Thank heaven for Westerkamps Steakhouse
The interior is just as eclectic as the facade at Westerkamps. More photos from Westerkamps.
The steakhouse's business card proclaims that Westerkamps is closed Sundays to honor God.
It was also closed on a recent Saturday so that the entire staff could head up to Loveland for Heavenfest, a massive gathering featuring workshops, speakers and a lot of God rock.
I know this because I was in the Westerkamps parking lot that Saturday, surveying a building painted the color of a cherry-dip cone and adorned with a cartoonish covered wagon and a hand-painted sign advertising an all-day $3.49 special on pork chops, eggs and potatoes. I wanted to be in that covered wagon headed for the land of pork chops, eggs and potatoes. But instead I was staring at a locked door, with a note explaining the closure and apologizing for the inconvenience.
I took the Lord's name in vain. Loudly.
When Chris Gonzales and his father-in-law, Jaime Rizo, bought this building in an industrial section of north Denver nearly twelve years ago, it housed an old grocery store and meat market that had opened when the neighborhood was filled with Germans. The pair decided to keep the name, converting the shop into a meat market and deli. Four years ago, Gonzales turned most of the space into a sit-down restaurant that's open for breakfast and lunch, but he kept the butcher.
The interior is as eclectic as the facade. Once I finally made it through the door, I was greeted first by a chalkboard sign scrawled not with the daily special, but with a verse from the Book of Romans, then by the nicest waitress I've ever encountered, wearing her baby-pink Heavenfest shirt and a broad smile. She told me to choose a table, and I slid into a booth next to the wood-paneled divider that splits the front tables from the back, more to break up the space than for any other purpose (though I did spot a couple of dartboards in the other section). From there, I had an excellent view of all the kitsch on the walls: Besides proclamations of love for the Lord, there were photos of '50s Western stars, tools that might have been used on the prairie, old skis hung in an X-shape, and hubcaps from classic American cars. It was part Norman Rockwell museum, part small-town butcher store and part shrine to Jesus, and I wouldn't have been surprised to see Michele Bachmann wandering out from behind the meat counter — where a hand-painted sign lists cuts and prices — to hold an impromptu meet-and-greet with her voting base.
The waitress, who'd already brought me a cup of weak diner coffee, came over to take my order. The menu offers a mash-up of basic breakfast fare — steak and eggs, sausage and bacon — as well as breakfast burritos, huevos rancheros and green chile. I'd been thinking about the pork and eggs special for days, though, so that's what I asked for, smothered with chile for an extra buck. I was one of only a few customers at that time of day, and it took about three minutes for my food to come out.
By the time I finished it, I didn't care if Westerkamps staffers wanted to hold a prayer circle and sing "Kumbaya" in the center of the room while I ate. Their religious and political affiliations are irrelevant. What matters is that they can cook.
This was evidenced in the perfect — and I mean textbook perfect — over-easy eggs on my plate: whites cooked completely and even a little crisped around the edges, centered by orange, runny yolks seasoned with just a little salt and pepper. They came with a couple of pork chops that were as thin as a grocery store tabloid, charred lightly by the grill but surprisingly juicy and tender within, and ribboned with just enough fat to make each bite silky and decadent. Peppery nubs of potato, cooked soft in the middle and lightly caramelized on the outside, filled the rest of the plate. That alone would have made me happy, but the green chile practically sent me over the edge. The sauce itself was thin, but it was filled with chunks of tomato, pork and jalapeño that gave it heft as well as a tangy earthiness — and an all-encompassing, slow-burning heat that spread across the palate subtly until everything in the mouth, including the lips and gums, tingled.
In a town full of green chile, this one rises from the top. It started out from the family recipe of an original Westerkamps employee who has since passed away. "I'm from New Mexico, so I'm used to good green chile," Gonzales explained when I asked him about it later. "I tasted it, and it's so good. We just worked on it to get it consistent." It worked beautifully with the egg yolks and potatoes, though I'm pretty sure you could put this chile on anything and achieve bliss.
As I cleaned my plate, it occurred to me that this would be an epic hangover breakfast. And then I immediately felt guilty when I spotted a shining, cherubic face peeking at me from behind a corner to see if everything was all right. Westerkamps does serve beer (no wine), but I doubt that waitress has ever had a hangover.
Curious about what kind of steaks would be served in a restaurant that has its own butcher shop, I returned to Westerkamps with a friend for lunch. This time the dining room was close to full, packed with families and lone diners who looked like they were coming off of night shifts and grabbing something to eat before heading home to bed. A man in an apron was standing behind the meat counter this time, working with a side of beef.
We took a table in the center of the room and asked for a ribeye, which came with Texas toast and a side, and a Mexican hamburger, since I'd been going on and on about the green chile. And then we waited. And waited. My friend quietly surveyed the room while I listened to the couple at the next table interpret passages from the Bible. Finally, after almost half an hour, our food came out of the kitchen. But when the plates landed on our table, accompanied by a profuse apology from the server, we became totally oblivious to our surroundings.
Most Mexican hamburgers I've had in this town — and this town is probably where they were invented — consist of a thin, once-frozen patty and a glop of refried beans wrapped in a flour tortilla, then covered with gravy-like green chile and melted plasticky cheese. The Westerkamps version switched out the crappy burger for chuck ground in-house. It was infused with iron from the grill and slightly overcooked — but completely revived by the refried beans that must have been stewed in lard. And then, of course, there was that awesome green chile.
The ribeye could have used some. Like the pork chops, it was a thin cut — which rendered my requested medium impossible. The steak was gray along the edges and pale pink within, but expertly seasoned and still supple enough to eat, though I would certainly have preferred it less well done. The meat here is choice or higher — a step above what you'd get in a grocery store — and it comes from the same supplier who stocks the Westerkamps butcher counter, usually with loins and steaks rather than whole sides of cow, and most of those from Omaha (hello, corn-fattened cattle). The toast was all Texas, big and painted with so much butter that it practically oozed, then popped on the griddle until the bread was both flaky and crunchy. But the salad of shredded iceberg lettuce and straight-from-the-bag grated cheddar was basically just plate filler; I wished I had forked over the extra $1.50 for a baked potato.
By the time we finished lunch, the couple at the next table had moved on to rehashing Heavenfest with the waitress. So we got up and paid our check at the counter by the door.
The last thing I saw before exiting into the sunshine was a sign that instructed me to "Smile, Jesus loves you."
And I did smile. Because while I may not have seen Jesus at Westerkamps, I did find some heavenly green chile.
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