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COUNTRY COOKING

Living out in the boonies has its advantages: There's no pollution (we see Denver's brown cloud from a healthy distance), people shoot each other only after they've listened to too much country/ western music, and you can run around the house naked, because the neighbors are too far away to look in the windows. The disadvantages, however, include a 45-minute drive into Denver, dirt roads that don't get shoveled in the winter and weekly visits from Jehovah's Witnesses who want to save us from our heathen existence of growing vegetables and riding horses.

The nearest outpost of civilization is Parker, which is quite proud of its recently acquired K mart and Target. But Parker has few restaurants, and even fewer good ones. Surprisingly, the high-priced Pinery's proximity hasn't drawn many restaurateurs--although I have the feeling that will change soon, because the area is growing faster than you can say "bedroom community."

In the meantime, however, the Warhorse Inn is enough to satisfy all but the most effete appetites. Built in 1980, the building was originally a ten-gallon-hat saloon where thirsty ranch hands went to wash off the dust with a whiskey or two. Or five or six, according to part-owner John Winters. Along with partners Stevan Strain and Mike Bahr, Winters stepped in eleven years ago and turned the Warhorse into an affordable family-style eatery that concentrated on food first--and last. "Eighty percent of our output is food," says Winters, a veteran of many Denver restaurants. "We do have a nice selection of microbrews, but we try to downplay the alcohol and concentrate on the eating part."

And they're serious about that, as evidenced by the warning on the back of the menu that states the Warhorse will stop serving anyone who shows signs of intoxication--and then offers a lengthy list of danger signs. Even though I had only one beer during a recent visit, I still managed to commit several of these sins, including "foul language," "being a nuisance" and, especially, "irrational statements." Fortunately, no one in the joint so much as gave me a second glance.

That's probably because they were too busy concentrating on their food, which clearly fulfilled another Warhorse menu promise, that of "using only the freshest produce, highest grades of meat and recipes from scratch--complimented by prompt, courteous service in a friendly atmosphere."

Even the atmosphere lived up to its billing. Sturdy wooden booths and tables and a wood floor (all put in after a fire gutted the place in 1988) are equipped to take a beating from cowboy boots and kids alike, and the lighting is low enough to soothe frazzled parents attempting to do the impossible: enjoy a meal with their overstimulated children. And the Warhorse warhorses, most of whom must be parents themselves, were unusually tolerant of the spilled drinks, special orders and screaming babies that marked our meals there. The staff's patience was particularly noteworthy because the restaurant was packed to the limit both times.

Most of the customers are regulars who come to the Warhorse because the fare is simple and the portions large, Winters says. We found proof of that right off with an appetizer order of Super Nachos ($6.25), a mountain of just-fried corn tortilla chips weighted to the plate by refried beans, jalapenos, a too-runny guacamole and a lattice of melted cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses. Chopped green onions and tomatoes had been sprinkled over this Tex-Mex version of Pick-Up Sticks--every time we tried to pull out a chip, the stack threatened to shift. Successfully extracted, the chips only got better with a coating of the Warhorse's homemade salsa, a hot, hot sauce with quite a few chile seeds floating in it (the seeds are what really set your mouth on fire).

Three of us were barely able to make a dent in the nachos, and when we saw the size of our entrees, we were glad we hadn't pushed it. Chicken-fried steak ($6.95) is one of the kitchen's most popular items, and deservedly so. The piled-high plate featured hungry-man helpings of beautifully battered tender steak and chunky, skin-studded mashed potatoes, both smothered in an artery-clogging, peppery country gravy; garlicky Texas toast arrived on a separate plate. This is the kind of meal you really shouldn't eat unless you spent the morning plowing the fields with your bare hands, and since I hadn't, I wound up taking half of it home.

We thought we'd have to do the same with the rack of baby-back ribs ($14.50), a generous slab of meaty bones slathered with Winters's barbecue sauce--but they were too good not to finish on the spot. And an order of fajitas ($8.95) brought a full half-pound of tangy marinated chicken strips sauteed with onions and served with more of the gooey guacamole and other typical accoutrements--chopped tomatoes, grated cheese, shredded lettuce and a plop of sour cream. The tortillas came warm and stayed that way in a basket on the side. Although we made a valiant effort, once again a doggie bag was necessary.

After all that, I don't know what possessed us to order the brownie sundaes ($3.25), but we did. At least, two of us did; the third member of our party was smart enough to merely hang around with a spoon. We were more than willing to share: The warm, fudgy brownies were the size of bathroom tiles and buried under huge scoops of vanilla ice cream and lots of hot fudge sauce and whipped cream.

The Warhorse's wooden floorboards groaned under our enhanced weight when we finally left.

We were wiser the second time around and ordered a lighter appetizer: hot chips and salsa ($2.95). We next went for the fish and fries ($6.50), cut-up cod fillets dipped in batter and then deep-fried, served with a large side of curly fries. The cod didn't pass the Warhorse's own freshness test; while not bad, it had the texture of a previously frozen fish, and the taste was slightly off. The taste of the red-chile sauce blanketing the enchilada plate ($6.95) was merely bland and lacked the sophisticated zing of the salsa; the beef and chicken enchiladas themselves, though, were wonderful, each filled with plenty of meat and extra cheese.

When it came time for dessert, we exercised caution, ordering one blueberry cobbler ($3.25) for the three of us. The cobbler didn't hold up as well in the microwave as the brownie had; the crumbly exterior was chewy and almost inedible, the blueberries' sugary coating had turned into a sticky goo, and with all that hot sugar, the ice cream melted way too fast. We left most of this mess at the table, after telling a somewhat sympathetic waitress why.

But that was the only flaw in a round of sound meals. As is often the case after I find surprisingly good food (and value), I've developed quite a fondness for the Warhorse. One recent night our truck mysteriously turned right into the restaurant's parking lot when we already had a perfectly good dinner waiting at home; we split a rack of ribs that were just as delectable as we'd remembered.

See? There are definite advantages to living in the country.

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