Another Roadside Attraction

So I was all, where's my food? And the server was all, it's totally coming soon, and I was all, well, it had better get here or I'm walking out, and the server was all, I'm so sorry, but there's, like, a problem in the kitchen.

These days, it seems there are two kinds of service: bad, and then, like, service from hell.

No one knows this better than Mike Brody, who owns the 29 Mile Cantina in Parker with his wife, Laura. For two years the Cantina was the Bourbon Street Pizzabar and Grill, a duplicate of the Brodys' very successful Bourbon Street Pizzabar and Grill in Greenwood Village. But this past summer, the combination of two insurmountable difficulties forced the Brodys to change the concept of their Parker pizzeria and start over.

Problem number one was that Parkerites were reluctant to pay a reasonable price for good-quality pizza and particularly reluctant to ante up for one of them fancy pizzas with goat cheese on it. Problem number two was that Parkerites balked at being waited on by snooty, lazy, profusely pierced teens from the Pinery who were being forced to work there so Mummy and Daddy could lead important lives without fear that Ritalin parties were being hosted back at the house.

So the Brodys told everyone to get out, then closed the place down. After pondering the situation, they decided to take advantage of Parker's century-old role as a way station and opened a Route 66-style roadhouse. With the help of new employees, they remodeled the restaurant--fun faux finishes!--and Laura came up with a roster of value-oriented Southwestern and Tex-Mex dishes.

But again they have two problems. The first: Parkerites aren't frequenting this incarnation, either.

"Oh, we're okay on the weekends," Mike says. "But people here don't eat out during the week. I think I have it figured out, though. As I sit here watching all the cars go past coming off I-25 and down Parker Road, it occurs to me that the people who live out here drive a ways every day going to and from work. You know, they go all the way down to the Pinery and way out into the boonies. So I think they get home and just don't feel like going out again. I mean, this is a small area, with what--about 12,000 people? And we're getting a fourth major supermarket."

The second problem: With the exception of a handful of servers, the employees are another batch of bums.

Mike sighs and says he doesn't want to sound like he's making excuses. "I do think you have to write it off to what's available," he admits. "But I'm working with them. We're not open for lunch so that I can spend days at Bourbon Street and evenings here, watching over everybody. It's a catch-22, though, with servers. You can't get business if you don't have good service, and you can't get good servers if you don't have the business."

Oddly, on my first visit to 29 Mile Cantina, the service was excellent--but the kitchen couldn't get its act together. Our three-course meal took three hours, and we hadn't ordered anything nearly as elaborate as beef Wellington. My heart went out to the server, who apologized about a hundred times, made sure our drinks were always fresh and told the manager we should be in line for free desserts, which we got. (Hey, I'd never turn down the chance to scarf Laura's killer pecan pie.) The manager himself had his hands full with the table behind us, where the diners were so disgusted with their service that they yelled at the manager--it was his first day on the job, by the way--for fifteen minutes, after which he bought their entire meal. Meanwhile, our server told us, their server was bawling in the kitchen.

We had plenty of time between courses to savor all this drama. Fortunately, there was much to linger over in the 29 Mile appetizer sampler platter ($8.95), especially the chicken taquitos, four crispy little taco cigars filled with seasoned, charbroiled chicken shreds and served with a fresh salsa that had the right amounts of onion and cilantro. The platter also offered four jalapeno poppers, a personal favorite, and these were perfect: evenly breaded red chiles packed with hot, gooey cream cheese. They came with a sweet-and-sour dip that tended to the sweet, which was ideal to offset the heat of the peppers. The four hot wings that rounded out the sampler were fire-breathing all the way, but I prefer wings with crunchy skins rather than soggy. The blue-cheese dip, however, was fabulous.

The dip reappeared as dressing on the salad--with grill items, you get your choice of soup or salad, and you can also order salad as a side ($2.25). The bowl held a simple but generous salad of romaine, tomatoes and red onion; the dressing fired it up into something special. The soup was less exciting, a tortilla type with a slight kick and plenty of Jack cheese.  

