John M. Wallace is a trucker. During his fifteen years on the road--the last three driving for a national furniture chain--he's been through 32 states and eaten at "near about three, no, make that four hundred truck stops." He's dropped by Deno's 6 & 85 in Commerce City at least five times in the past year. It's "pretty decent," he says.
There's this pervasive notion that certain truck stops must be good because they're heavily trafficked by truckers--and everyone knows how finicky they are--but I've always thought some truck-stop owner must have started that rumor. To test this theory, I ask Wallace why he eats at Deno's. "Because it's right off the highway here right about the time I'm ready to eat," he says.
According to Wallace, the public assumes truckers know good food because they spend a lot of time thinking about it. "When you're on the road all that time, there's only a couple a things to think about," he explains. "And if you're not thinking about food, well, let's just say that at least you know you're gonna get your food cravin's taken care of for sure, if you know what I mean."
Deno's has been taking care of truckers' food cravings for "about forty years," says one employee, who adds that nobody really knows for sure. "It was the '6 & 85' for a long time. Then the 'Deno's' part got added sometime around 1959." A quick look around the place is enough to convince you that 1959 was about the last time anybody did anything to fix it up--most of the furniture is banged up, and the ladies' room is filthy. The bar area is the nicer of the two rooms; the other houses several rows of booths and a diner counter backed by a big, empty display case and surrounded by stools, many of which are broken or leaning to one side.
Wallace was one of five guys sitting at the counter late one recent afternoon, just before the dinner rush was about to hit. By 6 p.m. the counter was full, and so were the booths and the bar. The counter is a good place to have your ear chewed off by a trucker hungry for some conversation, and that's what was happening to a surly-looking character with alarmingly hairy ears who sat two crooked stools away from Wallace and five away from a loudmouth who looked like Grizzly Adams. Hairy Ears was slowly working on what the menu calls "Italian Spaghetti with Meatball," which falls under the header "American Dinners." While he ate, Grizzly Adams offered the observation that when he quit smoking and drinking at the same time, he got "grouchier and testier for a while." But now, he added, he can sit next to anyone who's smoking or drinking and it doesn't bother him one bit. "I was stupid and young and I didn't care, see," Grizzly said.
Hairy Ears nodded in understanding, then frantically waved and pointed to the empty stool next to him when a trucker wearing a T-shirt that read "Thank God for the Honky Tonks" walked in. A pudgy waitress in one of those cute polyester uniforms with the white scalloped-lace trim shuffled out of the kitchen and yelled, "Angus, how are ya, honey?" to a sixty-something gentleman in one of the booths. We decided to ask for a booth ourselves because the stools at the counter were uncomfortable; at least, that's what we said. In truth, we didn't know if we could take Grizzly much longer. The hostess seated us and said, "I'm gonna spank her," nodding her head in the direction of a waitress who turned out to be ours. We didn't get to see that.
Instead, we entertained ourselves by playing with the phone in our booth. Every booth in any self-respecting truck stop comes with its own phone. It's like a phone on a plane--you wish you had someone you wanted to waste $15 on by calling just to say, 'Hi, we're calling you from a plane.' We decided to call a friend to say, 'Hi, we're calling you from a truck stop,' but the process of giving credit-card numbers was way too complicated. So we hung up and studied the menu, an interesting--to say the least--compilation of dishes that rarely keep company with each other. In particular, the Beef Crevette, Filet Mignon and Deep-Fried Shrimp ($12.99) entree caught our eyes, especially since "crevette" is French for "shrimp." The waitress informed us that it's also the word used for beef served "surf-and-turf" style. Then there was the San Juan Surprise ($4.49), a chimichanga-like deal involving a flour tortilla stuffed with beef and fried; the surprise must have been Deno's "Special Sauce." We decided to go with the Choice Filet Mignon Wrapped in Bacon ($9.99) and the Chicken-fried Chicken ($5.99). And imagine our surprise when these turned out to be not only edible but delicious.
The filet may or may not have been Choice--it was hard to tell with all that bacon--but it certainly was a fine piece of meat, about eight ounces and cooked to a perfect medium rare. The bacon had been cooked well, too, and wasn't sloppy with grease. A baked potato with cheap sour cream and an iceberg salad with commercial blue-cheese dressing--truck-stop classics--came with that meal. We got the same salad with creamy Italian dressing and our other starch choice, the steak-cut French fries, with the chicken-fried chicken, which turned out to be an amazingly large portion for the price. The kitchen had splayed a whole breast and pounded the hell out of it, then dipped it in an egg-and-flour mix and fried the hell out of it. Although little crackly bits of greasy batter stuck out all around the package, the flavorful bird inside was soft as butter and just as moist. It was so good it didn't need the blanket of black-pepper-fired cream gravy lovingly draped across both the chicken and the fries. Wallace was wrong: This was much better than decent.
When we returned for lunch, the crowd was a little tamer but still fun to watch--and the food was still worthy of our attention. We started by splitting a cup of the day's soup (75 cents), a cream of potato that we renamed "potato mache." Despite the soup's gluey consistency, it held our interest--it was obviously made from scratch, with a fairly concentrated beef stock. The spuds with the Hot Roast Beef and Real Mashed Potatoes ($3.99) lived up to their billing; the beef was high-quality (if a little on the dry side) and the gravy, although made from a mix, was strong and salty. The Grilled Polish Sausage on Rye with Sauerkraut ($3.59) was another solid sandwich. Although the sausage was low-grade, it was tasty, with fresh sauerkraut and fresher rye bread. The price was certainly right--and a side of Deno's excellent French fries, the kind of puffy, meaty sticks that have been fried a flawless golden, put the meal solidly in the bargain category.
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We polished off our lunch with coffee--not as good as we expected something so crucial to the trucking community to be--and a slice of the sweetest, gooiest pecan pie ($1.50) our teeth have ever cringed against. An inch-thick layer of what tasted like molasses and butter had been topped with the fewest number of nuts that could fit on a pie and still earn it the title of "pecan."
Buzzing from all that sugar, we passed the bar on our way out and overheard a trucker quizzing the bartender about the "Cocktail Suggestions" listed on the menu. "All right, then, what about a 'Brave Bull'?" he asked. The bartender said he didn't know. "How about a 'King Alphonse'?" The bartender shook his head. "Well, what's a 'Nose Job'?" the guy persisted. "Buddy, that's what you're gonna get if you don't stop asking me about them drinks," the bartender replied.
Time to hit the road, Jack.
Deno's 6 & 85, 5555 North Colorado Boulevard, Commerce City, 295-7672. Hours: 5:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday.