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Reign Man

A crowning achievement: Pam Peck delivers the goods at Breakfast King.
Mark Manger

By my twelfth cup of coffee, the walls were starting to vibrate. My tongue tasted like a leather strap dipped in Pennzoil. Through the big front windows, I could see the lights of Romantix glowing through the fog hanging close over I-25, interrupted now and then by the dirty white nimbus of passing headlights. If I cocked my head just right, I could see the towering billboard advertising Tecate in Spanish, lit from below by massive quartz-halogen floods that threw their blazing titanium light skyward, like they were proudly illuminating a religious icon. Christ of the Andes, maybe. Or the Olinger's cross on Mount Lindo. I knew -- was absolutely convinced -- that somewhere in the intersection of beer signs, porno and high-speed interstate transit as seen from the counter of a 24-hour roadside diner at midnight, there lurked an important observation on the American character. Some knowledge, deep and potent. One of those universal truths people can find in near-death experiences, or that weird clarity at the tail end of a whiskey bender.

And I was ready for it. I'd come to Breakfast King with American gothic mysticism on my mind, looking on the wrong side of the tracks for that same greasy enchantment that had so charmed Neal Cassady, Thomas Wolfe and Tom Waits. I'd staked out my seat at the counter around eleven in the evening, ordered a cheeseburger, fries and a thick chocolate milkshake -- classic American road food meant for easing you into the particular kind of revelation I was after -- and set in to wait. I started out my sojourn as open and willing a vessel for enlightenment as any Christian pilgrim or pretzled-up yoga master, but that soon began to fade. Around two in the morning, I was no longer convinced that inspiration was going to come waltzing through the door, sit down and pay for my coffee. Half an hour later, I was pretty sure she wasn't even in the state.

And by three, with insight still lacking, I was almost positive that the company I did have -- a tall, lean cowboy with blown-out methedrine eyes, a dusty black Stetson and mud on his boots -- was getting ready to kill me. Against my direct orders, my feet kept tapping against the worn step at the base of the counter, dancing to caffeine rhythms quite different from the Seals and Crofts tune whispering out of hidden speakers. Except for the occasional tick of a fork against a plate or the squeak of a waitress's sneaker as she turned a corner on her rounds, my tapping was the loudest sound in the dining room.

And it was annoying as hell.

The first time I visited Breakfast King, it was for the chicken-fried steak. That's the dish I look for on a Sunday afternoon when I want to sit alone somewhere, smoke a few cigarettes, read the paper, have someone bring me copious volumes of black coffee, and otherwise be left the fuck alone. I'm not a church-going man and have never cared much for football, so I've never known exactly what to do with Sunday afternoons. They always seemed to be much longer than was necessary -- something to be gotten through on the way to more interesting things happening later in the week -- but that was before I'd gotten in the habit of filling them with newsprint, coffee and chicken-fried steak. Now I wish each week had two or three Sunday afternoons. The world would be a much nicer place, I think. At least, it would be nicer for me.

Anyway, I went to Breakfast King one Sunday afternoon a couple of months ago in need of chicken-fried steak and quiet, and I found both. The steak was crisp and wrinkly on the outside, like an old man left out too long in the sun, and tender within after a good pounding with the tenderizing mallet and a soaking in milk; its crust holding up well even under the weight of a thick, peppery, artery-choking, Southern-style white sausage gravy.

While the chicken-fried steak was undeniably the star of the plate, it came dotingly attended by two eggs and home fries -- fresh home fries. This was easy to determine because they sat on one end of the plate like a solid, starchy mountain range of irregular bits and pieces all glommed onto each other, sizzling hot off the flat-top, crisp at the peaks and mushy down in the valleys. Bagged, frozen home fries do not cook up like this. The mechanically produced version that arrives by the case, neatly divvied up into five-pound brown-paper bags, at the back doors of those diners less conscientious than the King are like the well-groomed communist stepchildren of real home fries made by hand. They are perfectly white, perfectly skinless, perfectly sized and shaped for maximally efficient consumption, and each piece is exactly the same as every other piece in the bag -- which you'd think would be impossible, considering all the wondrous variety in the potato kingdom. But that's the miracle of modern technology, I guess. Somewhere out there is a machine capable of turning a thousand pounds of unique and tasty potatoes into 500 pounds of absolutely identical potato pieces that all taste like wet balsa wood.

Luckily, this machine has never made it to Breakfast King. So the spuds here were the real deal, and what's more, the eggs that arrived with them were done greasy and over medium, just like I'd asked. Breakfast King's kitchen is one of the few in town capable of putting out eggs over medium, done properly every time. This is tougher than it might seem. You can't poke an egg to see if it's cooked to temp, like you can a steak. And you can't time it, because every egg is different. A cook can botch hundreds of egg orders before he finally gets it right. You've got to have the eye for it, and the eye only comes with experience.

