Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

The Salad Series: Billy’s Inn’s steak Caesar (& other goodies)

If this were the open mouth it sorta looks like, I’d totally be making out with it.

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But it’s a close-up of the excellent, thick-cut, very obviously applewood-smoked bacon on the Swiss & guacamole burger the Director had last night at Billy’s Inn—my 2nd impression of which only confirmed the 1st, namely that it’s the right, low-key yet funky joint at the right, low-income yet determinedly fun time I’m having these days (it’s a quest, a quest for fun, per Clark Griswold). 1st of all, there’s something about the stucco & the wood beams & tiles that, if I squint, transports me here,

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where my view is of not the gray intersection of Lowell & 44th but this,

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just outside of, say, Abiquiu or Damned Souls’ Gulch or some such ghostly sounding stretch of wilderness.

2nd, the menu, though simple, is really smart. The focus is narrow & sharp on stuff you eat with your hands: downhome snacks & sandwiches that emanate a soupçon of nostalgia—deviled eggs & onion rings, peel & eat shrimp &, oh joy of teenaged-in-the-80s joys! loaded potato skins, so all that’s missing are Swedish meatballs, by now long overdue for a comeback—as well as their Tex-Mex equivalents.

More important, it’s executed with care; much is clearly made from scratch. Given that Billy’s is a bar-&-grill through & through—with its photo-documented history of swinging seniors, including probably your grandparents in their crewcuts & beehives & Shuron frames, A-line shifts & square-toed pumps & cardigans & loafers, all smoking up a storm, now being repeated via awesome tablesful of Golden Girls downing pints, even alongside two-tops of cool kids flaunting their undoubtedly hard-earned agave expertise over craft tequila flights—it’s admirable that the owners are polishing the 2nd part of the phrase (“&-grill,” that is) as brightly as the 1st.

Hence the bacon on that tall burger, itself all loose & juicy pink heft, plus real cheese, perky bun & crisp trimmings—including that side of crunchy fresh coleslaw, which I actually preferred to the slightly undercooked & undersalted fries for its uncharacteristically light & sparkly rather than heavily creamy-sweet dressing.

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& hence my steak-&-avocado Caesar.

Billyssalad

At long last, I’ve begun behaving—& for me, the road to weight loss has always been paved with salad.

Salad gets it from all sides—both the carnivorous dinosaurs who still, against all evidence to the contrary, deem it rabbit food & the nutralarmists who drone on & on about the calories lurking in fried toppings & cream dressings. While the latter have a point, it’s precisely salad’s substance & versatility that makes it such a satisfying choice for those with even an ounce of dietary sense. In fact, the more I collect salad cookbooks (as I’ve been doing for years), the more appreciative I am of the broad applicability, the inclusiveness of the term—such that, in my bowl anyway, anything goes, so long as the following criteria are met:

* A salad should consist of at least a few ingredients—say, a minimum of 3—of which at least 1 should be a vegetable or legume. (A bowl of penne is not a salad; a bowl of penne with tuna & beans certainly can be.)
* These ingredients should be dressed in some fashion. (Lettuce is lettuce. Lettuce sprinkled with olive oil & vinegar is a salad.)
* Though they may be composed instead of tossed, these ingredients should arguably be chopped in some fashion. (Despite recipes to the contrary, whole grilled quail atop lentils is whole grilled quail atop lentils. Cut it up & add some roast peppers or something, however, & you may well have a salad.)

As for this one, it was just what I craved. Although the dressing was not, I suspect, a true Caesar—lacking, as far as I could detect, that telltale anchovy funk—it was certainly housemade, with a great Dijon kick & parmesan tang, & what’s more, there was enough of it to moisten everything just so: the whole leaves from the hearts of the romaine as well as the good garlicky croutons, the cubes of avocado & charred steak.

I think I’ll take my post-diet victory lap around Billy’s, margarita in hand.

Portrait of a salad by Racine’s as a poem by James Tate

“The Wild Cheese”

A head of cheese raised by wolves
or mushrooms
recently rolled into
the village, it
could neither talk nor
walk upright.

Small snarling boys ran
circles around it;
and just as they began
throwing stones, the Mayor
appeared and dispersed them.

He took the poor ignorant
head of cheese home,
and his wife scrubbed it
all afternoon before
cutting it with a knife
and serving it after dinner.

The guests were delighted
and exclaimed far into the night,
“That certainly was a wild cheese!”

…O Tate, Tatankhamen, Tateuncommon, Tater Tot, you certainly are a wild poet, but how much wilder would this poem have been had you hit Racine’s come weekend brunch for a superalloy* of a Bloody Mary and this salad (I know, it’s blurry—see “Bloody Mary”) ere its composition?

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How might the young hooligans have bullied this salad that foams at the mouth with not only white cheddar & fontina but also avocado & banana, popped wheat & sunflower seeds, almonds & cashews? & how might the mayor’s wife have dressed its wounds (with honey mustard, perchance)? & would not the poem then end,

The customers were bloated
& belched far into the night,
“That certainly was a Nutty Cheese Salad!”

Point being, say what you want about Racine’s, this is one startling signature, the soft & fruity & the nutty & crunchy going rabid in your mouth & you being helpless to restrain them, & now they’ve infected you to the point where you’re seriously considering adding it to your as-yet-unfinished Top 5. You won’t, of course—you know its superiors by far in inspiration & execution alike are out there, waiting to be tasted—but you’ll go so far as to admit in your sillier moments you’d consider it.

*According to my dictionary, “a heat-resistant alloy with superior mechanical properties, often having aerospace applications.” That sounds about right, the Director & I having ordered our share of rounds, & besides, this Chowhound.com thread, beloved as the site is to me, is making me want my prose to o’erflow with all that’s ugly, egregious and otherwise apparently transgressive. In fact I hereby swear to slip “unctuous,” a word I happen to find useful in its particularity, into every other post, appropriate or not, the way in that one episode of One Day at a Time that firecracker Ann Romano, as played by Bonnie Franklin, got mad at Schneider the super & sneered at him, “Yo-GURT! Yo-GURT!”, though how the invocation of a dairy product functioned as a diatribe against this man among men is lost on me now.

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