Yelp is a tool that users love, business owners hate, and the rest of us tolerate. I generally ignore Yelp; as a professional critic, I need to concentrate on my own opinions. But that changed last month, when Yelp released its list of the Top 100 Places to Eat in the U.S., honoring the year’s most popular spots.
I’ve been in the business long enough to be skeptical of such rankings; for every winner, there’s a hundred that could have gotten the nod but didn’t, and enough hype and politics to fill a room of cigar-chomping good old boys. Still, I was intrigued that Colorado’s lone honoree wasn’t run by any of our James Beard Award winners or semifinalists, but by Dave Kilroy, an entrepreneurial fellow who’s the first to acknowledge that he’s not a chef. What’s more, his restaurant isn’t in a shipping container, train station or any other buzz-generating venue, but sandwiched in an out-of-the-way block in City Park West. Curious to see what prompted the national shout-out for this quick-serve spot, I bypassed the restaurant where I’d planned to eat and asked a friend to meet me at Kitchen Table Cafe instead.
“This your first time in?” asked Kilroy, looking up as he scooped macaroni and cheese onto someone’s divided paper plate. Hearing our “Yes,” he launched into a friendly monologue about organic produce, GMOs (or the lack thereof), and how the restaurant doesn’t have a freezer, fryer or microwave. Part campaign speech, part off-the-cuff passion, his words created their own momentum, and a line of hungry hospital workers and other neighborhood folks grew behind us. He didn’t rush, though, as happy to go on about the eatery’s burnt ends and chocolate pie as a grandpa bragging about his grandkids — never mind that he doesn’t have kids, grandkids or even a girlfriend. “This is my life,” he told me over the phone later. “Everything I do is this.”
I suspect Kilroy’s geniality rubbed off from his own grandparents, who lived in rural Kansas and taught him what he knows about what he calls real food — i.e., the kind of down-to-earth fare he’s cooking up behind red gingham curtains at Kitchen Table Cafe. “At dinner they’d say, ‘Want corn? Run out and pick it. Want tomatoes? Run out and pick them,’” says Kilroy, recalling childhood summers spent with his relatives. “I didn’t realize it, but they were instilling good food values in me.”
His food ethos may come from his family, but his recipes don’t. They’re mostly his invention, created with cooking skills honed at night using videos from the Culinary Institute of America. Kilroy opened his place in December 2013 and, when business proved slow, let his staff go and began doing everything himself before eventually staffing back up. This fall, his cousin, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, joined him in the kitchen and added a few soups to the lineup. But the menu still has a homey quality, and its resemblance to what was on your own kitchen table growing up — especially if that table was in the South or Midwest — might account for some of those five-star ratings.
This is comfort food, no doubt about it. There’s no confit or grilled octopus in sight, only seven or eight entrees that you might find in your mom’s place or at a barbecue joint, plus an array of homespun sides. The selection changes daily, with Kilroy erasing items off the chalkboard menu as he sells out. When everything’s crossed off, he closes for the day — by 8 p.m. at the latest. There’s no liquor license, but beverage options include Boylan’s sodas from the fountain; made with cane sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup, they’re right in line with Kilroy’s beliefs.
On that first visit, we tucked eagerly into vegetarian pot pie, only to crack the thick, drop-biscuit crust and find a runny undercurrent of filling that could’ve used more vegetables and maybe even tofu — if that’s allowable in an old-school Midwestern kitchen — to round out the dish. Better were the barbecue black beans we’d ordered as a side, with Kansas City-style barbecue sauce, chunks of brisket and a spicy streak from poblanos and Dijon. Another night, I fell hard for the sloppy joes, a tomato-free version with crumbled meatloaf in a savory, gravy-like sauce. Peanut butter-chocolate pie was worth saving room for, with a graham-cracker crust and a thin, solid layer of peanut butter mixed with hardened chocolate. Fruit versions with organic raspberries and blackberries were no slouches, either.
Then there were the burnt ends — once a weekly special but now a daily event due to customer requests. Generously rubbed and heavily smoked after two stints in the smoker, they were fatty, tender and meaty, and as black as a lava field on top. I was told to hunt up the squirt bottles of barbecue sauce in the other room, where most of the tables are, but meat this good has no need for sauce. The sides — $2 each, or any two for $3 — provided all the company it needed. I briefly considered ordering two slices of pie, since sweets count as sides, but in the end opted for the collards and macaroni and cheese, with a complimentary corn muffin on the side.
I did put one of those bottles to use another day, though, when I fashioned a pitch-perfect pulled-pork sandwich with heaps of smoky meat, coleslaw that I’d ordered as a side, and plenty of bracing, mustardy barbecue sauce that makes you wonder if Kilroy’s roots are really in the Carolinas. When the sandwich was gone I turned to the leftover slaw, and found some problems I hadn’t noticed when it was tucked safely under a bun. Though fresh and crisp — not to mention organic — the cabbage was cut into awkwardly large chunks, and the slaw cried out for more dressing and salt.
Other meals revealed other flaws. Meatloaf came full of red peppers and onions and slathered with Kilroy’s scratch Kansas City-style barbecue sauce. But it had been cooked in a thin layer in an individual-sized disposable tin and was so dry, it all but demanded mashed potatoes and gravy — which I couldn’t have, because the kitchen had run out. Rasta corn with flecks of red and green peppers was cloying, with the hallmark sweetness of canned corn. (Maybe the claim of “fresh, organic vegetables” should be erased from the chalkboard by the door, at least until spring.) And dill cucumbers, the only recipe borrowed from Kilroy’s grandmother, were too watered down to benefit from that curious marriage of mayonnaise and vinegar — a coupling I’m fond of, having grown up with Polish grandparents. (Mine, however, used sour cream.)
Another night, chopped chicken over basmati rice wasn’t at all spicy; I wondered what had happened to the sriracha that was included in the name of the dish. Another side of macaroni and cheese was overly spicy, though, thanks to a heavy dose of pepper. The next time I tried it, the side was conscientiously seasoned, but the place was near closing and the pasta had sat out so long that the once-creamy dish resembled a baked corn pudding. At least we got what we wanted, though. A man who wandered in after us left empty-handed, since the meatloaf he’d craved had been erased from the board.
And here’s the thing about the macaroni and cheese, the meatloaf, the slaw: They don’t taste like they were made by a chef. The pasta wasn’t topped with panko, the beef wasn’t mixed with house-butchered liver, the coleslaw wasn’t meticulously chopped by a prep cook. But Kilroy makes no claims to the contrary, and if guests wander in wanting a more crafted style of restaurant food, they’ll likely wander right out again, no harm, no foul.
After all, it doesn’t take long to figure out what kind of place this is. Even if Kilroy’s too busy in the back for one of his charismatic speeches, you can quickly put two and two together from the Home Depot-style wood fence that separates the food from the order line, the Ms. Pac-Man machine that doubles as a two-top, and the tall green letters spelling out “comfort food” on the white walls. Kilroy is cooking from the heart, and that’s something he definitely learned growing up. “The joke in our family is, ‘Hey, it looks like you had a bad day. Let’s make something to eat,’” he says. “Or, ‘It looks like you had a great day. Let me make you some food.’”
His attitude alone is worth five stars, even if the food scooped onto your paper plate sometimes merits a few less.
Kitchen Table Cafe
1426 East 22nd Avenue
BBQ burnt ends,
Veggie pot pie $7.99
Dave’s meatloaf $7.99
Rustic sloppy joe $7.99
Pulled-pork sandwich $7.99
Sriracha chicken $7.99
Peanut butter-chocolate pie $2
Kitchen Table Cafe is open 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Learn more at kitchentablecafe.com.