But in the wrong hands, that buffalo stuff can be very bland. And to find it done right, sometimes your visitors will have to sacrifice Old West atmosphere in exchange for a chef who's willing to try new preparations.
The last time I ate at El Rancho, owners Mark and Susan McKenna had just purchased the restaurant, which initially opened back in 1948, long before there was an I-70, much less an El Rancho exit ("To El and Back," May 23, 1996). Mark had owned a catering company in Los Angeles that served the stars, and the McKennas had big dreams for their Colorado restaurant. But the first menu they came up with for El Rancho -- full of cheap-tasting, heavy-handed fare -- didn't fit with the homey-on-the-range atmosphere. Today that cute, but not cutesy, atmosphere remains -- complete with antler-adorned lighting and lots of rustic wood (the hokey stuff is confined to the souvenir shop) -- but the menu has been updated to better reflect the setting.
New chef Erik Reynolds does wonders with such Western requisites as rattlesnake and rabbit. But he also gives new twists to old favorites, filling a burrito ($13.95) with ground buffalo, green chiles and cheese and smothering it with a prime-rib-studded green chile ($13.95). Paired with an appetizer of chicken wings ($6.95) slicked with a tequila-spiked plum sauce, the burrito -- and more than a few beers -- made for an ideal, down-from-the-mountains, munchie-type meal.
When we returned for a more dignified dinner, El Rancho again rose to the occasion. The meal started with a complementary relish tray, featuring quality crudites and a Thousand Island-style dressing. Then came such funky combinations as crunchy-crisp Southwestern wontons ($7.95) filled with elk and buffalo and sided with a zippy jalapeño dip, and the Who Ate Who? appetizer of sausages ($8.95) stuffed with a sweet and savory mixture of char-grilled rabbit and rattlesnake. A crock of prime-rib chili ($5.50) showed off the restaurant's famous prime rib, which has been a Wednesday-night all-you-can-eat deal ($21.95) since the McKennas bought the place. The chili had a nice kick, with the consistency of an extra-chunky gumbo.
Our entree orders included the house salad, with dressing that was a blue-cheesy dream; that dressing was good on the warm, crusty-edged breads, too.
On to the meat of the matter: El Rancho's mixed grille ($28.95) included large medallions of velvety elk cloaked in a sun-dried-cherry sauce (although the cherries didn't seem to have been dried and had the consistency of pie filling, they still worked), as well as more of the rabbit-and-rattlesnake sausage and a well-grilled quail nestled against a sweet peach sauce. The wild-game meatloaf ($13.95) wasn't nearly as dramatic, but it was respectable nonetheless. Filled with elk, buffalo and venison, it derived most of its flavor from fresh herbs and an aromatic porcini sauce. The accompanying mashed potatoes were thick and dense, with a wonderfully buttery flavor.
Attempting dessert was foolish at this point, but an enormous wedge of chocolate cake ($6.95) thickly coated with a deeply chocolate icing and a fat ball of an apple dumpling ($5.27) looked too good on the tray to pass up. We didn't come close to finishing these confections, but we put up a good fight in the best Old Western tradition.
Ride 'em, cowboy.