Cafe Society

Taken for a Ride

If he weren't stoned, he said, he would never have eaten the food at Elitch Gardens. Even stoned, the red-mohawked teen was reluctant to try most of the snack items we picked up at the amusement park.

And after eating the food myself, I can't say that I blamed my new friend. Frequently fatty, poorly cooked and overpriced--no surprise there--the fare at most Elitch's eateries made chain-restaurant offerings seem positively gourmet. In fact, thrill-seekers may want to limit their explorations to the rides and, when hungry, stick with the few chain links that ply their wares beneath the Total Tower. There are times that eating should not be an adventure.

I hooked up with Big Red in the line for the Sky Flyer, where he'd bumped into me a thousand times before finally apologizing and then introducing himself and his two buddies. They needed a fourth; I needed to stop looking like such a geek reading Meditations for Mothers of Toddlers during the lengthy waits to get on the rides. The trio--I'll call Big Red's buds Mary Jane and Droopy Pants --were all from Greeley, ranged in age between 17 and 21, and among them had one baby, one felony conviction, two combs, two packs of cigarettes and a very strong desire to make mischief.

For Big Red, this took the form of terrifying pre-pubescent girls by lifting his baseball cap, running his fingers through his Brillo-pad-textured skunk-stripe of hair and growling, "Yeah, I like little girls." He also cheered on passersby wearing remotely drug-oriented clothing or sporting violent tattoos, and he liked it when Elitch employees yelled at him for such transgressions as taking off his shirt--that is a big no-no at the park--so that he could snap back, "I was just taking it off for a minute, sir."

He first removed it when we came off Shipwreck Falls, the lamest excuse for getting completely drenched that I've ever encountered (as a roller-coaster addict, I'm pretty serious about amusement-park rides). The only good thing about the Falls was that the line went fast, since people are on the ride for about eight seconds. (You sit in a big boat, it goes up fifty feet, it goes around a bend, and it goes down fifty feet into a big tub of water and soaks everyone.) Correction--there were two good things about the Falls: The second was its proximity to Jonnie's Grill. We stopped there for a burger ($2.50) whose flimsy patty tasted like a great, cheap imitation of a flame-broiled thingy; it came on a half-crusty, half-spongy bun with globules of warm ketchup oozing out the sides. In the same area, we found a Taco Bell Express and a Pizza Hut, both of which can be counted on for consistently mediocre food, even with Elitch's staff running them. (The park pays for the names and buys the food from the chains but is solely responsible for preparing it.)

But, hey, I'll take mediocre any day over prime rib sandwiches ($6.95) made with meat that looked like it came from the underside of a pig. We ordered two of these fat-saturated delights at J.M. Mulvihill's Pub--Elitch's nod to Denver's obsession with microbrews. Styled to look like a pub straight out of Disney World--that Victorian-era entryway they're still working on is a little familiar, too--J.M. Mulvihill's offers sandwiches and munchies, but it does not do them well. We were able to eat only a third of each sandwich, so fatty was the so-called prime rib, which looked and tasted more like salt pork (although it came on a wonderful fresh roll). We ate even less of the lousy pasta salad, tri-color pasta spirals and bits of carrots, red peppers, zucchini and celery floating in so much oil, there's probably going to be a shortage again soon.

J.M. Mulvihill's chicken wings ($4.95) came out less than lukewarm, and although public-relations spokeswoman Kristen Dorsey later assured me the wings were precooked, thereby removing any danger of food poisoning, I'd have to say we were well on our way to getting sick merely over the chicken's unsavory smell and its squishy, rubbery skin--how about frying these like real wings? The only keepers at this spot, aside from the Wynkoop beer on tap, were the brat ($4.50)--unappealingly gray but delicious, with an Old World taste and super sauerkraut--and a fantastic, German-style potato salad with a tart, creamy texture.

From there it was on to the Mind Eraser--although we knew even Elitch's hot new ride wouldn't be enough to erase the memory of those wings. (Another non-culinary criticism from the roller-coaster addict: Since the best part of the $10 million "monster coaster" is the first drop and it's all downhill from there, this thing isn't worth the wait.) But at least we'd gotten hungry again during our three hours in line for the ride, and it also made the queue at Bob's Spud Club look like nothing. We thought we could get some fries and onion rings fairly quickly.

But, oh, how wrong we were. Each order placed before ours seemed fraught with problems, inspiring lengthy discussions among the young staffers imprisoned in the club's greasy confines. And when I finally arrived at the counter--with about a dozen more would-be customers behind me--I was greeted by the side of the cashier's head as she stared off into space, perhaps thinking about the pickle-on-a-stick available at Bob's. I cleared my throat loudly, and she sprang to attention. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "Did you want to order something?" I was glad I'd gotten into line without my Greeley pals, who would have had a field day with this gal. I wanted both onion rings ($2) and fries ($2.25) but was handed only what looked like a day-old paper container of fries and then told to step aside. I munched on cold, dead, overseasoned fries while I waited another ten minutes, watching the antics of Bob's crew. And then I heard a voice yell from the fryer area: "The onion rings disintegrated--it'll be a few minutes for onion rings." The benefit of that wait, though, was that the rings at least arrived fresh and hot.

We found much better fries at Miss Mary's Hot Dogs, Fries & Drinks over by Kiddieland. The hot dog ($2.25) tasted like one of the generic pups you get from the National Cheap Hot Dog Clearinghouse, but the fries were nicely salty beauties--golden and steamy, with a slight hint of Old Bay seasoning. This is the best place in the park to take kids, because the food comes out quick and hot; adults will appreciate the fact that the employees seem awake.

After all that salt, my merry band needed something sweet to finish off the day, so we stopped at a Dippin' Dots to get the "ice cream of the future." The people working at this cart didn't have the slightest idea how Dippin' Dots are made--the ice cream ($2.50 for a small) looks like dessert for rabbits, little pellets that melt in your mouth and impart a reasonably rich flavor. We scarfed down the dots--I don't think these Greeley guys know how to eat any other way--and then Big Red, Droopy Pants and Mary Jane snuck out to the car for another toke and some of the food and drink they brought with them from home ("Mountain Dew, man, is the shit").

You absolutely may not bring your own food into Elitch's--which means the park has a captive audience for its meals. Since picnics were a time-honored tradition at the century-old original site in northwest Denver, you'd think Elitch's would have gotten its food act together before banning picnics at its new Platte Valley location. But you'd be wrong.

Clearly, I wasn't the only one with complaints, because a week after my visit, Elitch's hired a new "Food Standards Manager." Dick Leonard promises that Elitch's will make "big changes in the quality and service," starting with adding more salads and fruit juices and switching to cholesterol-free oil. But in the meantime, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut never looked so good.

And as Big Red put it, "That's brutal, man."

Elitch Gardens, 2000 Elitch Circle (I-25 and Speer), 595-4386. Hours: Park open from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily; food service from 11 a.m.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner