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Trust the System

The roadhouse less traveled: Martha Koch (left) keeps an eye on customers at Bear Creek Tavern.
Mark Manger

There's a method -- rigorously tested and refined by my friend Andy, an old kitchen buddy -- for determining the quality of a Mexican restaurant before you even sit down. It's quick, scientific and nearly foolproof, and it simply calls for tallying the bullfighting paraphernalia on the walls. A single print or poster tucked away in a corner means trouble: Have some chips and salsa, maybe a beer, and then leave, secure in the knowledge that your astute powers of observation have saved you from severe gastrointestinal discomfort. A two-poster display, maybe with some shlocky souvenir sombreros, is better, but still in the danger zone. And anyplace that sports actual programs from a bullfight or brightly colored advertising bills is a serious find, one whose location should be jealously guarded.

Using Andy's formula (which, it should be noted, only works east of the Mississippi, where good Mexican restaurants are as rare and precious as flawless diamonds, and is actually much more complicated than this, involving such details as how many maps of northern Mexico must be present before it's safe to eat the tamales), another friend once happened on a tiny Mexican cafe in southern-tier New York that proudly displayed the moldering ear of a bull killed in the ring (allegedly) and served what was probably the only good posole for 300 miles in any direction. Come to find out, this little place was where all the migrant peach-pickers (many of them Mexican nationals) came to eat before and after work, and it became the first place I ever ate chicharrones.

In Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon describes a similar system for grading small-town cafes, one based entirely on the profusion of wall calendars. It works pretty well, especially when you employ my corollary giving extra credit for more out-of-date displays. For example, a cafe with two Allstate Insurance Company calendars showing the proper year will not serve chicken-fried steak as good as at the place one town over that boasts a single John Deere calendar perpetually open to August 1962.There's also a system for determining whether to eat at a '50s-style diner, and this is the simplest of the bunch. Just don't, unless it's a '50s-style diner that's been in continuous operation since the Eisenhower administration and looks the way it does simply because the owners haven't yet found the time to redecorate.

And, of course, there's a method for judging the grub and timeless authenticity of country roadhouses before you so much as look at the menu. This one involves the ratio (in weight) of dead, stuffed animals to antique farm implements decorating the dining room. It's not the gross tonnage that matters so much as the balance between the two, because I've found the decor is usually indicative of the sort of cuisine prepared in the kitchen -- with the trophy animals representing meat and potatoes and the farm implements symbolizing local produce. For the sake of argument, let's say that the Squat 'n' Gobble Cafe in Spink, Nebraska, is adorned with a thousand pounds of assorted thresher blades, duck decoys, antique plowhorse tack, logging saws and rusty tin signs advertising a sale on tractors that ended in 1944, but only one mangy jackrabbit, subjected to inexpert taxidermy, displayed on top of the register and weighing in at two pounds, tops. To me, that says have a salad, maybe the soup, and save room for the homemade pie, but avoid the pork chops and don't even think about the chili. And if the owner has put a little hat on the stuffed bunny or painted idyllic nature scenes on any of the farm implements, run -- don't walk -- for the door.

As you pull up to Bear Creek Tavern, a rambling roadhouse/cafe stretching out along the banks of Bear Creek in Kittredge, the first thing you see are splintered pieces of wood and bits of rusted iron hanging on the rough-planked exterior, flanking the tavern's small sign. It's obvious to anyone with an eye for such details that these random parts were once farm equipment and that their display is effective advertising. They state plainly and irresistibly that inside will be more of the same, put there by owners who understand exactly the message they're delivering -- that theirs is a kitchen serving just plain food for just plain folks.

Walking through the parking lot packed with gleaming Harleys and dusty pickup trucks that actually look like they've been used to pick up something more substantial than the kids from school, passing by the signs disallowing the bikers from flying club colors inside and stepping through the door, my roadhouse-ratio system instantly tells me that I'm going to like Bear Creek Tavern. On the walls are branding irons, antique camp-cooking utensils, duck decoys, cowboy hats dark around the brims with old sweat, tin rifles and a saddle. Odd pieces of farm equipment crowd the corners, and above the short bar where regulars sit sharing smokes and conversation with the staff hangs a picture of a Colt revolver and the message "We don't call 911."

 

And for balance, there's a bear.

A dusty old moose head salvaged from some frat-house rumpus room would've been fine. A couple of jackalopes or a ten-point buck's rack hung with castoff bras and ties would have been enough to tell me that I'd stumbled across a local treasure ranking right up there in the pantheon of great finds, alongside a three-calendar cafe. But the bear (and it's not a big bear, but still) puts this place into the stratosphere, into the rarefied company of joints like that little Mexican hole-in-the-wall with the bull's ear.

