Everyone who lives along the Front Range must visit Casa Bonita once. Really, you're not a resident if you haven't seen the cliff divers and suffered the mariachis, climbed through Black Bart's cave, muscled your way through the knots of sticky, rapidly greening children and eaten the sopaipillas.
I've been to Casa Bonita. Even better, I've actually seen the kitchen. It's not something I'd ever want to do twice.
Everyone who wants to say they've experienced Colorado's true cuisine has to go to the Buckhorn Exchange at least once, sit under the whale penis, look their dinner in the glossy glass eye, and eat the yak and rattlesnake and seventeen pounds of charred cow in a single sitting.
White Fence Farm
6263 West Jewell Avenue, Lakewood
Hours: lunch and dinner daily
White Fence Farm
Fried chicken dinner $13.75 (for one)
Pork chops $16.75
Broiled chicken $14.25
I've been there. Done that. Several times. And yeah, I've eaten the balls.
This ain't my first rodeo, as they say. I've done my culinary tour of Colorado. I may not be to the Mile High born, but I have eaten the hell out of my adoptive home, taken to it with the fervor of a convert — of a man who knows precisely how green the grass is on the other side of the fence and has gladly turned his back. Still, it seems that the longer I live here, the deeper Denver's history of weirdness grows — the more places keep popping up that I have to see, have to experience. Places like White Fence Farm.
We'd made it across acres of parking lot — past the giant chicken car, the manicured lawns, the bunnies cavorting in the grass, the landscaped duck pond (I have this weird thing about taunting tame ducks). I'd managed to get Laura, a militant, fairly aggressive atheist, past the restaurant's front counter, past the sign that'd caught her eye — the one that said something along the lines of how even though prayer wasn't allowed in schools, it was more than welcome in the dining room — without her picking a fight. And I'd managed to get my mom to bypass the gift shop and the Christmas store. We'd even successfully executed the White Fence Farm dance: jumping through the hoops of getting a number, waiting for that number to be called, taking that number across the lobby and to the counter where the ancient dining room pit boss tore my ticket and checked to make sure I wasn't trying to pull anything sneaky, then taking my number to another girl who seated us with a smile and a flutter of her ruffles.
Fortunately, the White Fence Farm has beer (although the menu warns that any loud or unchristian drunkards will be bounced immediately), and I needed a drink badly. I ordered a tall pilsner glass, another for Laura, wine for my mom. Round one.
While we waited for our drinks, I ticked off some of the rules, the bits of hard-earned critic wisdom that this visit to White Fence Farm was violating. For example, when the parking lot is bigger than the restaurant, be wary. Wonder to yourself — even if only briefly — why the establishment in question needs so much space. What kind of crowds are they expecting that they have dedicated so much valuable real estate to blacktop and white lines?
The answer is big ones — really, really motherfucking big ones.
Here's another truism: Don't trust a restaurant that has its own gift shop. Not if you're looking for food. If you're looking for gifts — for little ceramic figurines of fat children praying and Christmas ornaments in June — then by all means, go nuts. But if dinner is your primary concern, don't trust a place with a gift shop. Or an arcade. Or, God forbid, its own petting zoo.
White Fence Farm has all three. Plus live music, slides, a carriage museum, horsie rides, its own playground...
The original White Fence Farm restaurant, in Romeoville, Illinois, dates back to the 1920s, when it was opened by Stuyvesant Peabody, a Chicagoland coal millionaire. It was sold in the '50s to the Hasterts, an honest, God-fearin' farm family (yeah, they're related to the former Republican Speaker of the House), and today can seat 1,000. In 1973, metro Denver got its White Fence Farm, the only other one in the country (except for a few takeout spots), and it has the same time-machine concept dressed in Calvin Coolidge drag with a restaurant at its heart. That poor girl on the other side of the room hauling around tray-jacks and mountains of chicken while dressed like a Mormon prairie wife? Like a stripper or the guy who wears the Goofy suit at Disneyland, she's doing that for a paycheck while upholding some kind of theme-restaurant mutual hallucination that, while within the bounds of the White Fence complex, it is really 1924. In Oklahoma. And that you, the customer, have been invited over for an ol'-fashioned country dinner at the Wilson and Wuestner farm.
