. They always seemed to be much longer than was necessary -- something to be gotten through on the way to more interesting things happening later in the week -- but that was before I'd gotten in the habit of filling them with newsprint, coffee and chicken-fried steak. Now I wish each week had two or three Sunday afternoons. The world would be a much nicer place, I think. At least, it would be nicer for me.
Anyway, I went to Breakfast King one Sunday afternoon a couple of months ago in need of chicken-fried steak and quiet, and I found both. The steak was crisp and wrinkly on the outside, like an old man left out too long in the sun, and tender within after a good pounding with the tenderizing mallet and a soaking in milk; its crust holding up well even under the weight of a thick, peppery, artery-choking, Southern-style white sausage gravy.
While the chicken-fried steak was undeniably the star of the plate, it came dotingly attended by two eggs and home fries -- fresh home fries. This was easy to determine because they sat on one end of the plate like a solid, starchy mountain range of irregular bits and pieces all glommed onto each other, sizzling hot off the flat-top, crisp at the peaks and mushy down in the valleys. Bagged, frozen home fries do not cook up like this. The mechanically produced version that arrives by the case, neatly divvied up into five-pound brown-paper bags, at the back doors of those diners less conscientious than the King are like the well-groomed communist stepchildren of real home fries made by hand. They are perfectly white, perfectly skinless, perfectly sized and shaped for maximally efficient consumption, and each piece is exactly the same as every other piece in the bag -- which you'd think would be impossible, considering all the wondrous variety in the potato kingdom. But that's the miracle of modern technology, I guess. Somewhere out there is a machine capable of turning a thousand pounds of unique and tasty potatoes into 500 pounds of absolutely identical potato pieces that all taste like wet balsa wood.
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