Cafe Society

Cowbobas

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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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan