By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
No matter how good a server is, it's tough to move the chef's yak special.
"I have two specials to tell you about tonight," our waitress said, smiling, struggling to make eye contact as Barry -- my go-to steakhouse guy -- and I pored over the newsprint menu, looking for the biggest steaks available at the Buckhorn Exchange.
The first special was a fairly run-of-the-mill (for Colorado) game plate of buffalo steak and elk tenderloin. I get a giggle out of a restaurant founded 113 years ago by one of William Cody's original scouts being so proud of the buffalo steaks it now serves. You know why they called that guy Buffalo Bill? Because he killed so many of them. Because he was a big part of the near extinction of the American bison -- Cody claimed to have personally put down 4,280 head in one seventeen-month stretch with rifle, pistol, claw hammer, pointy stick, whatever -- and made a name for himself as a buffalo hunter back in the days when everything from hair tonic to underpants was made out of bison parts. It's like a restaurant founded by Charles Darwin's brother-in-law being overly proud of its Gal´pagos turtle soup.
1000 Osage St.
Denver, CO 80204
Region: Central Denver
Alligator: $9.75< br>Rocky Mountain oysters: $8.50
Buffalo tips: $9.25
Two-pound “Big Steak”: $83
Red snapper: $27
But I perked up at her mention of the second special: a freaky intercontinental meat combo featuring whole quail, ostrich and yak. I looked up from the menu and asked the waitress to repeat herself to make sure I'd heard right, and I had. Quail in a prickly pear and apricot glaze, ostrich loin and yak steak.
"Seriously, yak?" I said.
She smiled wanly. "Yes, sir. It's very tasty. Is that what you'd like?"
But she already knew the answer. Maybe on another night, in different company, I would've gone for the yak (because if any guy in this town is going to get a little foodie hard-on over the opportunity to eat one of God's less conventionally palatable creatures, that guy is me), but right then, I had beef on my mind. Big beef. A really large, fatty, bloody beef steak made just for me (and Barry), so I gave her the same answer she'd been getting and would continue to get for the rest of the night: No, thanks. I think I'll just have the cow.
Like I said, no matter how good a server is, it's tough to move yak in a cow town like Denver.
She did talk us into an appetizer of buffalo tips in a glossy mushroom sauce, though. Originally (and no doubt under orders from management), she'd tried to sell us on the Buckhorn's rattlesnake app or the fried alligator (both easier to sell than yak meat, but not much), but we'd demurred because neither of us wanted snake and I'd had the Buckhorn's alligator before. It tasted like chicken. And good 'gator, properly prepared, shouldn't taste anything like chicken.
The buffalo was a nice compromise, a smallish dish filled with tender bits of meat in a sauce that was pleasant in a strip-mall, Italian-marsala kind of way -- all commercial beef base, sliced button mushrooms, shelf stabilizers and salt. It was a tease to the appetite, satisfying -- almost comforting -- in the way that old Levi's and "Black Dog" can be when blue jeans and classic rock are what you crave. But then, you don't step inside the Buckhorn expecting culinary innovation. Even the kitchen's most nouvelle tricks come from well-trod territory -- the snapper filets with fruit salsa an imprudent California retread, the lamb chops with red-currant Madeira sauce straight out of Fannie Farmer.
No, you come here for a big bite of Colorado history. The Buckhorn is full of it, right down to all the historical notes on the menu about original owner Henry H. Zeitz, who rode with Buffalo Bill for ten years before settling in Denver and opening his own watering hole, once shot a bandit in the back for hitting one of his waitresses, and in 1938 was presented with Custer's sword by a procession of thirty Indians riding down Osage Street, led by a nephew of Sitting Bull. And you come for the meat.
I have certain rules about steakhouses, some of which I've stumbled on accidentally, others of which I've acquired through long experience. The first is to never order anything with a nickname. If there's a cut of beef called "The Terminator," don't order it. Ditto "The Trailhand," "The Trucker-Choker," "Li'l Pardner" or any derivation thereof. And this goes double for any entree with a proper name attached, which is why I've never tried the Buckhorn's "Gramma Fanny's pot roast" and never will.
Second, beware of menus that come with translations. If a house has gone to the trouble of translating "Cornish game hen" or "Rocky Mountain oysters" into Spanish, French, German and Japanese, that means it sees plenty of tourists. And a menu written for tourists is often a menu designed and cooked for tourists -- with a deliberate "Flavor of Whereverville" vibe running through everything and flavors about as authentic as Doritos in a Mexican restaurant. On the night Barry and I came for dinner, the parking lot was full of grumpy Germans and the dining room with at least two big tables of out-of-town guests oohing and aahing over the decor, asking if the salmon was served with or without its eyeballs, and being smirkingly hosted by Denverites who knew enough to order the steaks and keep their mouths shut.