In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
The three things I immediately noticed about the bright yellow McCoy's trio of signs hovering in tight formation above the 1-70 on-ramp at Federal Boulevard: the apostrophe is missing in "McCoys" on the top sign, there's an "s" at the end of "Family Restaurants" on the second sign -- implying that there may be more than one restaurant -- and the word "cocktails" in the lowest of the three is as big as my car. What this meant to me was that despite a lack of attention to lettering, cocktails seemed important enough to merit a big mention in swooping cursive to all who sped by. That alone gave me hope for an enjoyable night on the far side of the highway frontier that generally marks my northernmost dining boundary. There may be a couple of blocks left in what is still technically Denver city limits, but the motels, gas stations and fast-food outlets signify mostly a region of transition and quick getaways, not of destination restaurants.
That pluralized phrase -- family restaurants -- had me a little worried, though. Was this some forgotten remnant of a foundering East Coast chain, a poor cousin to Denny's or Perkins? My spirits were lifted when I spotted a row of blue and orange stadium seats just outside the entrance, hauled no doubt from the original Mile High Stadium. The owners were therefore locals, Denverites, fanatics, not some nameless corporate entity that might instruct management to hang a few non-specific NFL beer banners around, but would never go in for such partisan nonsense. Relocating bleacher seats any significant distance from their former home must have required forethought, planning and either connections or a thick wad of hard-earned cash. It's the kind of ridiculous gesture that makes regulars out of locals who just stopped in because it seemed like a quick breakfast before a long haul or the only all-night spot at the end of one.
Once we were seated inside, our waitress presented us with further evidence of local ownership: tall menus proclaiming "chef owned and operated." There was even an illustration of a chef with a thin French mustache presenting a steaming tureen. The apostrophe in McCoy's had also been restored to its proper status of designator of the possessive; it said in a soft but succinct voice, "this is the restaurant possessed by McCoy."
The list of breakfast dishes, appetizers and entrees was timeless and comforting. Some, like the potato skins we chose for a starter, seemed anchored to a lost decade, while others have become classics specifically sought-after in diners across the Midwest. From those classics, I opted for chicken-fried steak with white gravy and mashed potatoes, a meal I relished as a child for its rarity and excellence. My parents were not big restaurant-goers and didn't count breaded sirloin cutlets in their repertoire of regular recipes. The strict interpretation of the dish at McCoy's did not disappoint my inner child. Pounded thin and tenderized almost to the point of becoming ground beef, the oval cutlet sported a thin but crunchy jacket of breading with just a hint of dried seasoning and a mild dose of clean fryer oil. The gravy, freckled with ground black pepper (from a jar, not fussily fresh-ground), was of a texture somewhere between a solid and a liquid -- refusing to actually flow, like something a drywall repairman might reach for in a moment of desperation. In other words, it was perfect.
Amy, thinking about her favorite dish from the Breakfast King, another Denver institution, ordered a tuna melt with a side of coleslaw. Although the kitchen -- seemingly out of pure instinct -- added fries to her plate instead of slaw, we didn't complain but instead giddily enjoyed three different potato preparations. The stout and soft skins, only slightly crunchy skin around the edges, held pools of molten cheddar and splinters of bacon. The tuna melt was hefty and shot through with tangy pickle relish, just as it should have been. A specials board over the counter advertised $4 cocktails so, feeling transported to an earlier, simpler era, I ordered a tequila sunrise, which not surprisingly tasted of college, but seemed appropriate for a setting where the best course of action is to forget the time of day, forget even the decade, and just roll with the suggestions.
Between the last sips of my tequila-heavy drink, I watched an elderly man at the counter, surrounded by his worn and stained luggage, dive into a root beer float with such mindfulness and gusto that I couldn't imagine that he didn't repeat the ritual nightly, if not here, then at some other diner down the road. Ultimately, a roadside diner fronting a budget motel is in the business of feeding people cheaply and quickly, but not so cheaply or quickly that the drive-up window on the other side of the parking lot becomes a better option. Diners must also traffic in helping customers forget, if only for the span of a meal, that they're not at home, not enjoying Mom's cooking or Dad's questionable but well-meaning attempts at bartending. The fun of pretending, even if home is only a few blocks away, is in putting yourself in the shoes of those travelers and indulging in simple food, easy banter with the wait staff, and a kind of suspended life above the roar of the highway.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.