Steaking a Claim
Here's what Emil-Lene's Sirloin House is missing: a really big steak.
Not just a big steak -- big steaks it's got. There's a 16-ounce sirloin on the board, a 10-ounce prime rib that's cut so generously it takes up half a plate, even a 24- ounce T-bone that certainly far exceeds the recommended daily allowance of cow as stipulated by the American Beef Council.
No, I mean a really big steak. Some monster rib-eye cut to 64 ounces with a special, goofy name like The Terminator or The Cowpoke -- a genuine trucker-choker. The kind of steak that comes with its own T-shirt that says "I ate the Big Boy." The sort of deal you see advertised all over the Midwest when you're playing convoy with a bunch of rigs booming across the plains, the signs coming up out of the corn and heat haze like magic: Wild Bill's Cowboy Steakery, Home of the 5 lb. Big Boy Sirloin, Finish It and It's Free.
After all, Emil-Lene's isn't just a steakhouse; it's a mecca, a modest temple on the eastern edge of nowhere devoted to the greater glory of the old-time meat-and-potatoes food gods who still demand murderously high cholesterol and blood sacrifices of their supplicants. It's a place for the confession of sins and purification of the spirit: Forgive me, Father, for I have been eating frisee...
A picture of one of these gods hangs opposite the entrance, in the main dining room and bar area: a tastefully framed and dramatically lit oil-on-canvas portrait of a big steer, horns curving forward, napkin tied around his thick neck, his tongue hanging out in anticipation of (you can only assume) a really big steak. The painting serves as a tacit endorsement of Wild Kingdom-style animal cannibalism and is tantamount to a burger joint using a giant dancing cheeseburger that screams "Eat me!" to hawk its spécialité du maison. But it's also so beautifully tacky, so crying-clown-on-black-velvet, so lovingly rendered and proudly hung, that if I saw it at a garage sale, I'd pay any reasonable price and display it over my mantel.
Emil-Lene's contains several such chummy absurdities. There's a big tree that's been left to grow through the right flank of the dining room; the world's oldest bartender joke hung over the racks of call and off-brand liquor behind the short, cramped bar: Free Beer Tomorrow. And collectively, these serve to leaven the mood created by the rest of the cowboy gothic decor -- the rough wood, the fading colors, the pictures of aging gunslingers, wild horses and stagecoaches being seen to safety by the ghostly face of Wild Bill Hickock in the sky. For me, that theme gets dusty and oppressive fast without a little laugh to lighten things up. You start thinking that maybe someone in the back is really serious about this Wild West stuff -- the sort of person who'd go to a Renaissance Faire or wear a costume to a Star Trek movie. And that's not the kind of folk I want touching my food.
Still, old-time Colorado is Emil-Lene's hook and history, and at 46 years and counting (under just three owners -- first Frank Emerling; then Frank's cook, Emil Kuchar, and his wife, Charlene, who gave the place its current name; and now two of the Kuchars' kids, Karen L'Anglais and Jay Lombardi), the restaurant's actually made its own culinary history in this state. There's no hitching post out front where I can tie up my Toyota, no hoop-skirted soiled doves working the regulars at the bar, and the diners boast more bald spots than Stetsons, but the grub is cowtown classic and the kitchen -- the healthy, beating heart of this house -- is a genuine throwback to the days when beef was always what was for dinner.
It also dates to the days when a steak order brought a whole meal -- apps, protein, starches and greens -- whether you wanted it or not; when volume, cost and tradition demanded that a dinner be all-inclusive. Unlike at the new, cushy steak palaces where you choose your meat, then order individual sides ranging from fancy crabcakes to fancier asparagus with hollandaise, Emil-Lene's is of a certain age and pedigree that demands every meal be as square as Oklahoma and no fresh courses come until the previous has been finished -- or at least moved around enough on the plate to look like you gave it the old college try.
For starters, Emil-Lene's continues to deliver complimentary relish trays, a concept so old-fashioned it makes me miss Thanksgivings with my grandma something fierce. A plate overflowing with olives, radishes, pickles and peppers is brought to the table almost as soon as you're seated, along with rough-cut loaves of fresh bread and pats of butter set naked atop a bowl of ice. Drink service follows, with a minor-league wine list and all sorts of fruity girl drinks available from a grinning lunk of a barman who seems like a straight-up shot-and-a-beer guy but can mix a whole flight of brandy Alexanders without even looking.
There's no menu, and no need for one, because Emil-Lene's entrees fall into only two categories -- beef and everything else. Five steaks, from filet to T-bone, lamb chops (two chops, each seven ounces or more) and fried chicken every night, different specials every day of the week. On Friday, it's lobster for the big spenders: $41.50 for just under a pound. Prime rib is available almost every day, served until it runs out, and crab legs twice a week. Tuesday means half a roast duck; Wednesday and Thursday, salmon with dill sauce baked in parchment paper so the fish sweats under the heat and steams in its own juices. Julia Child lifted this recipe from the French half a century ago; at Emil-Lene's, it's like no time has passed at all, and the salmon en papillote is as good today as it ever was.
Because I am a pussy and not man enough for 24 ounces of USDA prime (let alone five pounds of it) I order the petite sirloin, bloody rare, knowing that before I get to sample that steak, I'll have to eat my way up through all the lower levels of the food pyramid. From the base of bread and relish tray, you ascend through soup (tasty clam chowder on my visits) or a big bowl of mass-produced iceberg salad streaked with carrots and spiked here and there with shredded veggies. This is precisely the all-American salad you want to precede a steak -- workhorse and utilitarian, not fussed up with watercress or guava or microgreens. There's no worrying over which dressing to choose, either, because all of them are brought to the table in a mini-lazy susan, and all of them are homemade, which is admirable in theory, if not in practice. The blue cheese is puckeringly sour, the Thousand Island made of nothing but mayonnaise, ketchup and relish, and the house ranch an unusual shade of pale yellow-orange.
Following the soup/salad course comes the obligatory spaghetti: an "old fashioned" spaghetti, according to the servers, when what they should say is "olde-timey, cowboy-style, Wild West shoot-em-up chuckwagon noodles with meat," because this stuff is only spaghetti under the very loosest of definitions, the way Chef Boyardee spaghetti from the can is technically spaghetti because it consists of long, thin noodles in a red sauce. Emil-Lene's version is a side plate of damp, al dente pasta with a haunting texture like extruded cornstarch, topped with a spicy meat sauce that isn't exactly bad, but tastes precisely like what you'd expect to get off the back of a chuckwagon on its third week of high plains drifting. That sound you hear when you take your first bite is a whole generation of Italian grandmothers spinning like drill bits in their graves.
But then, just when I'm beginning to seriously question why I'm still enjoying myself despite the funky salad dressings and cook-shack noodles, our entrees arrive and -- my faith confirmed by the look of the meat, the sizzle of the prime, the smell of horseradish and char and blood in the air -- I remember why I'm really here: to eat some steak. All the rest is the journey, and I understand that at places like this, the full-dinner steakhouses, there's something to be said for a few lackluster courses that make the main event seem even better. That's why they save the big bang for last on the Fourth of July, right? If they put it at the beginning, everyone would pack up their blankets and go home as soon as it was over. Part of the fun is the expectation.
My petite sirloin (which doesn't look petite to me) is perfectly done, seared and cross-marked on the outside, cool and pink within. It arrives attended only by an uncomplicated baked potato with chived sour cream on the side, brought in a bowl shaped like a hollowed potato -- yet another welcome bit of garage-sale kitsch. The grill man has handled my beef with admirable restraint, turning it only once on the heat, pulling it just short of an ideal rare, then allowing it to rest away from the heat lamps so that the center cools and re-absorbs all of its disturbed juices. It doesn't bleed out when I cut it, as a badly manipulated steak will, isn't salted or pressed or messed with at all, just left alone in all its beefy goodness. It tastes like a real fine steak, which is about the best compliment you can give a sirloin.
On other visits, quietly stealing off the plates of my dining companions, I try the country-style fried chicken -- half a bird hacked into its constituent parts with a hatchet or a pointy rock or some other mauling instrument, rippled with crunchy batter, crisp, hot and good. It's like the Colonel's best, only without the oceans of hot grease, without that nauseating, heavy chicken-fat weight in the belly, without the chemical back-bite of industrial-strength preservatives. Cold for breakfast, it's even better.
Emil-Lene's prime rib is excellent, too. As prime should be, it's served on the bone, cooked mid-rare, bloody, fatty, and arrives in a portion about the size of the brontosaurus ribs that tip over Fred Flintstone's car. The cut is an inch-thick, easy, bright red shading to bruisy purple close to the bone, and so thickly flavored that the horseradish and au jus on the side are nice but wholly unnecessary. Even the seafood -- the crab legs and Cajun-seasoned, boiled and baked, peel-your-own shrimp -- is good. Emil-Lene's kitchen does the smartest thing any galley can do when fixing seafood in a steakhouse: It keeps things simple.
When everything is running perfectly at Emil-Lene's, you leave feeling well-fed but still wanting a little more. If there's any secret to this steakhouse's success, that's it. Give the people what they expect and they'll come back year after year. For decades, even. And that's just what Emil-Lene's has been doing -- giving new Colorado a taste of the old, changeless and eternal.
Of course, adding that really big steak wouldn't hurt business, either. I may not be up to the Big Boy, but I'm sure someone out there is.
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