The interior looks like a clearinghouse for dead-relative knick-knackery, like the Palace of a Thousand Grandmas. The white walls and window frames, the flowered curtains, the lovingly polished fixtures and aged photos of children dressed like cowboys or in their Sunday best — it all belies the throbbing, commercial core of a place designed rather like a Vegas casino: difficult to escape, deceptively dressed in outmoded finery, built only as a machine made for separating rubes from their dollars.
Oh, and one more thing.
Making the best fried chicken in town.
Seriously, the best. There are chefs around Denver who swear by the place, who'll brave the shrieking children and walk the gauntlets of shlock just for that ginormous plate of fried bird. Who know that sometimes, finding the best of anything means suffering the worst of something else.
Back at the table, Laura and I drank our beers — slowly, but steadily. Round two. We looked over our menus and watched the orderly flood of big families being drawn into the dining room as if by chintz gravity. I asked Laura how long it'd been since she'd seen one of those accordion-fold, fake wood-grain room dividers in public use (I hadn't since Sunday school in the church basement), asked the mother who'd sent me to that Sunday school what she was planning on eating and whether she just wanted to share a double helping of fried chicken with me.
She didn't. She wanted baked chicken with lemon pepper. Laura wanted pork chops. (Actually, Laura wanted tacos or mac-and-cheese or dental surgery or anything else, but pork chops were what she settled on.) I warned them both. Neither of them listened to me.
Every meal at White Fence Farm comes with a mess o' sides — kinda like Korean barbecue but so, so much whiter. There are hot corn fritters, sweet and fried and dusted with snowcaps of powdered sugar; pickled red beets made from fresh (and occasionally still whiskered) tubers that are gorgeous, shining crimson and richly flavored; cream-dressed kidney bean salad of a sort that probably hasn't been seen since Betty Crocker stopped handing down tips for backyard entertaining; bowls of coleslaw like church-picnic nirvana and more bowls of cottage cheese. With flowered china and paper napkins, lightweight cafeteria silver and rapidly evaporating drinks, we made as much headway as we could — really just stalling until the main event, just nibbling around the edges of what makes White Fence Farm anything more than just another roadside attraction, another vaguely embarrassing, way too earnest, mom-and-apple-pie vision of Olde Timey Americana.
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With my platter of chicken lifted up high on her shoulder, our waitress — caught in the golden glow of the sun through the windows — looked like some kind of square-state saint, an angel of gingham and drumsticks, a Midwestern chicken-fat cherub. She braced the table with bowls of mashed potatoes, then laid down the meal amid (imaginary) seraphim trumpet blasts and (make-believe) choirs of castrati farmboys. Beautiful golden-brown breasts, fat drumsticks, wings like Zorro's signature deep-fried: It was lovely chicken. Fragrant chicken. It was Red Bird Farms chicken, actually, killed and cut and shipped just for White Fence Farm (which I'd learned from watching an educational video in one of the many lobbies and sitting rooms). But most important, it was delicious chicken — not even deep-fried in the traditional manner, but baked off in massive quantities until it tastes like Kansas City-style pan-fried chicken, and then flash-fried to order. It wasn't greasy. It wasn't too peppery. The first bite didn't pull off all the batter and leave you with a pile of chicken cracklins on one side of your plate, naked chicken leg on the other. This was the sort of fried chicken where you just close your eyes and forget the family farm wonderland that surrounds you, the sad, fat little donkey in the petting zoo and the sticky children climbing all over the tree fort outside, Granny's grocery on the other side of the wall and the sudden, chilling dead silence from the other side of the table as your wife and your mother realize the terrible error they have made in not listening to you and ordering the one thing White Fence does really, really well.
My mom's broiled lemon-pepper chicken breast tasted like it'd been shellacked in lemon-scented furniture polish and then left to dry in the sun. Laura's pork chops tasted of old strapping leather and had the consistency of pork jerky. Their meals were as laughably disastrous as you might expect from any restaurant with its own petting zoo.
But not mine. As the late-dinner crowds poured in (6 p.m. being already the height of the second seating 'round these parts) and the girls in their aprons and sensible shoes drifted like fried-chicken fairies down the grooves long ago cut for them, I just smiled sweetly across the table, nodded my head and said, "Told you so."
And then went back to eating my dinner.