Second Helpings

Pulling Up Steaks

It's 4:42 p.m. on a Friday when I get in line at the Trail Dust Steak House, which opens for dinner at 5 p.m. every night. Since I last ate there ("Cattle Call," February 4, 1999), the restaurant was ravaged by fire and then rebuilt; when it finally reopened this past September, diners apparently couldn't get enough. Because by 4:47, the barnlike, 600-seat dining room is already full, and the line is out the door and approaching the parking lot.

At 4:50 p.m., I make my way to the front of the line, which I estimate to be around 200 people long, and ask the hostess what the wait might be. "Oh, we're looking at about an hour to an hour and a half," the perky gal replies. Only half of our group has arrived; the restaurant claims it doesn't open until 5, so that's what time we'd agreed to meet, foolishly thinking we'd get there early enough to avoid a crowd. "The lines are so long anymore, we decided it would be a hazard to have people waiting that far out into the parking lot," the hostess explains. "So we decided to open the doors earlier."

5:20 p.m.: I'm in line at the bar to get some drinks for our group, which may or may not still be only half here; since my half is now waiting outside, it's hard to see if the rest have joined the line in the parking lot. At least there are tables in the foyer, so that a lucky few can take a load off and drink away the wait. At the head of the line, some guy is weakly protesting having his tie cut off, a charming gimmick that Trail Dust imported from Texas when it opened its first branch in the Denver area over a decade ago. After the ties are cut, they're tacked to the wall. But while there used to be hundreds, now there are just a handful, which looks kind of silly; no one seems to know whether the ties burned in the fire or the management just decided to start fresh.

5:35 p.m.: I have procured three beers and four Shirley Temples, and we still can't find the rest of our group. After unloading the drinks, I make my way back into the dining room to see if we've missed them somehow. Between the kids' slide, the band, the dance floor, the open-fire-breathing kitchen and the bustle of servers, it's almost impossible to focus, but I'm reasonably sure that the others aren't already seated. My shoulders hurt, though, from bashing against the throngs of people milling about. This is starting to remind me of the Mall of America.

6:15 p.m.: Our party's name is called. As we make our way to the table, two more members of the group are discovered. One has yet to arrive, and we leave our names at the front so that she can be brought to us.

6:16 p.m.: The kids are begging to go to the slide. After getting their orders, we tell them to stick together and go.

6:18 p.m.: The smaller kids return to say that the bigger kids are shoving them out of the line for the slide, a twenty-foot-high wooden model that's the main reason kids want to go to Trail Dust, and which inexplicably stands right next to the chaotic walkway between the dance floor and the kitchen. It's hard to say why adults want to go to Trail Dust, because by the time they're seated, most of them are too cranky to be friendly with the other folks at the boarding-house-style tables, and big people end up on the dance floor only when their offspring drag them there, because that's the rule: No kids dancing alone. Throughout the evening, a band plays every so often, but you can hardly hear it over the din. In fact, the only way you know the band's playing is that the slide shuts down until it finishes -- making the kids whine.

7:05 p.m.: The appetizers arrive. We drag the kids from the slide and, after many threats and bribes, manage to get them to the table, where they each eat one cheese stick and one deep-fried zucchini stick before they race back to the slide. We give up and order more beer. Actually, it turns out that the kids were the smart ones. The cheese sticks are standard-issue mozzarella covered with batter, and the zucchini and mushrooms have that watery, previously frozen quality. The "hot flashes," mild jalapeños stuffed with cheddar, haven't been cooked long enough, and the cheese inside is so cold it could be cut into cubes and served on crackers. Our server, Tiny, who's about six-foot-nine, is as patient, accommodating and efficient as any human can be in this madness, and he replaces them with some hot flashes that are just as cold. The grilled shrimp are undercooked, too, and have that unsettlingly squishy texture -- so much for "mesquite-grilled to perfection."

7:45 p.m.: The entrees make an appearance, unlike the last member of our party. After a hundred trips down the slide, the kids are starting to get that over-the-edge look in their eyes, but they swear they aren't hungry. We make them sit and at least look at their steaks, which are kid-sized and actually pretty tasty. Trail Dust uses corn-fed beef, ages it in-house and then cuts it to order. An eight-ounce top sirloin for young 'uns (ten and under, please) comes with Trail Dust's medium-thick fries; like the other dinners on the kids' menu, it runs about five bucks. One kid gets the Wrangler burger, which has strong mesquite charring and a puffy bun close enough to McDonald's to get her attention.

The adults' steaks aren't bad, either. The Hoss, a sixteen-ounce top sirloin, arrives medium rare as ordered, sporting a light char around the edges, and it is as tender as it should be for a cut next to the short loin. The Cowboy is less impressive; the twenty-ounce slab of T-bone porterhouse falls short on flavor and is a little chewy, but it's still a decent cut. To test the kitchen, we'd also ordered the swordfish; the cook managed to keep it from drying out while still making sure it had a mesquite criss-cross of charred flavor. And the half rack of baby-back pork ribs strikes a nice balance between chewy, blackened meat and drippy fat, with a sticky-sweet, mildly spicy sauce holding it all together.

The sides are typical, lower-grade steakhouse fare and not as good as I remember from the old days. Trail Dust's signature country-style beans are watery and lack the strong smokiness of beans past, and the too-salty Caesar salad and corn-on-the-cob taste like cafeteria food. The one keeper: the sweet potatoes, which are smooshy-soft and steamy inside, with golf balls of brown sugar and butter that disintegrate into a gooey mess.

8:34 p.m.: After those sweet spuds, we almost don't need desserts, but they show up anyway. Only the super-sweet, Oreo-packed cookies 'n' cream cheesecake is worth mentioning.

8:45 p.m.: We're done. As we drag the kids away from the slide, they all start to cry that they're hungry. We ask for many doggie bags.

8:52 p.m.: Our ears ringing and our hands full of steak, we step into the frosty night. We're still missing our friend. Later, she tells us that she'd looked through the line, scoured the dining room and even checked in with the hostess -- but never found us for dinner.

Considering my experience at the resurrected Trail Dust, she was the lucky one.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner