By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Here's what Emil-Lene's Sirloin House is missing: a really big steak.
Not just a big steak -- big steaks it's got. There's a 16-ounce sirloin on the board, a 10-ounce prime rib that's cut so generously it takes up half a plate, even a 24- ounce T-bone that certainly far exceeds the recommended daily allowance of cow as stipulated by the American Beef Council.
No, I mean a really big steak. Some monster rib-eye cut to 64 ounces with a special, goofy name like The Terminator or The Cowpoke -- a genuine trucker-choker. The kind of steak that comes with its own T-shirt that says "I ate the Big Boy." The sort of deal you see advertised all over the Midwest when you're playing convoy with a bunch of rigs booming across the plains, the signs coming up out of the corn and heat haze like magic: Wild Bill's Cowboy Steakery, Home of the 5 lb. Big Boy Sirloin, Finish It and It's Free.
16000 E. Smith Road
Aurora, CO 80011
Fried chicken: $14.75
Crab legs: $26.50
Prime rib: $21.75
After all, Emil-Lene's isn't just a steakhouse; it's a mecca, a modest temple on the eastern edge of nowhere devoted to the greater glory of the old-time meat-and-potatoes food gods who still demand murderously high cholesterol and blood sacrifices of their supplicants. It's a place for the confession of sins and purification of the spirit: Forgive me, Father, for I have been eating frisee...
A picture of one of these gods hangs opposite the entrance, in the main dining room and bar area: a tastefully framed and dramatically lit oil-on-canvas portrait of a big steer, horns curving forward, napkin tied around his thick neck, his tongue hanging out in anticipation of (you can only assume) a really big steak. The painting serves as a tacit endorsement of Wild Kingdom-style animal cannibalism and is tantamount to a burger joint using a giant dancing cheeseburger that screams "Eat me!" to hawk its spécialité du maison. But it's also so beautifully tacky, so crying-clown-on-black-velvet, so lovingly rendered and proudly hung, that if I saw it at a garage sale, I'd pay any reasonable price and display it over my mantel.
Emil-Lene's contains several such chummy absurdities. There's a big tree that's been left to grow through the right flank of the dining room; the world's oldest bartender joke hung over the racks of call and off-brand liquor behind the short, cramped bar: Free Beer Tomorrow. And collectively, these serve to leaven the mood created by the rest of the cowboy gothic decor -- the rough wood, the fading colors, the pictures of aging gunslingers, wild horses and stagecoaches being seen to safety by the ghostly face of Wild Bill Hickock in the sky. For me, that theme gets dusty and oppressive fast without a little laugh to lighten things up. You start thinking that maybe someone in the back is really serious about this Wild West stuff -- the sort of person who'd go to a Renaissance Faire or wear a costume to a Star Trek movie. And that's not the kind of folk I want touching my food.
Still, old-time Colorado is Emil-Lene's hook and history, and at 46 years and counting (under just three owners -- first Frank Emerling; then Frank's cook, Emil Kuchar, and his wife, Charlene, who gave the place its current name; and now two of the Kuchars' kids, Karen L'Anglais and Jay Lombardi), the restaurant's actually made its own culinary history in this state. There's no hitching post out front where I can tie up my Toyota, no hoop-skirted soiled doves working the regulars at the bar, and the diners boast more bald spots than Stetsons, but the grub is cowtown classic and the kitchen -- the healthy, beating heart of this house -- is a genuine throwback to the days when beef was always what was for dinner.
It also dates to the days when a steak order brought a whole meal -- apps, protein, starches and greens -- whether you wanted it or not; when volume, cost and tradition demanded that a dinner be all-inclusive. Unlike at the new, cushy steak palaces where you choose your meat, then order individual sides ranging from fancy crabcakes to fancier asparagus with hollandaise, Emil-Lene's is of a certain age and pedigree that demands every meal be as square as Oklahoma and no fresh courses come until the previous has been finished -- or at least moved around enough on the plate to look like you gave it the old college try.
For starters, Emil-Lene's continues to deliver complimentary relish trays, a concept so old-fashioned it makes me miss Thanksgivings with my grandma something fierce. A plate overflowing with olives, radishes, pickles and peppers is brought to the table almost as soon as you're seated, along with rough-cut loaves of fresh bread and pats of butter set naked atop a bowl of ice. Drink service follows, with a minor-league wine list and all sorts of fruity girl drinks available from a grinning lunk of a barman who seems like a straight-up shot-and-a-beer guy but can mix a whole flight of brandy Alexanders without even looking.
There's no menu, and no need for one, because Emil-Lene's entrees fall into only two categories -- beef and everything else. Five steaks, from filet to T-bone, lamb chops (two chops, each seven ounces or more) and fried chicken every night, different specials every day of the week. On Friday, it's lobster for the big spenders: $41.50 for just under a pound. Prime rib is available almost every day, served until it runs out, and crab legs twice a week. Tuesday means half a roast duck; Wednesday and Thursday, salmon with dill sauce baked in parchment paper so the fish sweats under the heat and steams in its own juices. Julia Child lifted this recipe from the French half a century ago; at Emil-Lene's, it's like no time has passed at all, and the salmon en papillote is as good today as it ever was.