THE OKAY CORRAL
Restaurateurs keep stampeding into LoDo--but frankly, the joints already there are starting to run together. They attempt to offer the newest, the hippest and the hottest, but instead of a wide range of choices, we all seem to be dining at cadiranchchampbrewfirewazkoophousegrill, ordering brewchew (overpriced food that goes well with the latest micros) in an exposed-brick-and-ductwork-Southwestern-pool-hall-huge-pictures-on-the-wall kind of scene.
Lodo's Corral Steakhouse serves up few variations on the theme. The Western motif is blessedly subtle, punctuated by a few big, bright cowboy paintings by artist David Parker that make the dining areas classy rather than cutesy. And the kitchen shows a welcome willingness to change what isn't working.
For example, less than three months out of the chute, they've already changed the menu and slashed prices. When I called to ask for some basic information on the restaurant, alarmed proprietor Chris Myers (who, along with Javier Juarez and George Mannion, also owns the LoDo-located Croc's Cafe) asked me what I'd eaten, because a new menu had been instituted two days before my call--and one day after my last visit. When I picked up a copy, I was pleased to see that several of the dishes I'd found lacking had been dumped.
And my favorite appetizer made the cut. The blackened prime rib tortilla flat ($6.95) is one of the Corral's most popular items, a Western-style pizza with panache. A flour tortilla was generously covered with paper-thin slices of choice, juicy prime rib, lots of melted Monterey Jack cheese and slurpy, well-roasted red and yellow bell peppers. One order was enough for the three piggish eaters in my party, and it was definitely worth the price. I can't say the same for the jalapeno-and-spinach dip ($4.95), another survivor of the recent purge. The gooey, cheesy glop was thick with artichokes, way too heavy on the jalapenos and surprisingly light on the spinach. The stingy serving came with an excess of tasty pita triangles: Coated with parmesan and baked, they were the perfect accompaniment for several draughts we tried from the bar's list of two dozen on tap.
The salad croutons were also good enough to solo. Made from the Corral's homemade, cinnamon-tinged soft rolls, they emerged from the drying process with a strong cinnamon boost. We decided a big mound of the croutons would be great in milk; unfortunately, the salad needed more help than they could provide. The combination of mixed greens, onions and tomato was fine, but the sun-dried-tomato vinaigrette on top was awful. It didn't taste of anything, not even vinegar, much less the pungent sun-drieds; it seemed to consist of only oil and some dull, chopped-up red things. The seafood gumbo, part of a rotating roster of soups, was more successful: Bits of crab, scallops, shrimp, onions and celery crammed a thickened broth that carried the slight edge of hot peppers. Like the salad, a cup of soup was available for $2 with an entree; now it's a real bargain at just 95 cents.
The Cajun center-cut pork chop ($13.95)--actually, two nicely cooked chops coated with blackened spices--was another keeper. Although the meat wasn't stuffed as promised on the menu, a pile of fiery andouille sausage had been heaped alongside, with more slices dropped on top like little bombs. Andouille also had been added to the side-dish mixture of long-grain and wild rice visually pepped up with bits of carrots. This was a heady combination of greasiness and earthiness, and I fought for every last morsel.
It was a good thing I got my starch fix there, because the insides of the Corral's twice-baked potato could have held up wallpaper. Some kind of cheese had been mixed in, and the filling had a glutinous consistency that made me think the kitchen might be running it through a food processor. The potato was served with an underdone rack of lamb chops encased in a too-thick box of breadcrumbs; blessedly, Myers and company have eliminated these chops from existence. (They should do the same for that dud of a spud.)
They also removed the "Worcestershire" from the Corral's T-bone treatment; the fourteen-ounce, wood-grilled steak now costs two dollars less than its original $15.95 price tag. These were both wise moves, since we could discern no trace of the salty sauce, and the meat itself wasn't particularly good--in fact, it was thin, chewy and dry. Two bucks have also been shaved from the price of the filet mignon (it's now $13.95), but the kitchen would have been better off upping the quality of the dish. The filet was too chewy and not as flavorful as this cut should be; even the bacon wrapped around the side was bland.
The half-pound Lodo burger ($6.95) is touted as "wood-grilled." But the grilling doesn't make much difference if the meat is mediocre, as this patty was. Not even a brush of spice-infused oil inside the kaiser roll helped. Although the burger did come with great fries--steak-style, cut thick and deliciously soft inside--we were beginning to wonder why the Corral calls itself a steakhouse.
It might do better as a rib joint. The chipotle-heavy sauce on the barbecued baby back ribs ($7.95 for a half-rack) was heaven for hot-pepper fans like us; it was thick and sticky, with the right touch of sweetness and plenty of heat. And the ribs themselves were terrific: meaty, flavorful and--thankfully--plentiful. They came with a side of rice (sadly, no andouille this time) and a healthy heap of tender, slightly oily summer vegetables that made for a well-rounded meal.
All we needed to complete it was dessert. Our waiter had warned us that one of the offerings, the strawberry chocolate squares ($3.75), "sucked"; since he had talked us into the wonderful tortilla appetizer, we went instead for the Lodo brownie ($3.75), a hefty wedge of cakelike brownie topped with two scoops of chocolate-chip-studded chocolate ice cream and the typical overdose of chocolate syrup. When the kitchen appeared to be out of the promised whipped cream, our waiter found a can at the bar and applied it liberally. Although I hate canned whipped cream, it might have helped the apple pie ($3.50), a new addition to the menu that should at least come a la mode, considering the price. The pie's crust was interesting--it had a sugary quality--but the sliced apples inside had coagulated into what looked like hair gel.
After that disappointment, I felt I had to try the dreaded strawberry chocolate squares. While the dessert didn't necessarily suck, it wasn't particularly good, either. A semi-frozen layer of a substance that tasted something like strawberries was sandwiched between utterly tasteless squares of a brownielike texture, and the whole thing had been drenched in chocolate syrup. Yum.
With the recent changes, Lodo's Corral Steakhouse is headed in the right direction. But it's got a long way to go.
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