Cafe Society


Only in Denver.

Certain things -- Crocs, Mayor John Hickenlooper, Elway's steakhouse -- could only come out of Colorado. Others, like 99-cent strip-mall sushi and Western states hockey, seem anachronistic, yet flourish here regardless.

But I've been a lot of places and seen a lot of things. And while I'm thinking hard, I can't think of any place other than Denver that could have given birth to something as unusual as Cowbobas.

And not only give birth, but nurture it past those first, delicate months. Today Cowbobas is almost a year old, much prettier inside than out, a strip-mall storefront (like everything else these days) jammed in among the gas stations, hair salons and carnicerías on a bedraggled corner of Evans and Federal. It's such a fiercely neighborhood spot that -- like some kind of rare butterfly discovered by an obsessed lepidopterist -- it could not live a moment outside of its own biosphere, its own micro-environment, its own area code.

Cowbobas is a combination cowboy steakhouse and Vietnamese boba tea shop that serves coffee and corn dogs, with selections from the short, tight menu translated into Spanish and painted on the windows. You can get a cheeseburger and a crystal jelly fruit tea here, a grilled cheese sandwich and a jackfruit smoothie so syrupy sweet you'll think you're having a heart attack. If I were a science-fiction writer, I'd want to invent Cowbobas as a way to describe the fast-forward intermingling of cultures and people, as a backdrop for some discussion of comfort and technology and the acceptance of change. Also, I'd probably throw in some robots.

But because this is Denver, and because Denver is so gloriously, delightfully, unabashedly weird, I don't have to invent Cowbobas. I don't have to invent anything. Here I just have to wait patiently, and sooner or later, all fictions will realize themselves.

As I relaxed at Cowbobas on a Sunday afternoon, kicked back in one of the simple, black, restaurant-supply-warehouse chairs at my table against the wall, watching a Vietnamese teenager beside me shuffle pixels on his laptop and the Japanese handyman beside him talk on his cell phone and scratch filigreed Kana onto a napkin with the stub of a pencil and the Mexican family across the room tuck into their steaks and smoothies, I recognized that not only is truth stranger than fiction, it's better, mostly in the detail. Huxley, Dick, Gibson -- any one of them might have dreamed this place up. And they would have gotten it all wrong, missing the fine points of the blunt plastic and gleaming chrome accents on the high-tech, high-speed mixers behind the counter (each like a small space shuttle waiting to take on its tiny alien passengers) or the jumbled clutter of sticky flavor-mix bottles and spice shakers and industrial jugs of steak sauce crowding the shelves, the Chinese maneki niko good-luck cat in the corner. They probably would have mentioned the big flat-screen TV dominating the right-hand wall -- sci-fi writers have been envisioning big flat TVs since forever, more or less inventing them in their minds -- but definitely would not have had it showing hours of World's Greatest Sports Disasters. And they certainly couldn't have conjured up the commingled smell of steaks burning on the grill, cheap cologne, strawberry-banana syrup and carpet shampoo.

Truth is just better.

While living in Albuquerque, I'd occasionally drop by a pho restaurant attached to an emissions testing station, a joint I will forever remember as Chateau Tailpipe. In Florida, I worked (briefly) in the restaurant that invented the "Bloomin' Onion" -- which, for a time, was the single-most popular appetizer anywhere, done in some form, under some ridiculous name, by just about every restaurant in America. In Upstate New York, the best, most authentic Mexican restaurant was a one-room concern that doubled as an employment office for the migrant workers who labored in the surrounding farmland and peach orchards. On Friday, you couldn't walk into an Italian restaurant without being overwhelmed by the stink of battered haddock fillets scorching in rancid fryer oil. And every diner, no matter the nationality of its owners, served souvlaki morning, noon and night.

All of these restaurants existed in their time and place because they'd been created by their time and place. Albuquerque (like Denver) has a very large Vietnamese population. And the city also demands emissions inspections for cars so often that you can't drive a mile without seeing a testing station. Thus, Chateau Tailpipe: a spot where you could have a nice bowl of tripe-and-tendon soup while the garage employees decided how much they were going to try to extort from you before giving your 1978 Toronado a clean bill of health. Upstate New York is full of Micks, Italians, Poles and Greeks, and six days out of seven, everyone eats from the melting pot: spaghetti and souvlaki and Guinness and pierogi. But because it is also a doggedly Catholic stronghold, on Friday everyone eats fish. Except the Mexicans, who eat posole out in the sticks.