Cafe Society

To El and Back

The last time my neighbors had been at El Rancho was when they got married, twelve years and several children ago. So when I asked them to join me there for dinner, they jumped at the chance.

During the half-hour drive into the foothills, my neighbors raved about El Rancho's great food and its fun decor. "After we ate there, I told everyone it was my all-time favorite restaurant," the husband said. "It was the place to go," the wife added. "You had your special occasions there because you knew the food would be good. They were known for their turkey dinners, too. People went there just for that."

But that was a dozen years ago, when Paul and Donna McEncroe still ran things. El Rancho was an institution back then, a destination for out-of-towners eager to dine while looking out on the Continental Divide from one of the thirteen expansive windows that serve as walls in the western half of the dining room; the restaurant was also a popular before-prom-popping-the-question-promotion-retirement spot for Denver residents. And around holidays, especially Christmas and Thanksgiving, you couldn't get near the joint.

But it wasn't just the homey-on-the-range atmosphere and the spectacular view that brought in the business. It was also the McEncroes' dedication to both the restaurant and the community, a commitment they'd made in 1958 when they moved their family here from Milwaukee to take over El Rancho from Donna's parents, who'd bought it from the Jahnke family in 1954. The Jahnkes built the place in 1947--the original dining room sat in what is now the bar area and, unbelievably, had no windows--and lived with their World War II-veteran sons on the second floor. Not surprisingly, that arrangement didn't last long.

During their thirty-year tenure, the McEncroes made El Rancho one of the Front Range's mainstays. By the time they finally handed over the reins, they were pulling in $2.2 million in annual sales--up from $115,000 the first year they took over.

When Skip Roush bought El Rancho in 1988, he found he had big boots to fill; a reviewer in a Zagat survey conducted during Roush's reign referred to it as "el rauncho." A year ago, he finally threw in the kitchen towel and sold the restaurant to Mark and Susan McKenna. Mark had owned a catering company in Los Angeles that fed Hollywood's rich and famous--the casts of Miami Vice, thirtysomething and Family Ties among them--before the duo moved to Denver to take on El Rancho, their first restaurant.

"I'd have to say catering's a little easier," says Mark, who modestly talks of having graduated from "culinary school" before coyly admitting it was the Culinary Institute of America. "In catering, you always know how many people are coming for dinner." Breakfast and lunch are also served at El Rancho, and Mark and his new chef, CIA grad and Italian Fisherman alumni Chester Wright, have revamped all the menus, which they plan to change seasonally. Although they've retained the "Colorado/American" culinary theme--little else would work in this polished-wood, antler-studded, wagon-wheel-rustic atmosphere--they've also added a line of microbrews made exclusively for El Rancho by One Keg Brewery.

A line at the top of each menu welcomes diners to "the New El Rancho," but my neighbors couldn't help longing for the old one. And with no fond memories with which I could compare this El Rancho, all I longed for was better service and food.

From the start, the dishes seemed somewhat askew. An appetizer chicken quesadilla ($5.95) contained plenty of cheese and nicely charbroiled chicken, but it also held large chunks of barely cooked carrot that at first bite made us jump, thinking we were about to chew something we shouldn't. And while we were happy to sink our teeth into the roasted-red-pepper ravioli ($5.95) and their smoked-mozzarella stuffing, they needed more of the subtle pesto cream sauce that accompanied them. The sherried bechamel sauce promised with the stuffed mushroom starter ($6.75) wasn't apparent; it might have been soaked up by the excellent crabmeat stuffing, but if so, we couldn't taste it.

The entrees all came with heavy-on-the-iceberg house salads, but the dressings were fresh and flavorful. So were all the side dishes: a standard baked potato, gentle-on-the-garlic chunky mashed potatoes, salty seasoned fries and, that night, sauteed zucchini and yellow squashes. Our luck held through the prime rib ($14.95 for eight ounces) and the linguini El Rancho ($13.95). The Black Angus beef had been beautifully roasted and oozed so much of its own juice that the extra "au jus" wasn't necessary; the dish is so popular--and deservedly so--that the McKennas now feature a prime-rib buffet on Wednesday nights. The pasta was a bit more involved, tossed with a pungently sweet sausage of rabbit and rattler that enhanced a sauce made from sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil and garlic and finished off with cream. This unusual combination was surprisingly successful, and it made the failure of the other entrees tough to swallow.

The shrimp scampi ($16.95), for example, was so bland that we wished it had been called shrimp scamper and could scurry off on its own. As it was, the diner who ordered it wound up pushing the plate aside and eating someone else's baked potato. An enormous mound of unappetizing linguini had been topped by jumbo crustaceans overcooked in a watery broth that did not taste like either garlic or lemon--or anything else, really. In fact, the same liquid might have been used to marinate the pork chops ($14.95), two eight-ounce chops that were supposed to have been coated in something citrus but boasted no flavor other than that of dry, charbroiled pork. Dry, too, was the roast turkey ($12.95)--I doubt anyone still drives long distances to eat El Rancho's bird. Although the cranberry sauce was decent and well-balanced between sweet and tart, the gravy lacked body and the alleged cranberry-sage stuffing was a big heap of breading with no discernible berries and only a hint of sage.

The trout El Rancho ($16.95) was downright weird: What looked like a whole boned trout had been stuffed with spinach and some sort of "herbed cheese," then wrapped in a potato crust and baked with a bearnaise glaze. Although the potato crust was impressive, the herbed cheese had an odd, unidentifiable off taste that the tangy, vinegary bearnaise only heightened. I ate about three bites and gave up, asking the waitress to box it so I could take it home and examine it further. (Which I did, but I still couldn't figure out what made the flavors so funky.)

The fact that two entrees had gone almost untouched--we didn't even bother asking for a box for the scampi--did not seem to perturb our server. But then, during our two-hour meal she'd virtually ignored our table except on those rare occasions when she absolutely had to bring us something. Besides a terrible timing problem between courses (which could have been the kitchen's fault rather than hers), empty glasses went unnoticed, and after dropping off the entrees, she never stopped back by to see if everything was all right. She was generally curt and even a little pissed off the entire evening--until she came by with the check (there were seven in our group, a gathering large enough to mean a big tip) and enthusiastically announced that our kids were "the best behaved" she had ever seen and that she was "delighted to have waited on us." Too little, too late, lady.

Luckily, we'd managed to end the evening on a high note without her help, what with the great desserts and view. El Rancho's pastry chef had turned out some lovely cakes, which were available by the slice or whole from a glass case in the lobby. I could have happily taken home an entire carrot or hazelnut cake ($4.50 per piece); the carrot was sweet and textured with tons of icing, and the chocolate hazelnut was a dense concoction that delivered plenty of the nut's richness. Just plain nuts describes the entertainment that accompanied our dessert, however. We'd arrived too late to sit by the windows that offer a view of the mountains; instead we were treated to quite a show in the bar, where a group of drunks were dancing (badly) to a guy singing Jimmy Buffet better than Buffet sings Buffet.

Meanwhile, back at El Rancho, we were singing a different tune--and it wasn't "Happy Days Are Here Again."

El Rancho, Exit 252 off I-70 West, El Rancho, 526-0661. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.