And I know this kitchen can do it right every time, because Breakfast King is one of the very few places in town I keep returning to. Those quiet Sunday afternoons were quickly joined by Saturday mornings with my wife. We'd roll into the busy parking lot jammed with aging minivans, grubby F-250s and precious few SUVs, to take our place among the waiting throngs. Somehow, we always seemed to get seated in the same broken-in booth in the smoking section (which takes up fully three-quarters of the floor space), beneath the framed pictures of: the Pope shaking hands with some cop, the man on his hang-glider, and the black-and-white shot of Blinky the Clown at his piano, signed in silver ink. We'd sit for an hour, maybe more, glugging down coffee -- weak but plentiful. She'd eat open-faced hot turkey sandwiches with thick slabs of bird laid on white bread beside real, lumpy mashers, both tucked in snug and warm under a blanket of silky, thick chicken gravy, and I'd have corned-beef hash (which isn't homemade, but hash is one of the few things in this world that are just better out of a can) and eggs, always flawless, with more home fries and thick-cut toast browned in butter on the flat-top.

We'd watch the world come and go. Or a part of the world, anyway -- that part that prefers gossip to news and thinks chrome is better put to use on bumpers than counter stools. If people-watching were a sport, Breakfast King is where future Olympic hopefuls would come to train, clocking the old men with their sports sections and racing forms rolled up in their back pockets; the waitresses (not servers, not waitrons, but old-fashioned waitresses, good at their jobs and happy doing them) with their coffee pots and plates stacked up their arms, dressed in those awful white polyester uniforms like nurses used to wear in the 1960s, and blaze-orange aprons bright enough to protect them from any confused deer hunters who might wander in; a few slumming hipsterati who inevitably made fun of the paneling that covers everything that isn't already upholstered in orange vinyl or topped with worn Formica; and families dragging their squalling toddlers behind.

Sundays and Saturdays spilled into Wednesdays, when I'd drop in for a beefy ten-ounce cheeseburger, fries and a cuppa joe after leaving the office. And Fridays, too, sometimes after a couple of cocktails. On Breakfast King's huge menu, which runs to around a hundred choices, there's always something worth eating, and while about half of everything comes crowned in gravy, nowhere is there any frisee. Or truffles. Or ahi tuna. And thank God for that.

This is a menu frozen in the early '70s, when the King opened -- long before mainstream American food began taking on influences from other corners of the globe, back when fish and chips was still considered a daring international dish. Like a culinary time capsule, the King still serves Coney Island hot dogs, chiliette (egg noodles slathered in red chili and served with Saltines), biscuits and gravy, and a ham dinner complete with a ham steak an inch thick, glazed and seared on the grill; canned pineapple rings, also grilled; potatoes and gravy; and some kind of hot-table vegetable that's almost always awful -- but the waitress might yell at you if you don't eat it.

Breakfast King became the place I went when I didn't have to be somewhere else. And without realizing it, late last month I ate there seven times in nine days. The world was getting itself in a weird way, and I don't know whether I went looking for comfort or company or the lack of both, but I'd gone there every night I was able. And now here I was again, doing the long haul, the overnight, to see what came through the door and when. Plus, I wanted to see the sun rise over the train tracks and the sprawling industrial dinosaur skeleton of Gates Rubber.

Gene Amole liked this place. One of his columns, aging badly, is hung up over the register. Other Westword writers have appreciated its seedy, after-dark underpass vibe, too, as evidenced by old Best of Denver plaques adorning the walls. Mine will probably hang there soon.

And I'll get to see it, too, because the cowboy didn't kill me. Finally, when my obsessive tapping became maddening enough, he just left. There was still the rheumy-eyed fellow sitting near the windows with his pressed shirt, silver-buttoned leather vest and single tooth, gnawing dejectedly at a slice of buttered toast. There was still the waitress, shuffling a little now on tired, night-shift legs and the guy who looked exactly like Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws -- complete with the scruffy Sierra Club facial hair and square-rimmed nerd glasses -- who, an hour earlier, had sat carefully dissecting a half-chicken with a knife and two forks while holding an animated conversation with a waitress who was no longer there. And that was companionship enough for me.

Whatever it was I was looking for at the King -- whatever it was I thought I needed beyond good food off a museum-quality American menu, and friendly service tolerant of the quirks of a few night owls -- wasn't gonna come. Perhaps I had no great visions, no great insights, because I was looking so hard for them. If you're to believe in the tidy Hollywood-ending school of spontaneous enlightenment, these things tend to sneak up on people, knock 'em on the head when they're not looking. But that didn't mean I was going to stop trying to find those deeper meanings, and when the waitress came by on her rounds, I pushed my cup an inch closer to the edge of the counter -- the universal sign that I was in need of a refill.

"You been here all night, honey," she said as she topped me up. "You waiting for somebody?"

"No," I said. "Just waiting. Thanks."

I looked at my watch. It was 3:48. I'd hang in until sunrise and see what the daylight brought.

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Breakfast King

300 W. Mississippi Ave.
Denver, CO 80223

303-733-0795