Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Black Steer/Rear of the Steer

The Black Steer, located at 436 N. Lincoln Avenue in Loveland, Colorado, has been in business in the same location since 1966. The bar portion of the restaurant, aptly named The Rear of the Steer, is found in the back (east side) of the restaurant and offers the same menu as the Black Steer (

She said...I don't recall ever having been to the Black Steer even though I grew up in Northern Colorado but I do remember it being a big deal when my parents went out to dinner. I'm not sure what I expected, but having been primed for a primo meal by my parents' feedback when I was a kid, I'm sure my expectations were higher than normal.

It was very hot outside on the day we went to the Black Steer, so stepping into the cool dimness of the restaurant offered welcome relief. We entered through the east entrance, The Rear of the Steer, and my first impression was that the bar was immaculate. I purposely started looking for spots on glasses and spills on the bar top and there were none. The bar truly was spotless.

As we waited at the host station to be seated, I experienced a bout of deja vu and then it hit me...The Black Steer is a clone of Fort Collins' Charco-Broiler. The dark wood paneling, cork board, and dark leather covered booths are identical to the Charco-Broiler (, established in 1957. The sense of deja vu was so strong that I called for confirmation immediately after we left the restaurant that they were initially opened by the same owners, though I didn't think to ask our server while we were there if the two restaurants are still owned by the same family.

The dinner menu consisted of a good variety of steak, seafood and chicken. My only requirement when we were choosing a restaurant to review was that I had to be able to get a cold, crisp salad...and a good entree.

I chose their "Signature Steak", the Pepper Steak, which came with the required salad, and a choice of starch. The salad was simple; iceberg lettuce with shredded carrots and, in place of croutons, Corn Chex. While the Chex gave an interesting texture to the salad, I'm not sure I really enjoyed them with my Ranch dressing. The salad was served with an individual roll for each of us and being the bread lover I am, I loved it.

Our meals were prepared without pretension or imagination in plating. My plate simply had my steak (complete with parsley garnish), foil-wrapped baked potato, and a slice of watermelon. Two solo cups; one with butter and one with chive sour cream were also placed on the plate.

The Pepper Steak was well cooked and had a good flavor. While my palate is not nearly as well defined as my companion's, I detected green chile in the flavoring, which I enjoyed. I would have preferred a bit more of a cracked pepper corn crust on my steak, but then I believe that black pepper is a gift from God.

My baked potato, however, was a disappointment. It was still hard and in order to work the butter in, I had to cut it into pieces with my knife rather than just mashing it with my fork. I love a properly baked potato loaded with melted butter, salt and pepper. Unfortunately, that's exactly what I did not get.

Overall, my impression of The Black Steer is lukewarm. The decor was dark and outdated; the service was adequate, not spectacular; the food, again, was adequate, not spectacular; and the price was right in line with a mediocre steakhouse. I can't say that The Black Steer was my least favorite place to eat, but I can't say that I'll be clamoring to return anytime soon.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Los Tarascos

Los Tarascos is located in North Fort Collins at 626 South College Avenue and is owned by the Caballero Family.

She said...By the time we arrived at Los Tarascos, I was tired and hungry. A combination sure to make me cranky and not easy to please. The fact that the parking anywhere north of Laurel Street in Fort Collins is non-existent wasn't much help. We parked less than a block away after circling the restaurant like vultures, just waiting for a parking spot to open up. Tired, hungry, wet from the unrelenting drizzle, and pissy about the crappy downtown parking - I'm surprised my companions put up with me. Then we opened the doors to Los Tarascos.

What a welcome surprise. All of my negative energy immediately dissipated as I walked through the doors into a place that I didn't know existed in Fort Collins. The interior reminded me vaguely of the missions in Santa Fe, but much less run down and depressing. It was clean, well-kept and vibrant, but not gaudy. There is a much understated elegance in the decor. Many Mexican food places try too hard with the decor and end up being garish. Los Tarascos is not such a place.

We were seated immediately and given freshly-made corn tortillas. Yum. The only place I'd ever eaten fresh corn tortillas was in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and these tortillas conjured memories of buying tortillas from the Tortilleria and making one of the best meals of my life. The menu was a bit difficult to read, the background being a bit too dark in the intimate lighting. Even with the black font surrounded by white, it was difficult to read. After turning the menu this way and that, I finally decided on the Shredded Beef burrito with green sauce and a strawberry Margarita. My companions ordered a Shredded Beef burrito without sauce and the Enchiladas Tricolor.