More cheese--lots more cheese--weighed down the Southwestern Cadillac ($10.95), which the menu describes as "uptown Mexican lasagne." After digging through inches of Jack cheese, I unearthed layers of red-chile corn tortillas, smoked chicken, corn salsa and roasted green chiles, all topped by a puff-pastry lid that had been sealed under the cheese. The pastry was a mistake: It only added more dough to the tortilla-packed dish, and under that smothering of cheese, it hadn't even cooked through all the way. The pastry did, however, manage to trap intact a glob of goat cheese that should have been spread through the lasagne to give the mix a good, rich bite.

The kitchen did better with the chipotle roast beef tacos ($8.25), three red-chile taco shells packed with thinly sliced roast beef. The rare meat was delicious, and the chipotle-fired salsa that slicked the tacos wasn't so hot that it masked all the juicy beef flavors. But while the refried beans were just what you'd expect from a roadhouse--a semi-soft blob of bean goodness--the guacamole contained too much mayo, which gave it an unappetizing texture that my four-year-old said was "baby food." Much more appealing was her "little" burger, in fact a half-pounder, cooked a perfect medium and plopped on a thick, buttery-edged kaiser roll. (The Brodys have always done right by kids, with a good $3.75 children's menu at the Cantina; currently, kids' meals off that menu are free Sundays through Thursdays.)

But on a second visit, the adult burgers we ordered from the Cantina's roster of eight variations arrived old and tired. We'd requested that the chile burger and Cantina burger (both $6.75) be cooked "medium rare." But their toppings of, respectively, thin green chile and salsa, green chiles, jalapenos, Jack cheese, onions, tomatoes and lettuce couldn't disguise the fact that both half-pounders were decidedly well-done.

Our service decidedly was not. By this point, the waitress had already twice forgotten our margaritas, left someone else's dirty plate sitting on the edge of our table and told us that she was very sorry, but we could not move from our table to another one away from some smokers--even though we could see empty tables on the other side of the room. "Those are reserved," she said, which I knew was a crock, because the Cantina doesn't take reservations. This time, though, there wasn't a manager around to smooth things over--he'd moved on to Chili's--and another server told us Mike had already left for the evening. So I tabled the table question and settled for sending the burgers back.

The smokers left a few minutes later. Too bad--I could have used their lighter to get our second round of burgers somewhere past rare. "Why would they do these rare when we asked for medium?" I asked the server. She replied: "Because I told them to, so you wouldn't have a problem with it. You said you didn't like it well-done." Oy vey. "I've already had e. coli, thank you," I said. "Let's try it once more."

On our third visit, we were blessed with the same server we'd had on our first visit. Once again, though, the kitchen was not on her side, and we spent another evening watching her try to keep us happy by checking on our every need and listening to her apologize for the place's ineptness.

When the appetizers finally showed up, I was disappointed to see that the kitchen had changed the poppers ($4.95) to crunchy, raw jalapenos filled with dry cream cheese. (I didn't know cream cheese could be that dry.) The quesadillas ($3.95), though, were filled with nice, gooey cheddar and Jack melted with green chiles into a folded flour tortilla.

While my girls went the kids' menu route again, trying to take down those big burgers, I turned to the Santa Monica chicken ($10.95), which added the grown-up bite of garlic and onion to a tender, charbroiled bird. It went superbly with a few glasses of very adult hand-shaken margaritas ($5.75), one of the Cantina's specialties. A large shot glass holding two shots of tequila arrived with a shaker of a mysterious lime-based liquid that included Grand Marnier; the server poured half of the shaker contents into the glass, then floated half the tequila on top. It was two, two, two drinks in one.

A larger margarita glass served as the container for the Cantina's Giant Smothered Mudpie Brownie ($4.95). As we worked our way through layers of coffee ice cream, hot fudge sauce, whipped cream, nuts and a thick, chewy brownie, our server informed us that she and about half of the waitstaff would be leaving within the week to go work at the new Rio Bravo up the road at Arapahoe Crossings, home to Mann's Chinese Theater. Dozens of other chain eateries have gone in or around the mall, and dozens more are planned.  

"You know, we all love it here, and the Brodys are wonderful to work for, but we have to make money," our server said. "We all hate to leave, because we know they've had trouble getting good people. But this place just doesn't do enough business."

And that, like, totally sucks.

29 Mile Cantina, 10158 South Parker Road, Parker. Hours: 4:30-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.

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