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Fry It, You'll Like It

I love expensive cheeses. The good ones -- cave-aged, smeared in ash, riddled with veins of carefully tended mold, rubbed down by nuns and Italian virgins in towns whose names I can barely pronounce, made from the milk of animals whose teats I wouldn't squeeze on a dare. Cashel Blue,...
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I love expensive cheeses. The good ones -- cave-aged, smeared in ash, riddled with veins of carefully tended mold, rubbed down by nuns and Italian virgins in towns whose names I can barely pronounce, made from the milk of animals whose teats I wouldn't squeeze on a dare. Cashel Blue, Reblochon, Colorado goat cheese, ripe Camembert: I can't get enough.

I love foie gras. I have a Rolodex in my head full of names of people who will handle it right and have it when I want it. Same goes for a fat, bloody, dry-aged steak, the kind that has to have its beard trimmed before service. I like knowing that such meat can be had in the city I call home -- knowing the four or five places where I can feed the steak jones when it comes over me. It helps me sleep better at night.

I love top-shelf bourbon, served neat, and Irish whiskey over ice. I love o-toro that sells by the ounce at prices generally reserved for good drugs; crabs (king and blue and stone and soft-shell, each in their season), clams and oysters that crack like geodes; mussels by the bucket. And I'm insane for prosciutto, lust for it the way most guys did their high school girlfriends.

Prosciutto and foie gras, steamed crabs and bourbon -- these are some of the reasons I got into this business, first as a chef, later as a writer. I may not have been the most lucid young man, but I knew that I wasn't never going to be no doctor or lawyer or captain of industry. I knew that I wasn't going to be offered the kind of gig that would provide me nickels enough to indulge my myriad food obsessions. I was a blue-collar kid in a blue-collar town, and if I wanted to have all I could eat, I needed to find a way to make someone else pick up the tab.

Which I did. Matter of fact, I made a career out of it.

But while nibbling off the assiette de fromages can be wonderful, I soon discovered that consuming all these things I loved often left me with a different sort of wanting, an itch for comfort that tuna belly and swollen goose liver just couldn't scratch. Which is why I found myself at Castle Cafe last week, elbows planted firmly on the table, staring down a huge plate of real pan-fried chicken, mashed potatoes and sweet corn.

It was great chicken, slow-cooked chicken, tender and greasy chicken sheathed in a crisp armor of salt-and-peppered batter, a one-off of the incomparable Kansas City style practiced by places like Stroud's and a hundred and one less well-known fry joints and chicken shacks. It was also chicken that took more than forty minutes to arrive, because every bird that's ordered at Castle Cafe is split in half, hand-floured, and cooked to order in a shallow pan by a guy whose only job is to watch those chickens and turn each piece at just the right moment to make sure every one is perfect.

Forty minutes. That's a long time to wait for a chicken dinner, but this chicken dinner was worth every second.

There are innumerable restaurants out there -- many of them the ones I keep in my head as doing excellent foie gras or composed truffled salads or unusual things with figs -- that purport to be part of the Slow Food movement, a self-congratulatory bit of revolutionary twaddle that grew out of the outrage of Frenchies and Italians seeing the first McDonald's opening their doors in Rome and Paris, whose tenets hold that real kitchens ought to (gasp!) cook their food without shortcuts or modern contrivance. These restaurants are very, very proud of making their own sausages, curing their own meats, sourcing their own rabbits straight from the bunny ranchers and making proper demis and stocks. And while all that's well and good, it bothers me that there has to be a movement (with its own offices and a magazine and events held around the world) to publicize the kind of cooking that a place like Castle Cafe does every night of the week without getting all uppity about it.

No question, pan-frying chicken is an unbelievable pain in the ass. Baking a chicken is a cinch. Dumping half a chicken into the Fryolator? Easy. And those pre-battered, par-cooked, flash-frozen and shelf-stabilized chickens that only need thirty seconds of radar love in the microwave are technological miracles. But once you've tasted the difference between any of these chickens and pan-fried, you recognize that the wait -- no matter how long -- is meaningless. The hot oil (Crisco or lard at some of the seriously old-school joints, but oil at Castle Cafe, which is marginally healthier and allows for higher temperatures) seals the thin batter instantly, forming a shell that holds in all of the chicken's juices while the smoking-hot oil and sear from the pan flavor the crust, and the slow-cooking required crisps up the outside and leaves the meat inside unbelievably tender. The kitchen uses the pan juices to make fresh cracklin' gravy, which is served in white china tureens. Those tureens look odd placed on wooden tables so old that their varnish has been worn off by a million passes of the busboy's rag, set beside the red-and-white-checked roadhouse napkins, the heavy silver, the nicked plates. But then the chicken finally arrives, and everything looks just right.

Castle Cafe's fried chicken is true Slow Food, comfort food in the purest sense of the word. And while I'm not sure what this kitchen would do with a lobe of foie gras or a loin of tuna, it does a campfire-style, pan-blackened trout and Canadian walleye with brown-butter hollandaise that set it apart from so many of the other "comfort food" kitchens. Because what this kitchen cooks is actually comforting. It's the real thing -- not the real thing plus lemongrass or the real thing decorated with microgreens and gold foil, served deconstructed on seven plates, each item the result of an intercontinental culinary scavenger hunt that the chef will tell you about, at length, if you dare to ask.

