By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
I love expensive cheeses. The good ones -- cave-aged, smeared in ash, riddled with veins of carefully tended mold, rubbed down by nuns and Italian virgins in towns whose names I can barely pronounce, made from the milk of animals whose teats I wouldn't squeeze on a dare. Cashel Blue, Reblochon, Colorado goat cheese, ripe Camembert: I can't get enough.
I love foie gras. I have a Rolodex in my head full of names of people who will handle it right and have it when I want it. Same goes for a fat, bloody, dry-aged steak, the kind that has to have its beard trimmed before service. I like knowing that such meat can be had in the city I call home -- knowing the four or five places where I can feed the steak jones when it comes over me. It helps me sleep better at night.
I love top-shelf bourbon, served neat, and Irish whiskey over ice. I love o-toro that sells by the ounce at prices generally reserved for good drugs; crabs (king and blue and stone and soft-shell, each in their season), clams and oysters that crack like geodes; mussels by the bucket. And I'm insane for prosciutto, lust for it the way most guys did their high school girlfriends.
403 Wilcox St.
Castle Rock, CO 80104
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
Yuppie-i-o dip: $5.29
Chicken dinner: $11.99
Blackened trout: $13.79
Skirt steak: $14.29
Pot roast: $13.49
New York strip: $22.99
Prosciutto and foie gras, steamed crabs and bourbon -- these are some of the reasons I got into this business, first as a chef, later as a writer. I may not have been the most lucid young man, but I knew that I wasn't never going to be no doctor or lawyer or captain of industry. I knew that I wasn't going to be offered the kind of gig that would provide me nickels enough to indulge my myriad food obsessions. I was a blue-collar kid in a blue-collar town, and if I wanted to have all I could eat, I needed to find a way to make someone else pick up the tab.
Which I did. Matter of fact, I made a career out of it.
But while nibbling off the assiette de fromagescan be wonderful, I soon discovered that consuming all these things I loved often left me with a different sort of wanting, an itch for comfort that tuna belly and swollen goose liver just couldn't scratch. Which is why I found myself at Castle Cafe last week, elbows planted firmly on the table, staring down a huge plate of real pan-fried chicken, mashed potatoes and sweet corn.
It was great chicken, slow-cooked chicken, tender and greasy chicken sheathed in a crisp armor of salt-and-peppered batter, a one-off of the incomparable Kansas City style practiced by places like Stroud's and a hundred and one less well-known fry joints and chicken shacks. It was also chicken that took more than forty minutes to arrive, because every bird that's ordered at Castle Cafe is split in half, hand-floured, and cooked to order in a shallow pan by a guy whose only job is to watch those chickens and turn each piece at just the right moment to make sure every one is perfect.
Forty minutes. That's a long time to wait for a chicken dinner, but this chicken dinner was worth every second.
There are innumerable restaurants out there -- many of them the ones I keep in my head as doing excellent foie gras or composed truffled salads or unusual things with figs -- that purport to be part of the Slow Food movement, a self-congratulatory bit of revolutionary twaddle that grew out of the outrage of Frenchies and Italians seeing the first McDonald's opening their doors in Rome and Paris, whose tenets hold that real kitchens ought to (gasp!) cook their food without shortcuts or modern contrivance. These restaurants are very, very proud of making their own sausages, curing their own meats, sourcing their own rabbits straight from the bunny ranchers and making proper demis and stocks. And while all that's well and good, it bothers me that there has to be a movement (with its own offices and a magazine and events held around the world) to publicize the kind of cooking that a place like Castle Cafe does every night of the week without getting all uppity about it.
No question, pan-frying chicken is an unbelievable pain in the ass. Baking a chicken is a cinch. Dumping half a chicken into the Fryolator? Easy. And those pre-battered, par-cooked, flash-frozen and shelf-stabilized chickens that only need thirty seconds of radar love in the microwave are technological miracles. But once you've tasted the difference between any of these chickens and pan-fried, you recognize that the wait -- no matter how long -- is meaningless. The hot oil (Crisco or lard at some of the seriously old-school joints, but oil at Castle Cafe, which is marginally healthier and allows for higher temperatures) seals the thin batter instantly, forming a shell that holds in all of the chicken's juices while the smoking-hot oil and sear from the pan flavor the crust, and the slow-cooking required crisps up the outside and leaves the meat inside unbelievably tender. The kitchen uses the pan juices to make fresh cracklin' gravy, which is served in white china tureens. Those tureens look odd placed on wooden tables so old that their varnish has been worn off by a million passes of the busboy's rag, set beside the red-and-white-checked roadhouse napkins, the heavy silver, the nicked plates. But then the chicken finally arrives, and everything looks just right.