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There's a method -- rigorously tested and refined by my friend Andy, an old kitchen buddy -- for determining the quality of a Mexican restaurant before you even sit down. It's quick, scientific and nearly foolproof, and it simply calls for tallying the bullfighting paraphernalia on the walls. A single print or poster tucked away in a corner means trouble: Have some chips and salsa, maybe a beer, and then leave, secure in the knowledge that your astute powers of observation have saved you from severe gastrointestinal discomfort. A two-poster display, maybe with some shlocky souvenir sombreros, is better, but still in the danger zone. And anyplace that sports actual programs from a bullfight or brightly colored advertising bills is a serious find, one whose location should be jealously guarded.
25940 Highway 74
Kittredge, CO 80457
Region: West Denver Suburbs
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Sirloin sandwich: $8.95
Royal Red shrimp: Market
Walleye fillet: $15.95
Sirloin dinner: $14.95
Using Andy's formula (which, it should be noted, only works east of the Mississippi, where good Mexican restaurants are as rare and precious as flawless diamonds, and is actually much more complicated than this, involving such details as how many maps of northern Mexico must be present before it's safe to eat the tamales), another friend once happened on a tiny Mexican cafe in southern-tier New York that proudly displayed the moldering ear of a bull killed in the ring (allegedly) and served what was probably the only good posole for 300 miles in any direction. Come to find out, this little place was where all the migrant peach-pickers (many of them Mexican nationals) came to eat before and after work, and it became the first place I ever ate chicharrones.
In Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon describes a similar system for grading small-town cafes, one based entirely on the profusion of wall calendars. It works pretty well, especially when you employ my corollary giving extra credit for more out-of-date displays. For example, a cafe with two Allstate Insurance Company calendars showing the proper year will not serve chicken-fried steak as good as at the place one town over that boasts a single John Deere calendar perpetually open to August 1962.There's also a system for determining whether to eat at a '50s-style diner, and this is the simplest of the bunch. Just don't, unless it's a '50s-style diner that's been in continuous operation since the Eisenhower administration and looks the way it does simply because the owners haven't yet found the time to redecorate.
And, of course, there's a method for judging the grub and timeless authenticity of country roadhouses before you so much as look at the menu. This one involves the ratio (in weight) of dead, stuffed animals to antique farm implements decorating the dining room. It's not the gross tonnage that matters so much as the balance between the two, because I've found the decor is usually indicative of the sort of cuisine prepared in the kitchen -- with the trophy animals representing meat and potatoes and the farm implements symbolizing local produce. For the sake of argument, let's say that the Squat 'n' Gobble Cafe in Spink, Nebraska, is adorned with a thousand pounds of assorted thresher blades, duck decoys, antique plowhorse tack, logging saws and rusty tin signs advertising a sale on tractors that ended in 1944, but only one mangy jackrabbit, subjected to inexpert taxidermy, displayed on top of the register and weighing in at two pounds, tops. To me, that says have a salad, maybe the soup, and save room for the homemade pie, but avoid the pork chops and don't even think about the chili. And if the owner has put a little hat on the stuffed bunny or painted idyllic nature scenes on any of the farm implements, run -- don't walk -- for the door.
As you pull up to Bear Creek Tavern, a rambling roadhouse/cafe stretching out along the banks of Bear Creek in Kittredge, the first thing you see are splintered pieces of wood and bits of rusted iron hanging on the rough-planked exterior, flanking the tavern's small sign. It's obvious to anyone with an eye for such details that these random parts were once farm equipment and that their display is effective advertising. They state plainly and irresistibly that inside will be more of the same, put there by owners who understand exactly the message they're delivering -- that theirs is a kitchen serving just plain food for just plain folks.
Walking through the parking lot packed with gleaming Harleys and dusty pickup trucks that actually look like they've been used to pick up something more substantial than the kids from school, passing by the signs disallowing the bikers from flying club colors inside and stepping through the door, my roadhouse-ratio system instantly tells me that I'm going to like Bear Creek Tavern. On the walls are branding irons, antique camp-cooking utensils, duck decoys, cowboy hats dark around the brims with old sweat, tin rifles and a saddle. Odd pieces of farm equipment crowd the corners, and above the short bar where regulars sit sharing smokes and conversation with the staff hangs a picture of a Colt revolver and the message "We don't call 911."
And for balance, there's a bear.
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