Cafe Society

Big Deal

In case someone missed it the first several hundred times I said it, I don't like chain restaurants. They generally have all the charm and warmth of a metal Christmas tree; their service is usually non-existent; their food is almost always of substandard quality; and, worst of all, they frequently take money and business away from good, locally owned eateries.

Still, when I drive past a chain that has a line out the door, even in below-freezing temperatures, I have to wonder. And when I pull up to that line one day, ask how long the wait is and learn it's an hour, I have to know why. There's only one way to find out: Eat at Claim Jumper.

I did, and now I'm going to have to eat at least some of my words, because this California-based chain strikes pay dirt in Denver. The first Claim Jumper was founded nearly twenty years ago in Los Alamitos by the father-and-son team of Carl and Craig Nickoloff; Carl died in 1989, but Craig, while keeping the concept of serving excellent, American-heartland-style food at low prices, has continued to expand the business at a rate that stuns even industry experts. Claim Jumper's impressive sales records are surpassed only by those of the Cheesecake Factory chain, also based in California and coming soon to a Denver neighborhood near you. Claim Jumper's Littleton location is its first outside of California, and Nickoloff plans to add another one here, probably in Cherry Creek, sometime next year.

The most obvious reason for Claim Jumper's success is what people in the restaurant biz refer to as "perceived value"--the public's idea of what a particular meal should cost. The average check at this place runs $12; the average dish tastes better than average; and the average portion is far from average--it's huge. Nickoloff, quoted in an Orange County magazine, put it this way: "I want to hear people say 'Wow' when their food comes."

That Claim Jumper promise certainly pans out. We said "Wow" the moment we walked into this vast shrine to the Old West--a decorating concept that must have made Colorado an obvious choice for expansion. The interior stops short of cutesy, though, and even struck me as pretty darn nice: Nickoloff must be ringing up a lot of $12 checks in order to afford the wood beams, log furniture, antler chandeliers, antiqued-brass fixtures and stone fireplaces that make this one of the nicer family-oriented restaurants in the area. And family-focused it is: Kids are weighed upon arrival to determine the cost of their meal, working off a formula of 5 cents per pound. Based on the reactions of the many young rustlers present during our visit, the place is a hit with kids.

It's also popular with those who have the capacity to eat more food in one meal than most NFL players eat in three. Which, apparently, is just about everyone in the metro area: Would-be diners pulling into the already overcrowded parking lot wind up racing each other to the front door in an attempt to get a higher spot on the ever-present waiting list.

On our inaugural visit, we were neck and neck with one couple who pulled ahead at the last minute and rushed through the door, letting it close on me and the infant I was carrying in a car seat. Once safely inside, I was somewhat vindicated by the fact that they were given "Miss Kitty" as the name that would be called out when their table was ready, while we were handed the much more dignified "Wyatt Earp." Then we settled in to the thoughtfully designed waiting area, complete with a checkerboard-topped table, comfortable couches and bags of popcorn to help stave off hunger pangs. Only Claim Jumper first-timers partake of the snacks: Veterans know what they're in for once they take a mother lode off in one of the restaurant's unbelievably comfortable, completely partitioned booths.

But we were neophytes, and after spending considerable time perusing the large menu and the even larger beer list--which features not only local micros but several unusual offerings from afar--we unknowingly ordered enough to feed a men's bowling league. We uttered our second "Wow" after our appetizer combo ($9.95) arrived--by this time, we'd already made several foolish trips to the extensive "produce bar," which featured not only fresh produce but also produce that had been turned into some tasty salads--and we began to realize we'd seriously over-ordered. A platter large enough to hold a turkey overflowed with the mainstays of the starter world: buffalo wings, onion rings, fried mozzarella and zucchini, potato skins and garlic cheese toast. The spud skins were a little dry; the wings, toast, mozzarella and zucchini were respectable (if not particularly good for the arteries); and the onion rings were standouts--there were seemingly hundreds of the enticingly thin, spicy-batter-coated strands. Accompanying the combo was a plateful of sauce-filled ramekins, and while the melted Velveeta-tasting cheese sauce was disappointing, the marinara and Claim Jumper's own barbecue sauce were real winners.

A bottle of that fabulous barbecue sauce sat on the table, and after tasting it, we had insisted on trying the Miner's Combo ($14.95), which paired two of Claim Jumper's signature dishes: rotisserie chicken and hickory-smoked baby-back pork ribs. When this entree appeared, we couldn't help but exhale another round of "Wow"s (as well as a few other phrases, including one involving the word "holy"). In addition to a quarter of a chicken and a half-rack of ribs, the plate also held (barely) a mound of gravy-coated mashed potatoes the size of a football, a cornbread muffin the size of a softball, a kabob of grilled vegetables, a shiny red apple, a quarter of a cantaloupe and a tortilla cup of extra barbecue sauce. The chicken was a beautiful piece of work, its juices held in by a crispy, succulent skin, and the ribs were superb--chewy but tender, with a strong, smoky flavor.

The Blackened Cowboy Steak ($17.95) was an equally awesome sight: Again the plate held the apple and melon, along with a huge fried zucchini, a side of pico de gallo, a baked Idaho potato the size of a prairie dog, and a killer sixteen-ounce, bone-in Certified Angus New York steak that had been powdered with some powerful seasonings and broiled to an impeccable medium rare (as indicated by the small wooden stick stamped "medium rare" and stuck in the steak), then topped by more of those excellent onion rings. Finally, there was the enormous chicken pot pie ($7.95), which, when sliced open, released a steam of chicken gravy that could not fail to arouse even the snobbiest of gourmets; like us, they'd be reduced to childlike glee over such a comfortable rendition of this most soothing of comfort foods. The pot pie was filled with large chunks of chicken, peas, carrots and potatoes, and it had been lidded with a thick, chewy crust.

By now, we'd piled up an impressive stack of to-go boxes, but we were so caught up in conquering this mountain of food that we had to go for the summit: dessert. We only managed to make it part way through one, though, an abominable thing called "Ideclair" ($4.95). It resembled a loaf of bread that had just been attacked by a gang shooting canned whipped cream; in reality, it was an eclair bomb of ice cream and chocolate sauce that after a few bites made us feel as if we were gutting a small, squishy, surprisingly sweet animal.

We were ashamed to admit to our waitress that we wanted to take our other desserts--the Motherlode chocolate cake ($5.95) and the mixed-berry deep-dish pie ($3.25)--home, but we weren't the only diners who had to do so. Nearly everyone who walks out of Claim Jumper looks like they've just been grocery shopping, so laden are they with large bags bulging with containers. The next day we found the six-layer wedge of cake, which measured more than a foot wide and was enough for three very hungry chocoholics, to be merely delicious. But the mixed-berry pie, which we had expected to contain cheap cherry-pie goo, was densely packed with raspberries, blackberries and strawberries, and it was nothing short of heavenly once warmed in the microwave.

As long as I have to eat humble pie, I'll gladly do it at Claim Jumper.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner