Rebuild it, and they will come.
At least that's what Willy, John and Mac Watts are counting on in Five Points, where their year-old Kal'line's Cafe has slowly been building a following of Denverites who appreciate good soul and American cooking.
Kal'line's is named for the Watts brothers' mother, Caroline (say her name with a Southern drawl and you'll be pronouncing the restaurant's name correctly), and they're honoring her memory with the place. "Our mother was a good cook," Willy says. "We boys were raised on her good cooking, and we loved food so much that three of us worked at a four-star restaurant in St. Louis for years." That restaurant was the infamous Tony's, where a fourth Watts brother, Joe Louis, is still head chef. After each moving up from dishwasher to chef, though, Willy and John decided to strike out on their own. They both wound up in Denver, first Willy and then John, and worked in other food-related businesses around town until last year. Then, joined by Mac, they decided to give Kal'line's--and Five Points--a try.
"[Mayor Wellington] Webb has made Five Points a focus for rehabilitation," says Willy, whose venture received financial assistance from the Mayor's Office of Economic Development (MOED). "They got undercover cops down here, and once word of that got around, these streets cleaned up fast. We need to get the word out that Five Points is back and that it's safe and up-and-coming."
The Watts brothers want to be part of the neighborhood's rejuvenation. "When we started talking about this restaurant, we knew the Five Points area was going to be redeveloped and that in four, five years, it's going to be a different place," Willy says. "We wanted to put in a nice restaurant that would be not too fancy but still nice to look at and be in, with good food that didn't cost too much."
They got it right on all counts. Willy's wife, Sandra, decorated the dining room with soft mauve booths, cream-colored lace curtains and funky cobalt light fixtures, a combination that's at home with both a burger for lunch and a whole catfish for dinner, each of which are served on real Fiesta ware. Mac, who does all the cooking, mingled his own recipes with Mama Caroline's to assemble a menu of Southern-style eats mixed in with a few Caribbean touches and some basic down-home comfort foods. Then they hired friendly servers and put them in tux shirts and vests. Stir in the liquor license the Wattses were awarded a few weeks ago, and this should be a recipe for a successful restaurant.
Still, there's one key ingredient missing.
"Now the people have got to start coming," Willy says.
When they do, they'll be rewarded with such treats as the warm cornbread that arrived at our table shortly after we sat down. Just-baked and much less sweet--and so more authentically soul--than most cornbreads, it was fine on its own or drizzled with honey, and it set the tone for the meal to come.
Since this was a Monday night and we were Kal'line's only customers, the kitchen was out of quite a few things we wanted to try. "We're also just about to change our menu," Willy explained later, "so we're phasing out some of the dishes." Among the keepers: Mac's incredible jerk chicken ($8.50), made with his own jerk spices. The tender chicken--half a bird--was dripping with juice, and not greasy juice, either, because the skin had been pulled back before cooking so that the spices could be applied right to the meat. And what spices: cloves and cinnamon and cayenne, in a combination strong enough to create a presence but not to self-combust into an inferno.
Another model take on a staple, this one Southern, was the pan-fried catfish ($8.50). Four pieces of beautifully milky white fish had been enclosed in exactly the amount of seasoned cornmeal required to form a shell without swamping the fish in a sea of breadcrumbs. The catfish wasn't as grease-soaked as fried fish can be, but the flavor of the breading was so good we didn't miss the extra fat.
All of Kal'line's dinner entrees come with a choice of two sides, and we tried three of the four available. The black-pepper-spiced cabbage, slow-cooked in some kind of fat until it was as soft as butter, was about the only way I could be convinced to eat two helpings of cabbage; the dirty-style rice was wet and benefited from having been cooked in what tasted like chicken broth. The simple black-eyed peas weren't very exciting; Mac may have been trying to make them healthier by not using the traditional lard or salt pork, so they didn't have that great fatty taste.
But that meant we could splurge on dessert, including a piece of super-smooth sweet-potato pie ($2.50). Like the cornbread, the pie wasn't overly sugary and let the root vegetable's natural sweetness take over. We also split a peach cobbler ($2.50), which had a buttery, yielding crust but a disappointing filling of canned peaches. (Otherwise, everything we encountered at Kal'line's was homemade.)
Returning for lunch, we took on Kal'line's "infamous" hamburger ($4.25), which came with hand-whipped mashed potatoes and gravy that deserve their own share of fame. I'm not sure what the burger was infamous for; it seemed pretty respectable, cooked an even medium, with the shape and texture of a machine-cut patty and a slight grill flavor--just what you'd expect at an upscale Southern diner.
And what self-respecting soul spot would come up short on ribs? Not this one. An order of "ole homeboy's ribs" ($7.75) delivered four meaty baby backs; they arrived dry, but a slathering of spicy barbecue sauce quickly fixed that. More tender meat came in the beef brisket sandwich ($5.75). The steak roll was thick and spongy, overflowing with brisket shreds and well-suited to sopping up the cayenne-and-butter sauce. (The sauce was so potent, I kept looking for the buffalo wings.) The sandwich came with a side of collard greens, which needed a little more seasoning to counteract the greens' bitterness.
This time we didn't even consider dessert, instead picking at cornbread muffins until we could eat no more. We then stumbled, stuffed, out into the bright sunshine and the rumble of the light rail. About a dozen people were out on this block of Welton Street, most of them either running to catch the train or going into one of the few shiny new businesses that stand out from the abandoned buildings.
"Now that the light rail is finished, we're really stepping up our efforts to promote Five Points," says Bill Lysaught, MOED's deputy director. "We've been marketing that area for the past ten years, and there's still a long way to go, but you have to admit it's a whole new place from what it was ten years ago. What we want people to know is that, like we did with Kal'line's, we're very interested in anyone who would like to go down there and start an enterprise."
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So interested, in fact, that MOED loaned the Wattses $45,000. But Five Points businesses need customers as well as cash.
"The image of that area has caused people to back away," Lysaught adds. "I blame the media for that."
Well, I'm here to tell people it's time to return to Five Points. And Kal'line's is a good place to start.
Kal'line's Cafe, 2736 Welton Street, 292-9717. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday.