Mouthing Off

Truckin': If it hadn't been for the price of gas, my visit to the Denver West Travel Center--otherwise known as the Union 76 at the Ward exit off I-70--would have been really boring. As it was, the heated arguments about where to find the best prices--cries of "I just paid such-and-such back in Kansas" echoed from table to table--were far more exciting than the food.

Too bad, because the menu had sounded promising. This truck stop is part of the national Apple Creek chain, some seventy strong across the country, and boasts about the name-brand ingredients--Oscar Mayer, Minute Maid--used on its diner-style roster of Mom-and-apple-pie dishes. Unfortunately, they came out of the kitchen looking more like Dad-when-Mom's-on-vacation dishes. The meatloaf ($4.95) had been billed as "Just like mom made!" What I wanted to know was when Mom made it, because the slab o' hot mystery meat tasted as though it had been frozen for six months before being cooked in a microwave and laminated with shiny, from-a-mix gravy. The mashed potatoes, too, were from a box, and while the roll couldn't have been, it had a refrigerator flavor reminiscent of plastic. The vegetable of the day was mushy canned green beans, which I was glad to see did not come with the catfish platter ($6.45). Instead, the two previously frozen fillets arrived with mayo-slaw and seasoned fries, one of the better items we tried. The same sides came with the fried chicken ($6.95), another respectable offering, although why it would be "famous," as the menu claims, I couldn't tell you. Maybe for being one of the few things Apple Creek makes that are palatable. The apple dumpling ($2.75) sported a tasty cinnamon sauce that didn't disguise the off-tasting dough. And the pecan pie ($2.45) was just jelled sugar water under dry nuts in a dry crust.

The crust and the nuts had nothing on the clientele, however. This was a serious truckin' bunch, and the staff matched the somber mood. Our waitress was friendly enough, but I think our obvious status as non-truckers put us on the bottom of the pecking order as far as service went. Rather than stop here, I'd keep on truckin'.

Also on the move is some staff at Cliff Young's Napa Cafe, at 2033 East Colfax. On June 13 chef Tyler Wiard, the man behind Napa's eclectic, funky fusion food, will cook his last meal there. There's some dispute as to whether Wiard's responsible for taking two other kitchen workers and two front-of-the-house people with him, but regardless of the reason, they're going, too. Wiard has no official plans as of yet but says he's trying to stay in the area. The current pastry chef, Jess Roybal, will take over as executive chef.

Giving the benefit: Boulder's Flagstaff House, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, hosts a dinner to honor female chefs and winemakers on June 18. Among the five women cooking: Traci des Jardins from San Francisco's Rubicon, and Maureen Pothier from the Blue Point Oyster Bar in Providence; winemakers include Margaret Davenport of Clos du Bois and Ileen Crane of Taittinger/Domaine Carneros. The cost is a pricy $175 per person, but proceeds go to Boulder Community Hospital and the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center for their programs that screen uninsured women for breast cancer.

--Kyle Wagner


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