Tin Star Cafe & Donuts|Senor Burritos
Halfway up the mountain, it occurred to Laura and me that neither of us wanted jägerschnitzel. And it wasn't just that we didn't want German food. We really weren't too crazy about each other at the moment. We'd been arguing all morning about this and that — a marital brushfire war, connubial insurgency running unchecked along our borders.
It was the usual stuff, familiar to anyone who's been married for more than five minutes — or at least familiar to anyone who's been married to me. And though the battle had cooled somewhat (as it often does) by the time we'd both had our second coffee — allowing us to actually get into the car, pull into the sunshine and aim the nose west without incident — we decided, halfway up the mountain, that German food is not exactly conducive to wedded bliss. German food, if conducive to anything, encourages only gas, a certain kind of chilly Teutonic sullenness and fantasies of invading Poland. And considering our moods, neither of us thought that sitting in a dark, mostly empty dining room with a hausfrau hovering over our table, avoiding the watery stares of the elderly day-trippers and pensioners, eating baby cow with mustard and charred potato pancakes while sipping the hefeweisen, sounded like a good idea. Lars Von Trier is less heavy-handed in his symbolism, Bergman more subtle with the visual cues of a relationship occasionally on the rocks.
Laura is the love of my life. Me, she tolerates with sometimes remarkable aplomb. But that doesn't mean we always like each other, and on those days when tolerance gives way to discord, major or minor, we've always found that dollar tacos, domestic beers and cheeseburgers — simple foods — seem to calm and center us.
So halfway up the mountain, we turned off. We went to Evergreen, because Laura likes to watch the creek run and I like the pok pok pok sound of my boots on the worn slats of the boardwalk — so very Outlaw Josey Wales. Laura picked her spot by the water in the sun, then told me to go find food because that's what I'm good at. And I am: Somehow, I stumbled across Tin Star Cafe & Donuts.
Tin Star is a small storefront cafe mixed in among all the other small storefront cafes, bars, art galleries and purveyors of knickknackery that shoulder up along Evergreen's high street. It's a nondescript space — except that, in concept, it is the perfect restaurant. Tin Star does only two things: barbecue and doughnuts. And therefore this combination barbecue shack/doughnut shop comes very close to my idea of how heaven might smell.
When it opened three years ago, Tin Star took over a spot that had been a doughnut shop since the 1970s. For almost a year, it continued to operate as a doughnut shop, then a doughnut shop and deli, then a doughnut shop with sandwiches. But two years ago, owner Andrew Schutt hit on the magical combination of doughnuts and barbecue, and knew he had a winner. His is the only restaurant of its kind in the country — the only place where a man in need can get a pound of smoked pork and an apple fritter as big as a cat. And the miracle is that Schutt does both really well.
But maybe that's not surprising, considering his background. Like so many chefs, Schutt started by studying communications in college, and actually got a journalism degree. When he realized he couldn't make the sheepskin pay, he found his way into kitchens — doing culinary school on the West Coast and some time in Napa, then working for Dave Query, with Tyler Wiard and Goose Sorensen and Cory Treadway. And like so many of Denver's best chefs, he's a veteran of Mel's, having done two tours on that tiny line before bailing out and getting into catering and cooking at farmers' markets prior to opening Tin Star. The very place where I ended up three years later on my bad afternoon, standing goggle-eyed and drooling before his counter, under the gaze of the antelope head mounted on the wall, looking at the racks of doughnuts, the pork shoulders resting in the bottom of the upright cooler and thinking to myself, Why in the hell didn't I think of doing this?
Schutt makes everything at Tin Star by hand, from scratch. He smokes over mesquite chips; has his own, secret dry rub recipe; has more secret recipes for Tin Star's standard 'cue sauce (a combination K.C.-Carolina tomato-and-vinegar concoction) and a spicy Colorado version (jacked up with smoky chipotles and hot as it can possibly be without shading over into chile-head masochism). He puts together great barbecue sandwiches — shredded pork shoulder piled onto a squishy bun and topped with crunchy red cabbage, slabs of Texas-style brisket, picked chicken. But the purest and most divine embodiment of Schutt's gift to the world is a pound of slow-smoked and peppery pork shoulder accompanied by two of his giant apple fritters — fried crisp on the outside, puffy as a croissant within, glazed in sugar, spiked with cinnamon and studded with sweet little cubes of apple.
When I stepped back outside, the wind had picked up. The fuzz from the cottonwood trees was blowing so thick that it looked like a freak summer snowstorm, but the rain wasn't far behind. I walked back down the boardwalk and crossed toward the water, looking for Laura, finding her sitting, waiting. She asked what I'd found to eat.
"Apple fritters and a pork sandwich," I said.
"From the same place?"
"Jesus, you must be the happiest boy in the world."
Her voice was still cool, but she smiled when she said it. And then she ate half a doughnut, some of the pork sandwich — picking at the meat with her fingers — and our battle was temporarily forgotten. We made for the car when the rain started to fall in earnest, walking hand in hand under an armistice of doughnuts and barbecue.
A couple days later, we had a dinner scheduled at one of the town's newest Indian restaurants — white-tablecloth tandoori, nouvelle biryani and samosas eaten off of nice china. And then some chickenshit motherfucker came along and caved in the ass end of Laura's car, crushing the back bumper, the trunk, the pipes, shoving the gas tank up somewhere into the vicinity of the back seat. Laura wasn't in the car, but she heard the noise — the thud and crumple so unique to cars doing terrible things to each other — and when she came out, all that was left was the damage, skid marks, a note pinned under the wiper with a bogus phone number, and a trail of vital automotive fluids marking the arc of the coward's fast U-turn as he fled the accident.
Suddenly, neither of us felt much like putting on the dog and dining on high-end lamb curry or nouvelle anything. We wanted comfort food, something we knew and trusted, something to make us feel good when things were looking pretty bad. We wanted Señor Burritos.
We've been going to Señor Burritos for a long time — to the location on First Avenue, just off Broadway, with the paintings on the windows of the little burro wearing a hat, the streaks of red and green neon running around the roof. Since our first visit here, half-drunk and goofy, after drinks and a movie at the Mayan, it's been one of our favorite fallbacks, the place we eat when we don't want to have to think about where to eat, when we don't want to even look at a menu.
We know what's there: tamales soaked in pork-studded green chile with a bite like a razor blade; big breakfast burritos that are served all day and on into the night; chicharrones burritos made with a fifty-fifty mix of cubed pork and crispy trim; sopaipillas with honey, fresh out of the fryer, that always taste of the ghosts of the last ten or twenty or a hundred things to have been fried in the same oil. I've sat in this room wolfing down free chips and salsa, drinking tall bottles of Mexican Coke, watching the strangest of crowds cycle in and out: artists and musicians, cartoonists who use the place like a studio, students and families, drag queens, the guy alone at his table poring over the pictures in the gun magazine, smudging his fingers across the pages as if it was high-gloss porno. In the corner, there's a vending machine where you can buy stickers of bleeding-heart Jesuses and wicked temp tattoos of stylized black dragons, should you be so inclined. The girls who work the counter are sweet and accommodating, the cooks generally sullen and silent except for the odd nights when something goes wrong and they explode into the kind of Spanish no one learns in high school.
Laura and I showed up near closing and ordered tamales, sopaipillas and chuletas de puerco — skinny pork chops rinded with fat, seared on the flat-top, washed in green chile and presented under a blob of creamy, perfect guacamole. The chuletas are my favorite dish here, my alpha and omega of bad-night comfort food, served with the best flour tortillas in the city — thin and crisp at the edges, sticky, almost like Indonesian roti. For a while we sat in silence — eating good food and thinking ugly thoughts. Laura was thinking about where we'd find the money to fix her car since we didn't carry any rear-ended-by-a-gutless-asshole insurance. I was thinking about how I could find the gutless asshole himself. Neither of us came up with any good answers, but we smiled a little anyway, taking comfort in familiar tastes, a familiar place.
By the time we finished, the last rush of the night was coming in under the neon. On the way out, I bought Laura a sweet dragon tattoo to stick on her arm, and a breakfast burrito for me, so I'd have something to eat the next morning — a little comfort, wrapped to go, insurance against whatever troubles tomorrow might bring.
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