Given the miserable survival rate of new restaurants, Willie Nelson could have sung a different tune: "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Restaurateurs." Better the babies should grow up to be businessmen who buy a key piece of real estate and fill it with kitschy, pricey eateries that serve lots of beer in conversation-piece surroundings.

Cadillac Ranch is the Larimer Corporation's latest addition to a portfolio that includes nearby Champion Brewing Co., the Mexicali Cafe, Josephina's--and now Larimer Square itself.

Like almost every other place in the Square, Cadillac Ranch isn't hurting for business, especially on weekends, when the joint nearly bursts with loud, happy people eating and drinking beneath the saddle-riddled ceiling and alongside an enviable collection of cowboy boots. And that's just the downstairs. Upstairs awaits a fabulous deck, as well as a dining room that treats guests to larger-than-life stills of a thoughtful James Dean on the set of Giant.

But like Dean's character in the movie, Cadillac Ranch has struck oil, and now seems overwhelmed by its own greatness. Waitstaff high on the crowds and media acclaim brag up a Texas-size storm when discussing the menu. Unfortunately, the delivered goods have all the culinary finesse of a cow chip.

Our evening there started with a collection of appetizers that try to be Tex-Mex, Oriental and Italian at the same time--and generally fail at all three. Seared tuna carpaccio ($7.25) arrived as five thick-sliced, warm pieces of Pacific ahi covered with white and black sesame seeds, accompanied by a pile of bitter pickled ginger and a bland wasabi soy mustard. "This tastes funny," one of my companions muttered. To me, it tasted as though the raw fish had hung around too long in a hot kitchen waiting for the only truly decent starter: the Texas egg rolls ($6.25). Actually, it was one large (and overpriced) egg roll filled with chopped grilled chicken, snow peas and bok choy and seasoned with cilantro, garlic and ginger, but the unlikely combination was surprisingly good. I wish I could say the same for its too-sweet, cheap-tasting Hunan BBQ sauce.

Our two other appetizers looked like what might result if a Mexican chain got its hands on some decent ingredients. The smoked scallop quesadilla ($7.75) featured a pile of tortillas that were supposed to be red chile, spinach and white corn (but tasted like corn, corn and corn) interspersed with a few scallops, smoked Gouda and white cheddar, diced red onions and the apparently requisite cilantro. Denver must be the primary support of the cilantro industry, since the rest of the country has long gotten over this herb that's misused more often than not. Raw cilantro can bear an unpleasant similarity to freshly mown grass--and there was a whole lawn strewn over the quesadilla, which was really just an upscale order of nachos. Cilantro--in cream form--also laced the top of the Santa Fe red chili ravioli ($6.95), a dry heap of pasty pasta filled with too few black turtle beans, Longhorn cheddar (its chewiness wasted in the too-thick shell), garlic and sweet peppers and covered with a creditably fresh avocado salsa heavy on the tomatoes.

The next course arrived just in time. Both Cadillac Ranch soups are complex meldings of complementary ingredients. The "kick-ass buffalo green chili" ($3.50/cup) had a stewlike consistency, with pieces of buffalo and tomatillo (the driving force behind this dish's pizzazz), tons of onion and garlic, and the inspired addition of tortilla strips. That annoying cilantro cream made an appearance, but in such a small portion that we managed to mix it into the chile with no ill effect. The six-onion prime rib soup ($3.75/cup) was even better, although it could have been made from sixteen onions (or two, for that matter) and we wouldn't have known the difference. Smoked prime rib strips and almost liquefied cheddar and Monterey Jack augmented the brew. This time the cilantro was limited to a few sprinkled leaves; welcome chunks of avocado also had been added at the last minute.

That minute may have been longer than my pork chops ($14.95) were cooked on the applewood grill. Billed as three-quarters of a pound of meat, the massive slabs were raw inside. Ten minutes after delivering our food, the waiter stopped by for a checkup; he agreed the pork chops were "disgusting," and whisked them away. Another ten minutes passed and so did a manager, who asked how things were going. Slowly, I told him, and he promised to check on the status of the meat. Yet another ten minutes later, a brand-new set of chops, as well as fresh side dishes, appeared.

Although on round two the kitchen had forgotten the spinach/smoked bacon/fennel/apple mixture, the vegetables (corn-on-the-cob, zucchini, mushrooms and onions) were nicely grilled and slick with olive oil studded with black pepper. Gumming my way through the twice-baked potato--all starch and cheese--was like eating a stuffed animal. The pork itself was decent, if a bit dried out from nervous cooking the second time around. And the chops were trapped in more of that unfortunate Hunan BBQ glue. I wound up taking home a big doggy bag of my dinner--and nothing more substantial than an apology from the management for the delay.

But at least the wait gave me ample opportunity to sample off my companions' plates. The Texas wild pheasant ($18.95) had been ordered by a gentleman who shoots his own. What was billed as "wild" was actually mild; the meat didn't even have much hickory-smoke flavor, and the heavenly sounding roasted poblano, garlic and brandy sage cream sauce carried too much cream and not enough of the other goodies. Our third entree, rotisserie chicken with pasta ($11.95), likely was yesterday's unsold whole chicken cut into a dry mouthful of Texas dirt, covered with a goat-cheese cream sauce that had been overcooked to the point of curdling.

The chicken dish was a particular disappointment, since the Route 66 rotisserie chicken ($7.95) had been one of the best things about my lunch at Cadillac Ranch. (The terrific Ranch fries--puffy, crisp and soft--were the other.) Supposedly marinated in garlic, cayenne, rosemary, kosher salt and brown sugar, the bird was delicious, even if it tasted of nothing but chicken. The meat was moist and sloppy-tender, with a slightly crunchy skin that lacked the promised applewood-smoked bacon stuffing. The Rocky Mountain red trout ($6.95) had been charbroiled (very quickly) and was drenched with what the menu called red-chile butter but what I considered red-bell-pepper juice. And the Gulf Coast soft-shell crab sandwich ($7.95) suffered from a tempura batter (more like breading) that encased an overcooked crab. The beans in the accompanying black bean/jicama relish, on the other hand, could have used another hour of cooking.

Clearly, the kitchen needs to work on its timing. On my last trip back to the Ranch I ordered the New York strip ($17.95), which should be a specialty--the place calls itself a steakhouse, after all. Although I asked that it be grilled rare in the "850-degree bad-ass broiler," the meat appeared with the all-over color of a healthy Florida tan. My attempts to have it reworked resulted in another twenty-minute wait, and again, only a "We're so sorry" as solace.

Cadillac Ranch has all the ambience of a movie set. Now it's time for the restaurant to pay some attention to production values.


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