Castle Cafe (once the Castle Hotel and Bar, Hotel and Cafe, Cafe and Dancehall, Dancehall and Lounge) has been cooking the real thing, on and off, since the 1890s. Under more owners than I can count, this old storefront (and the Next Door Bar, situated, well, next door) has been a gathering spot for miners, ranchers, cowboys, drunks, locals, travelers, neighbors and everyone in between. In its time, it's also been a mercantile, a saddle and tack shop and a shoe store. Back in the days when the Castle Rock jail was right across the street, prisoners were marched over for their lunches and dinners. More recently, the place had been a biker bar (called Cousin's, Jester's or sometimes both, depending on whom you ask) before the present owners, Tom Walls (think Trinity Grill and Rocky Mountain Diner) and Brad Brown picked up the space in 1996.

Even though Castle Rock by then had grown from a frontier outpost to just another borderland suburbia, Walls and Brown wisely didn't try to change the place into something more upscale. There are still no tablecloths, no captains wandering the floor -- just friendly, veteran servers accustomed to a room filled all night, every night, with families, children, couples, new faces and old hands. The art on the walls dates back to the '50s, and some of the photos to the turn of the last century. The cheapest glass of wine on the list checks in at $3.50, and the most expensive bottle of bourbon behind the bar is a Booker, going for eight bucks a throw. As you step through the door, the first thing you notice is the smell of chicken frying. The second, how comfortable and nicely worn and smooth everything is. The third, how quickly you can relax. When I come here, I can feel the knots in my back unwind. I can breathe easier. Even on my first visit, it felt like coming home.

One side of the menu lists thirteen entrees, plus the fried chicken (served as a single dinner or family style); the other side has a handful of appetizers, salads, sandwiches and desserts. The new owners brought a whole new menu with them when they came, opening the joint as an excuse to sell fried chicken, but also coming up with things like the "Yuppie-i-o" dip -- a parmesan cream sauce shot through with twists of soft spinach, studded with soft, nutty, quartered artichoke hearts and browned on top under the broiler -- because everyone was doing an artichoke dip back in the '90s. No one, though, ever made one as addictive as this.

One night I stopped in for meatloaf and got a piece the size of half a cinderblock, studded with onions, covered in fresh brown onion gravy. Castle Cafe makes its meatloaf out of buffalo, which can be a touch gamey when cut from the shoulder. The meat is also very lean, and the kitchen doesn't cut it with anything -- a little pork, a little veal -- that might add fat and therefore flavor. Which meant that this meatloaf was heavy, dense and dull, when a simple beef/pork/veal three-way mix and a little milk-soaked bread would have done wonders. But the Yankee pot roast, which the menu bills as "a classic," definitely lived up to its label: tender stew beef, slow-cooked with carrots and heavy on the salt. All that was missing were the potatoes that my mother used to throw in the pot while the meat was cooking, but mashed potatoes come on the side.

Although I love a steak that's dry-aged prime, sometimes I just want a steak that doesn't come with a pedigree. I don't want to hear what ranch it's from, how the butcher was trained, the name of the truck driver who drove my steak from the warehouse to the restaurant. I just want a big hunk of cow laid out on the plate, maybe some good mashed potatoes without anything but potatoes in them, a couple of cold beers. Beef without pretension, comforting the way no Kobe or fifty-dollar filet mignon can ever be. At Castle Cafe, the choice New York strip was well trimmed, dressed only with a little salt and cracked black pepper, grill-marked like it was being readied for a commercial, and as thick as my fist. It arrived seared on the outside, cold in the center -- a perfect rare. (If I read my butcher's diagrams correctly, it was actually a Kansas City strip, but I wasn't bothered by such details.) The good grilled skirt was properly cut across the grain, dressed in green chiles, onions and mushrooms. Even accessorized with a shot of Bulleit bourbon and a beer back, that meal cost less than I'd pay to park my car and check my coat at one of the LoDo or Cherry Creek meat temples.

And just try to get a real bread pudding, all crusty and crunchy with sugar crystals, at one of those steak places. Or brown sugar-spiked apple brown betty like Grandma used to make. No, there it's all crème brûlée and lychee sherbet and desserts from childhood reimagined for this modern age.

If I want modern, I know where to go. When I want prosciutto and foie gras, when the urge strikes for the fancy stuff, the expensive stuff, the good stuff I've been chasing since I was sixteen years old, I know where to go. But real comfort in the form of a cheap steak treated well or traditional pan-fried chicken or truck-stop bread pudding or fish without mango salsa is becoming increasingly difficult to find. Joints close, and cooks who understand how to do these things -- who've never done anything else -- retire or move to Indiana to sell used cars, leaving no one behind to take their place.

So maybe we need people like the Slow Foodies and their ilk just to keep everyone honest and make sure that, twenty years from now, there'll still be someone around who knows how to pan-fry a chicken. In the meantime, when I'm in need of old-fashioned comfort, I'll be down at Castle Cafe, waiting as long as it takes to get chicken done right.

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