Cracker Barrel: Skip the CDs and store up for the hash-brown casserole

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I heard last week that Cracker Barrel has an exclusive CD out by a band called Eden's Edge. I had no idea who this band was, or that Cracker Barrel did music -- or even or that people still buy CDs. Last I checked, Cracker Barrel was that old-timey chicken-fried stop off the off-ramp with the potpourri-whiffing gift shop you had to walk through to get to the restaurant with the hash brown-casserole. As it turns out, Cracker Barrel does in fact sell CDs, mostly gospel and country music -- which explains why I'd never heard of its music section -- and one of its current featured artists is Smokey Robinson. What the f*ck, Smokey? It's easy to trace the tracks of my tears, duder, since apparently you quit caring about your career a while ago.

But the hash-brown casserole is still there, still delicious, and since I hadn't been to the Barrel in a few years, I had forgotten that the store also stocks really good old-fashioned candy, which doesn't dull the sting of losing Smokey, but sure did help me try.

I went to the Cracker Barrel in Northglenn (although there are four locations in Colorado, this is the only one in the metro area) and did my requisite walk of pain through the Old Country Store. I found clothing that was the opposite of stylish, home décor items shaped like fish, candles that smelled like various baked goods and, finally, the door to the dining room.

It's weird to be in a restaurant that caters primarily to older folks, because the music is low, the servers don't curse or have lip piercings, and the meals include things like biscuits and corn muffins.

The menus looked like they were printed on brown paper bags, but the offerings were exactly what I was in the mood for: meat, butter, meat cooked in butter, and greens cooked with meat.

I ordered the Half-Pound Hamburger Steak with mashed potatoes and gravy and hash-brown casserole, and the Country Fried Steak dinner with macaroni and cheese and steak fries, with a side of turnip greens, and apple cider, which came in an actual mug.

It takes a special sort of person to really appreciate the culinary wonder that is hash- brown casserole. If you make it at home -- which you should, because it's easy as hell -- you take a bag of frozen hash browns, mix 'em up with a can of cream of chicken soup, sour cream, shredded cheese and diced onions, slop the mixture into a baking pan, bake and voila! -- instant gratification, because this stuff is scrumptious.

There is good cider and the kind that tastes just like boring old apple juice, and Cracker Barrel serves the good stuff -- unfiltered, tart and ice-cold. The service was so gosh-darn friendly and attentive that I even forgot I looked like a goth-hipster, and I was surrounded by elderly folks eating ham.

My food took about forty minutes to arrive, and the country-fried steak showed evidence of being heat-lamped for a bit while the cooks finished the hamburger steak -- the characteristic white country gravy was cracked like a road map and the fries were a tad soggy, but the macaroni and cheese held up well, leading me to suspect that the kitchen is smart and makes the mac soupier than it should be for holding. But the steak itself was pretty good, easy to cut, with crispy breading and plenty of pepper..

I'd ordered the hamburger steak medium, which in Cracker Barrel terms means medium-well, and despite the over-cooking it was still moist and had a savory grilled taste. The mashed potatoes were real, and the gravy was almost like stew gravy -- bits of meat, carrot and celery, and thick enough to sit on top of my potato scoop and drape neatly over the mound.

The standout was definitely the turnip greens. The side contained almost as many shreds of smoked ham as it did greens, and a few drops of pepper-vinegar turned this into a righteous mess of smoky, earthy, vegetal and tangy. And ,of course, the hash-brown casserole was just as perfect as I remembered it: steaming hot and extra cheesy, with a good onion flavor.

After dinner, I traipsed back through the labyrinth of apple-shaped cookie jars and quilts, took two left turns past the waffle mix and the scrapbooks and found a display with those old-fashioned striped candy sticks with flavors like clove, blackberry and horehound, as well as good saltwater taffy.

There was no sign of any Smokey Robinson CDs, but I wasn't sorry about that. I genuinely like the food at Cracker Barrel when I'm in the mood, and seeing Smokey on the same shelf with a band like Eden's Edge would undoubtedly make me lose my appetite, even for hash-brown casserole.

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