Owners Chuck and Martha Koch took over Bear Creek Tavern in 1980, when it was still a country-fried roadhouse and bona fide biker bar. Cheap beer, live music and loud pipes continued as the order of the day for over a decade, until the Koches -- banking on the tavern's beautiful view of Bear Creek, which flows right under the main dining room, and an increasing number of day-trippers and tourists making their way up into the foothills -- started transforming the joint from a locals' clubhouse to a full-on restaurant. Wisely, they didn't take things far enough to cause the tavern to lose much of its character. They didn't put cutesy crocheted salt-and-pepper cozies on the tables or take that faux-rustic white-tablecloth approach so many other places try when they attempt to make the jump. No, they just cleaned things up some, let Mother Nature take care of the landscaping (visible through the long banks of windows along the back wall and matched by a total lack of any windows in front, where they'd look out on the gravel parking lot and Highway 74), and created a solid menu of Western-cafe vittles that are about twice as good as you'd expect from anyplace without its own stuffed bear in the dining room.

The kitchen sends out big, fat, two-fisted burgers of 100 percent corn-fed Iowa beef. They're juicy, loose-packed, hand-formed and sometimes oddly shaped, with none of the flavor-killing rime of the prepackaged, machine-formed and flash-frozen patties most restaurants serve. The steaks -- ribeye and sirloin, both generously cut -- are also corn-fed American prime, full-flavored and tender even at the overdone end of the spectrum, because somewhere in the tavern's galley is a grillman who really knows how to handle his meat.

Being an annoying prick because, well, I was born that way, but also to test the kitchen, I order my sirloin "medium, but more like medium-well, because I want it to be a little pink in the middle, you know? But not bloody. And not cold, but not cooked all the way well, either, because I don't like it too tough." Admirably, the waitress just smiles and says, "Got it." And damned if the steak doesn't show up twenty minutes later grilled exactly to my impossible specifications: medium-medium-well, barely pink, warm through and not burned into shoe leather. Hell, I'm willing to bet the grillman didn't even spit on it, although God knows I would have if I'd had to cook that for me.

Bear Creek Tavern features a big breakfast menu full of big plates for big appetites: huevos rancheros, steak and eggs to order, corned beef hash, grilled pork patties bulked out with steel-cut oats and onions, the works. The lunch version attracts a crowd that includes four demure older ladies from the Chamber of Commerce Women's Auxiliary picking at grilled-cheese sandwiches, shrimp plates and fresh garden salads at one table, while at the next a half-dozen big fellas in screaming-eagle bandannas and West Coast Choppers T-shirts with the sleeves cut off wolf down cheeseburgers and sirloin sandwiches, pound longnecks and politely lean over to ask the ladies if they can please borrow their ketchup.

For dinner, the menu adds the aforementioned ribeyes and sirloins, all done without fancy seasoning, mops or marinades (screw you, Flay); Cajun catfish patted down with the owners' own custom blend of blackening spice (screw you, Emeril); batter-fried walleye fillets with a light, barely browned crust and tender, oily flesh that flakes into perfect, bite-sized pieces; and oyster shooters.

Now, I've eaten duck's tongue, chicken feet, fish eggs and snails, but I just can't bring myself to slurp down raw oysters at an ex-biker saloon halfway up the mountains in a town thousands of miles away from the nearest oyster bed. Nothing I've tried here leads me to believe the oysters won't be fine, but there's this little voice in my head that keeps telling me never to eat shellfish anywhere that doesn't have a direct line of sight to an ocean.

 

Or a hospital.

But I've made a pretty good life for myself ignoring those little voices of reason and common sense, so I make an exception to my no-shellfish rule for the Royal Red shrimp -- and this slight show of courage pays off in spades. The Koches have family who live on the Alabama shore, and while visiting there back in 1991, they discovered Royal Reds. These beauties have been on the menu ever since, shipped in fresh every week straight from the Gulf Coast shrimpers to Kittredge, Colorado, and as far as the Koches know (and as far as I've been able to determine), Bear Creek Tavern is the only restaurant in the Rocky Mountain West that serves them. These are deep-sea shrimp, huge -- in some cases, as big curled up as my hand stretched flat from fingertips to wrist -- with pale red shells, a meaty texture softer than that of most Asian varieties and a flavor like very good crab dressed up as lobster. They come to the table in a massive, salty pile with heads, legs, antennae and shells intact, attended by real drawn butter and lemon (no cocktail sauce unless you ask, and you shouldn't), Handi Wipes, a whole roll of paper towels, and directions for getting the big monsters out of their armor. What they should come with is a pistol or a mallet or something to defend yourself in case one of the bigger ones is playing dead. The Royal Reds are so popular, a bartender assures me, that they aren't around long enough to get old and die of natural causes.

Which is a good thing to hear after I've eaten several pounds of them. Still, by now I know there's no need to worry. Trust the system, that's the lesson here. The balance in Bear Creek Tavern's decor carries over to its kitchen, which serves good local produce, as fresh as the Koches can get it, and excellent meats and potatoes in roughly equal measure. The locals trust the place and have been coming back for years. The bikers trust it, too -- although I've seen bikers eat paint, so maybe that's not much of a recommendation. But even the old ladies trust it, and if you can't feel comfortable eating in a restaurant in Kittredge where old ladies shucking shrimp from Alabama are watched over by a stuffed bear, there's just no hope for you. Go back to your faux-'50s diner and leave the rest of us alone, all right?

That way there will be more Royal Reds for the old ladies, the bikers and me.

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