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.

No one actually lives in Florida anymore; it's occupied solely by tourists. And all tourists love deep-fried anything. The garages in Albuquerque could export all of their used air filters and PCV assemblies to restaurants in Orlando or Tampa, where they could then be deep-fried by the armies of Cuban fry cooks and sold to vacationing families from the Midwest. Everyone would get rich. And since the deep-fried onion is, culinarily speaking, just one step above a batter-dipped catalytic converter, it doesn't surprise me at all that Florida is where this abomination was initially conceived.

Denver is the same, because Denver is unique. None of those places would have lasted five minutes here, and Cowbobas wouldn't last two anywhere else. In this neighborhood -- along a stretch where it's easier to find a great taco or a cow's stomach than it is a fifty-dollar porterhouse or a fatted goose's liver -- Cowbobas stands as a kind of defining point, a socio-culinary landmark describing its surroundings as completely as it is described by them. The area is heavily Mexican, heavily Asian, certainly on the low end of the economic ladder. Cowbobas is all of those things, too: made both for and by Federal Boulevard, catering to it, providing for the melting pot.

Service here is incredibly friendly, occasionally haphazard, sometimes fast and sometimes not. On the floor, there's a wonderful ignorance of anything like timing or flights. The food comes when the food comes off the grill -- rare steaks quick, well steaks slow, a sweet fruit boba drink in its disposable plastic cup with heat-sealed plastic cover and special pointy straw a minute after you order, a rocket-fuel Vietnamese slow-drip coffee made with Café Du Monde and sweetened condensed milk halfway through dinner.

The food isn't fancy, isn't pretty, isn't designed in any artificial, insincere way. Instead, the menu offers simple kicks for simple tastes. The entrees are mostly steaks -- from a 22-ounce porterhouse for fifteen bucks to a nine-ounce strip loin for less than $10 -- and all choice cut, the favored grade of homemaking moms, of supermarket butcher's counters and bargain meat shoppers. Although some pedantic beef sticklers (like me when I'm in a more feisty mood) might tell you that there's nothing in the world quite like a properly dry-aged, prime-grade ribeye, I also say there's nothing quite like a $12 choice T-bone for reminding you of what steaks used to taste like before anyone knew anything about steaks -- what they tasted like coming off Dad's backyard grill.

Sure, the steaks can be tough. They've got some gristle, some unmarbled fat, some connective tissue. But they truly taste like steak -- like beef and blood and char -- unlike those killer USDA prime beauties, which often (especially in the filet and loin cuts) eat like marshmallows soaked in salt brine. Refinement can be good, but it doesn't always taste good. And at Cowbobas, refinement isn't even an option once you start hacking away at a beautifully black-and-blue pound of cow, fresh from the grill, tasting so subtly yet totally different from one side of the bone to the other, from the rind to the point.

The possible accompaniments are without pretension, too. Salads are iceberg with shredded carrot and dressing out of a bottle. Potatoes are baked, served either naked or with butter, with sour cream, with a whole lot of both. Prices are all-inclusive; no one's out to screw you by making you mortgage the ranch for a side of starch or creamed spinach. And, of course, there's steak sauce right on the table (Worcestershire, too), because steak sauce was designed for steaks like these. Don't be ashamed. Pour it on thick.

The owner, Michelle Wong, is here most days and most nights. So is her mother, Jenna. She may not wait on your table, but she'll stop by to make sure everything's all right, to see if you need anything. The Wongs are happy to chat about their place, never seeming to realize the strange juxtapositions they've created here. They initially conceived of Cowbobas as a low-end steakhouse because everyone likes steak, and everyone likes cheap steaks even more. And since Spanish is the primary language in this area, the Spanish translations are a given. But other neighbors want their boba, their durian and their milk tea, and the Wongs are pleased to provide it. They chose the location -- once a Wholly Guacamole, as ill-conceived a concept as Cowbobas is perfect -- because it was the location available, and its surroundings dictated the rest.

Although Cowbobas is not the best restaurant in Denver, it's a restaurant you could only find in Denver, and a good one doing a job that most restaurants never get credit for: feeding the home team, cheaply and dependably.

Still, a couple of robots wouldn't hurt. You know, just for a little atmosphere.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan