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Home at the Range

LoDo lowdown: The neighborhood has changed, but the 20th Street Cafe is timeless.
Anna Newell

All of you health nuts are going to feel pretty stupid someday, lying there in your hospital beds dying of nothing in particular. Redd Foxx said something like that once, and I agree with him. All you joggers, all you twig-and-berry vegans, all you juicers, you fasters, you calorie-counters and no-fat, non-dairy, meatless, wheatless and sugar-free grapefruit-diet fanatics -- you're all going to die, too. And when the Grim Reaper sneaks up on you 198 years from now and your friends find you sitting at the kitchen table face-down in your Grape Nuts, they'll ask, "Now, how did that happen? He looked so healthy...."

When I die, it's going to be for very specific reasons. If it's not a disgruntled reader making good on a death threat or some pissed-off chef shanking me with an oyster knife, it will surely be food that puts me down for the Big Sleep. A life of foie gras and bluefin toro, of rare steaks, beurre blanc and béchamel sauce, of too much wine and too little sleep, of blood pressure bolstered by gingered coffee and a belt tightened by a lifelong love affair with the potato in all its guises (along with a hundred other things that would make a cardiologist weep) will be what conspires to put me in my grave. And when that day comes, no doubt it will take a dozen strong men to carry my coffin and the best plastic surgeon in town to wipe the fucking smile off my face. My life may not be as long as one lived in moderation, but it will be a happy one.

Last week I was reminded of my own mortality with my first bite of the fantastic chicken-fried steak at the 20th Street Cafe. Is there any food on the planet so singularly indicative of all that is feared and reviled by the fussy bran-flakes generation? No. Take some beef, pound it flat, soak it in milk, dip it in flour, in raw egg and in breadcrumbs, then deep-fry the hell out of it, and what you have is akin to a cholesterol hand grenade shoved under the mattress of every dietitian in America, something to give them nightmares and guarantee employment for the rest of their days.

But then, is there anything quite as good? Again, no. When you find yourself in need of grease, in search of weight, frantic for comfort that's breaded and slathered in white gravy, chicken-fried steak is the friend you turn to. When you've got a hole in your belly that no sushi, soufflé or consommé is going to fill, chicken-fried steak is there for you.

At least, it always has been for me, waiting at the nearest diner -- be it rust-belt, truck-stop, Midwest, Southern-fried or downtown Denver storefront.

From its location just off Lawrence Street, the 20th Street Cafe has been serving "working-class food for working-class people" since 1946, an epic life span for any restaurant. It started out as a sensible, down-home breakfast and lunch joint long before this part of town began scrubbing the blue out of its collar, and despite the neighborhood's recent paroxysm of gentrification, 20th Street hasn't changed a bit.

If you're a morning person (20th Street is open only till 2:30 p.m., give or take), it's easy to become a regular. Come more than twice, and they'll probably know you by name. If they don't, they'll just call you "honey" and mean it. There's a stack of newspapers in the corner by the booths along the back wall, and CNN is always playing on the TV above the counter. Sitting with the New York Times and a cup of coffee, cigarette smoldering in the ashtray (there's only a random scattering of non-smoking tables), you can look through the curtained windows and see nothing outside but the treetops in the lot across the street. There's an ambience here that comes and goes, a fleeting sort of style wholly dependent on the position of the waitresses, the pose of the customers, the way the plates lie on the tables, and tricks of the light. One moment you're in the middle of a Helnwein print, hunched over the counter waiting for James Dean to come slouching through the door while a waitress with a face like un-ironed laundry tops off your coffee; the next you're reminded that this same waitress has just given your hot beef sandwich to the table full of Elks club members behind you and stuck her thumb in your blueberry pie.

Service here may not be professional, but it's smooth and Mel's Diner-friendly. Everything about it has been worn in over time and streamlined through the years toward a beautiful conservation of movement. The waitresses hang dishrags from the coat trees for easy access. The kitchen door is always open and never more than a dozen steps away. Inside that kitchen, the cook and dishwasher stand back to back as if preparing for a duel, separated only by a long prep table, surrounded by the tools of their trade.

Although the Food Network never mentions this, in a professional kitchen that might be loaded up with as many as thirty people, the most important thing about the line cooks -- the people who actually cook your food -- is not their creativity, their style or their taste, but rather their ability to cook the same thing in exactly the same way 25, 50, even 150 times a day. When all goes well, no one should be able to taste the difference from one plate of lobster ravioli to the next, and in these kinds of kitchens, there's always someone standing there making good and goddamn sure that everything does go well. If I go somewhere -- Nicois, say, or 1515 ("Man With A Plan," August 29), or any other restaurant where I trust the kitchen -- and I have a good meal, I can recommend that restaurant because, barring catastrophe, the food is going to be made exactly the same way for you as it was for me.

One of the great things about diner-style home cooking -- the kind done by one guy working entirely without a net -- is that you never know exactly what you're going to get. You never know when something is going to be fantastic, when something is going to be awful, or when it might be sublime. Here, individual personality and talent have a much greater impact on what comes out of the kitchen, because there's no one insulating the customer from the cook, no one looking over his shoulder to make sure he doesn't burn the sauce.

In some diners, this means quality can oscillate wildly between the very good and the very bad depending on the mood of the cook, what came in with the delivery that morning, the crowd, the day of the week, the time of day, and the position of the stars in the heavens. But at 20th Street, what you get is usually very good. Heavy as a cannonball, maybe, and served without much concern for how it looks, but honest food with no pretension.

Like 20th Street's chicken-fried steak, the homemade meatloaf -- served with real mashed potatoes, vegetables that sometimes taste like they've spent a month on the steam table, and a thick, meaty gravy that'll stick to your ribs, the roof of your mouth, your arteries or anything else it touches -- manages to achieve greatness. The kitchen makes it with very little filler, which means that the 'loaf is mostly ground beef, some ketchup and breadcrumbs, maybe an egg, plenty of bacon, very few spices, and that's it. No peppers. No celery. No one's going to try to sneak anything weird in there, like some places are doing now that jumped-up "comfort foods" have been declared hip by the culinary intelligentsia. In my world, meatloaf was never hip, will never be hip, but should be loved simply for what it is: a lot of meat, shaped like a brick.

In addition to meatloaf, 20th Street offers noodle bowls (pork, chicken or beef) that may look kind of strange sharing a menu with eggs, hash browns and cheeseburgers, but make sense considering the cafe's proximity to Sakura Square and the bowls' stunning popularity with the lunch crowd. Specials listed on a dry-erase board hung next to the kitchen door change weekly. Sometimes. On one recent visit, the board listed baked hash (no mention of what it was a hash of) and beef stew that was salty and thick, with chunks of tender stew beef, soft onions, huge pieces of carrot and potato. 20th Street also makes sandwiches that are just sandwiches and omelettes that are just omelettes -- three eggs gently rolled around whatever's available -- and while some people look down their noses at such simple fare, for me it represents a kind of unadulterated Dionysian ideal. No bells, no whistles, no curry or lemongrass -- just American peasant food from the days before it was called anything other than breakfast.

Don't bring your girlfriend to 20th Street to propose (while I did propose in a place similar to this, in my defense, I was drunk); don't bring a client here to impress him. But do come here to eat, to get filled up on a cool September morning, and to spit just a little in the Grim Reaper's eye.

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miles
Twentieth Street Cafe

1123 20th St.
Denver, CO 80205

303-295-9041


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