I noticed a table tent that stated the limit of two Margaritas and after my first drink of the unbelievably smooth drink, I could understand how any more than two could get someone in trouble. The recipe is a typical Margarita recipe; triple sec, sweet & sour, and tequila. The difference is in the quality of ingredients they use. Rather than just any old cheap tequila, they use only 100% blue agave tequila; a smooth, sipping tequila, which makes all the difference in the world.

When our drinks were delivered, our lovely waitress, Gabriela, pointed the way to the free salsa bar, with salsas ranging from mild to very hot. We sampled five of their salsas: avacado salsa (mild), chile de arbol (very hot), cilantro (hot), habanero (very hot), and molcahete salsa (hot), which I mixed with the chile de arbol. I enjoyed all of them, though I found the habanero a bit too smokey and with a flavor I couldn't place. I found myself returning repeatedly to the chile de arbol; I could have poured it in a jar and taken it home with me. Really, the only thing missing were chips. We gobbled down the fresh tortillas and then had nothing else to eat our salsa with. When we did ask for chips, they were promptly brought to the table, were warm and were obviously made from their corn tortillas.

The menu had described the burrito as being wrapped in a large flour tortilla with beans and pico de gallo, but it still did not prepare me for the size of the meal I was presented with. A full one-third of the twelve-inch oval plate was covered by the burrito, which was flanked by beans and rice, and covered with a green sauce. Green sauce is the correct description for the smothering of the burrito. When I read it in the menu, I assumed they meant green chili, but they really did mean green sauce, which was absolutely delightful. The burrito was lightly garnished with lettuce and a slice of tomato, not buried under handfuls of lettuce to make the food appear larger than actual size. The beans to one side were mashed to perfection and lightly topped with a white cheese; on the other side of the burrito was light rice that reminded me of my Grandmother's Mexican Wedding Rice - the only thing missing were peas and the over-cooked stickiness of her rice.

My first bite of the burrito was heaven. The green sauce had good flavor and a little bit of spiciness, but wasn't overwhelming, and melded well with the shredded beef, beans and pico de gallo. I was surprised by the pico de gallo inside the burrito, as most restaurants use it as a garnish rather than incorporating it into the dish. Since I really, really dislike tomatoes, the pico wasn't necessarily a pleasant surprise. I was more careful with my subsequent bites to pick the tomatoes out of the burrito; once that was accomplished I relished every bite, right up until I hit full. And then I kept eating, knowing that every bite would make me more and more miserable, but I just couldn't stop - it was that good. Finally, about half-way through this monsterous burrito, I had to throw in the towel. Briefly. I still couldn't stop, so I tore open the tortilla and picked out the remaining shredded beef and used some of the still-warm chips to scoop up what was left of the beans. Thank goodness for the waitress, who stopped by and was gracious enough to get the plate out of my way before I exploded.

Really, the only complaint my party had was that one of my companions ordered the plain (not smothered) Shredded Beef burrito, but received the Shredded Chicken burrito. When I offered to send it back, she refused, as the Shredded Chicken was, apparently, very good too. She really, really enjoyed the rice, eating what was left of mine as well as all of hers. I'm pretty sure she ate her weight in food and given how picky an eater she can be, that speaks loads about the quality of food served.

The service, other than the mix-up with my companion's meal, was excellent. The waitress was attentive, but did not hover, and pleasant. She was also impeccably clean, all of the wait staff were. I am amazed at how hard the wait staff works and still manages to avoid all of the food stains on their clothes. I can tell you, that's something that I never managed to avoid in all of the years I waited tables. She was also obviously trained the same way I was - never to pass a table without picking something up. What a pleasant surprise to see tables pre-bussed. She was so good, in fact, that I left her a 30% tip, which is unheard of (or maybe it was that super-smooth Strawberry Margarita).

Los Tarascos is a place that I look forward to returning often. In fact, my stomach's getting geared up to try their chicken and beef rellenos. Today, perhaps.

He said...To me there are three things that make a restaurant successful in providing an excellent and enjoyable dining experience. Firstly, it is all about the food. Secondly, the place must offer great service from the initial greeting to the "thank you for coming" exit. Lastly, the dining rooms ambiance must be fitting and comfortable. Los Tarascos took all three of these aspects and created one of the most memorable dining experiences I've had in recent memory.

Let me start with my meal...I ordered the Tricolor Enchiladas which had a choice of four different fillings, shredded beef, chicken, cheese or mushroom, and were served with rice and beans. I chose the shredded beef. Three shredded beef enchiladas are served each adorning its own sauce; one traditional red enchilada sauce, one green sauce (verde), and one in the house special Tarasco sauce. Each of the three enchiladas were delicious with each sauce creating three completely different sensations on my palate. The red sauce was tangy and a little smokey with a nicely balanced spiciness. The green sauce had a wonderfully bright, fresh flavor and added a little more heat than the red. The Tarasco sauce was an amazingly rich cream based sauce that offered such beautiful texture and balance to the dish as a whole. I was skeptical in the beginning that the flavors wouldn't co-mingle very well, but neither sauce overepowered the others. They actually blended harmoniously together creating an unforgettable meal.

On to the service...Upon entering Tarascos the place was buzzing with activity. We were greated promptly by the hostess and taken to our seat. Drink orders were taken quickly and some fresh, complimentary corn tortillas were delivered shortly thereafter. Our waitress, Gabriela, arrived with our drinks and directed us to the salsa bar so we could enjoy our hot corn tortillas with a variety of homemade salsas. Gabriela was everything I look for in a waitperson; polite, pleasant, attentive without being over bearing and most importantly she was having fun doing what she does. When we got up to leave we were given the "thanks for coming" line, which I always appreciate, a true sign of hospitality.

The ambiance...I was pleasantly surprised when I stepped into Los Tarascos by the wonderful and tasteful decor. It was as if I had stumbled into an 1800's southwest spanish mission or quaint Mexico villa. No gaudy colors or over used stereotypical paintings covering the walls, just nice comforting earthy tones and playful touches like the wood beamed waiting area. A real success in my mind on keeping it simple yet fun.

I loved my experience at Los Tarascos and my only real complaint concerned the menu. I am not a fan of putting pictures of plated food on menus and the writing was somewhat hard to read in the dim lighting. That small gripe certainly did not put a damper on my evening there and I am looking forward to dining with them in the near future, frequently.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

B&B's Pickle Barrel ( is located just north of the CSU campus at 122 West Laurel Street and is a popular local deli and bar. The original owners, Bob and Brenda (hence, B&B), were CSU business students who opened the Pickle Barrel in 1988 and it's been a thriving business since.

He said...
I have lived in the northern part of Colorado in, near or within a short drive of Fort Collins the better part of my thirty-four years, however, this was my first time visiting the Pickle Barrel. I knew of it and had always wanted to try it, but for some unknown reason had never been. Well, that has changed as of February 14th, 2009. That's right, my companion and I had our Valentine, or rather our anti-Valentine, dinner there. It was wonderful and uncrowded, all the other couples, with the exception of a few, must have had their dinner at one of those cookie-cutter, corporate chains.

The Decor was not exactly what I had expected from a place so near the CSU campus. I fully expected the place to be regaled in green and gold with pictures of "Cam the Ram" everywhere, but it was not the case at all. The walls were adorned with pictures/artwork depicting chefs and kitchen/food themed items. The bar is small and off to the left and a small dining area sits to the right. Up the stairs is the counter where the food orders are taken and the open kitchen resides beyond that. The menu is hand-written on a large board and is divided into two sections: hot, grilled east-coast style deli sandwiches and cold, east-coast style deli sandwiches. Prices average $6.50, the most expensive being $7.00. The Pickle Barrel also offers soups and desserts, and has two varieties of free pickles to eat with your sandwiches, spicy dills and not spicy dills. The menu was very diverse and I would have loved to tried everything on it.

Being a college town and in such close proximity to the campus, I half-way expected to find a "challenge" type sandwich on the menu. You know, like a 8 pound sandwich that the eater must consume in 30 minutes or less. It would be a fun addition in my opinion.

I ordered the $6.75 Wiley Coyote - grilled turkey breast, onions, green bell peppers, tomatoes, melted meunster cheese and BBQ sauce on your choice of a toasted hoagie roll. White, wheat, light rye or sourdough...I chose white. Sodas came in two sizes, pint or quart size mason jars (a free refill comes with the quart size but not the pint). Upon first sight my sandwich seemed to be more bread than goodies as it is served in a wicker basket open faced, but it looked tasty and the subtle smell of the BBQ sauce had my mouth watering in anticipation of the first bite. The first bite didn't let me down, the gooey meunster cheese and the tangy-ness of the BBQ sauce were the first flavors I experienced and then came the grilled turkey, onions and peppers. The flavors were wonderfully balanced, and despite all that my favorite part was the bread. The bread was toasted and buttered lightly and still remained moist and soft with a little chew to it, absolutely amazing. I devoured my sandwich accompanied by a couple of their spicy pickles, it was a great meal.

My only real complaint would be that the free pickles didn't come in a barrel, but rather in two restaurant-grade lexan containers. Oh well, I still had a wonderful meal and will most definitely be back and often. It's not just a college hangout as I had thought prior to my visit but a true Fort Collins icon.

She said...
I'm afraid I can't be completely unbiased, as I love the Pickle Barrel. I grew up in Fort Collins, but had never experienced "The Barrel" until I became a college student in my mid-twenties. Some of my fondest memories are of taking my kids to the Pickle Barrel for a Curious Monkey (peanut butter, bananas and honey) or a PBJ after a visit to Doc Charney's lab across the street, so I knew going into it that they'd get a favorable review from me.

Never having been to a deli on the East Coast, I have to take their word for it that they are an East Coast-type deli - I just hope I'm not disappointed if I ever get to a deli on the East Coast. Although there are a LOT of sandwich choices on the menu, I fell back to my all-time favorite, the Hop-Sing, a mound of grilled turkey and ham deliciousness (I 86'd the salami last night) covered with melted mozzarella on a toasted roll served with what appeared to be homemade marinara. Like my partner, I am always impressed with the toasted bread. Most places toast the bread so much that you end up cutting up the roof of your mouth. Not so at the Pickle Barrel; their toasted bread is soft with just a touch of the crunchiness of being toasted.

In the past whenever I'd gone to the Pickle Barrel, there had always been a line of people waiting to order; sometimes the line extended out the front door and seating was always at a premium. When we arrived last night, I was a bit dismayed at the almost empty dining room, but quickly realized that even though there wasn't the line I was accustomed to, they were still doing steady business. During the course of our stay, I don't think the cooks ever had a break; they cooked steadily, preparing both in-house orders and call-ahead orders. With the lack of a crushing crowd, I had the opportunity to really look around at the place, something I'd never been able to do before. I appreciate that their meats and cheeses are kept in a deli-type display case and that the kitchen is open - you can see your sandwiches being made. I've always felt that open kitchens tend to keep the cooks "honest" - they have to keep their workstation clean and not take shortcuts and you'll NEVER find that a cook picks up something off of the floor to cook in an open kitchen.

While I don't go to the Pickle Barrel as often as I'd like (I'd never be able to fit into my jeans again if I did!), I fall in love with it a little more each time I do go. I love the friendly atmosphere and the honest, unpretentious food.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Union Colony Dinner Theatre

He said...
Well...where do I begin? The Union Colony Dinner Theatre is located in downtown Greeley, Colorado. The theatre itself is quaint, cozy and inviting with seating for about 150 patrons (that is a guess on my part). The show we had tickets for was Grease. The actors not only act in the musical but they also make up the waitstaff in character. The actors really embraced their roles while waiting the tables and provided excellent service. We had the pleasure of being waited on by Rizzo (the leader of the Pink Ladies). She was very attentive, yet abrasive at the same time, a perfect portrayal of Rizzo. Overall the service was great and gets a big thumbs up from this reviewer.

Now on to the food...ugh! Let me just start off by saying I've had more memorable and tasty meals while I was in grade school. The meal started of with a run of the mill, no fuss dinner salad that was neither here nor there. You know...a very safe choice by the caterer, The Island Grill. For my entree I had the Cheese Enchiladas, she had the Lemon Pepper Chicken, neither of which had any redeeming qualities. The portions were chintzy and inadequate for dinner. I mean really, two 6 inch cheese enchiladas with a scant serving of sauce, a pile of shredded lettuce and tomato, a tiny bit of spanish rice and small scoop of guacamole and sour cream was hardly worth the $36.00 ticket price. Now, I know the $36.00 goes towards more than just the food and I may have been able to overlook that if the enchiladas tasted good, but they didn't. The cheese inside the enchiladas was cold and had reverted back to its original solid state prior to being grated and rolled inside the corn tortillas. The scant amount of sauce I had earlier referred to was sweet and would have been unpalatable if not for the guacamole and sour cream saving the day. The rice was ok but there wasn't enough of it to salvage the meal. I tried a couple bites of my cohort's Lemon Pepper Chicken and I didn't taste any lemon, not much pepper, and a dry, unimaginative grilled skinless chicken breast. Her meal also came with what looked to be a small portion of frozen peas and carrots and watery, boring white rice. Her meal lacked everything, presentation, flavor, color and imagination. A true disappointment. Dessert came at intermission of the show and we split a Brownie a'la mode. I liked it but nothing special.

Now on to the show...yay! The Union Colony Dinner Theatre put on a great performance of Grease. The minimal use of props and the small cast adds to the charm of the show. I enjoyed the simplicity of the set designs and was entertained from the opening scene to the final curtain. Which I guess is the main reason people come out to such a place, to be entertained in a more intimate setting and have a fun evening watching musicals and plays.

Will I ever go back to the Union Colony Dinner Theatre? ...Absolutely, but I'll probably grab a bite to eat before I show up!

She said...
I love the musical Grease and was looking forward to getting to see it at a place that was new to me, the Union Colony Dinner Theatre ( in Greeley, CO. The dinner theatre itself is cozy and well organized; I couldn't see that there would have been a bad seat in the place.

The service by the waitstaff/cast was excellent, and any restaurant employee who knows how to pre-buss tables gets two thumbs up from me! Not once did I see a floor worker walk by a table and not pick up an empty plate or glass; I didn't see any of the "it's not my section" attitude from anyone on the floor, which is a refreshing change from most establishments.

While I was dazzled by the service, I was severely disappointed in the food and drinks. I ordered the "Greased Lightning", which had all sorts of alcohol in it that I like individually, but the combination tasted something like liquid baby aspirin (the orange stuff). But, heck, for $6.50 I drank it anyway.

The Island Grill, a restaurant right across the street from the dinner theatre, catered the meals. The salad was the best part of the meal, and let's face it, you have to work really hard to screw up a salad. My Lemon Pepper Chicken had neither lemon, nor pepper, and tasted like boiled chicken. The Island Grill was kind enough to at least put grill marks on the chicken so it had the appearance of being grilled. The rice was not the light, fluffy rice that even I can achieve at home using Minute Rice, but more a thin, watery gruel served alongside - and I'm not kidding - the same frozen peas/carrots combination used daily in school cafeterias. I didn't realize, when I ordered the Lemon Pepper Chicken meal that I was in for, essentially, a tasteless, diet plate. While I am currently on a diet, I don't typically dish out $36.00 a plate to eat a diet meal.

As a general rule, I consider cheese enchiladas a tasteless dish and refrain from ordering them anywhere, but I found myself eating off of my companion's plate just for something to taste. Because of the portion size, though, I did feel guilty taking even a bit or two from his plate; not even a starving man could exist on the paltry portions served.

Dessert was a brownie a'la mode, which was the second best part of the meal (remember, the salad was the best). Though the brownie was a bit too chewy for my taste, at least it had flavor and did a good job of filling in the empty spot left by my diet plate. Based on the quality (or lack thereof) of The Island Grill's catering, I doubt I'll be spending my hard-earned money at their restaurant any time soon.

The show was amazing! One thing I love about dinner theatre is that it is such an intimate setting and it's easy to get drawn in to the play. I'd forgotten that the play is slightly different from the movie, but it was still a great time and I look forward to returning to Union Colony Dinner Theatre for more shows. However...I'll be sure to eat before the show.