My faithful myrmidons for the evening were disaffected rock stars Woofer and Tweeter Le Grand and my old chum Rotten, a federal employee with a license to kill (though she claims she is merely a doctor at the VA). We made quite the spirited assemblage of desperadoes as we swaggered up to the log cabin/ liquor dispensary at Colorado. Rotten, swirling three fingers of Glenlivet in the air, was quick to point out that whatever else they were up to around here, they pour a mighty healthy whisky, podner.
Colorado, owned by John Rice (of Redel's fame) and embedded in the St. Louis University campus since 1994, is a comfortable, kitschy sort of place, but it is difficult to divine its intent. On the one hand, witness the collection of vintage radios and lamps so ugly they're beautiful; on the other, note the high Grizzly Adams quotient, with lots of rough-hewn wood, saddles, horseshoes and gratuitous tree bark. If there is a unifying decorative theme, it is the movie memorabilia from '50s-era Technicolor westerns. This layering of different genres -- Wild West meets the Age of Plastic -- creates a quirky subtext that perhaps only a nostalgic veteran of summer camp in the Rockies, circa 1961, could sort out. One might imagine Maureen O'Hara sitting at the bar, but who's her date? John Wayne in Rio Grande, or Brian Keith in The Parent Trap?
Abandoning deeper musings on this matter, we oozed into our booth, which I found cozy but which Tweeter would later pronounce too small for all the big plates. While Rotten gave Woofer some free medical advice ("I'd go with colonoscopy over sigmoidoscopy; it's more disgusting, but it's good for 10 years"), I conducted some serious menu analysis.
I concluded that Colorado's menu rides the aforementioned swell of decorative weirdness to new heights of culinary schizophrenia. I was initially lulled into a slack-jawed stupor by the passel of Tex-o-centric appetizers -- the usual bleak assortment of black beans, chips and salsa, jalapeno poppers and nachos. Then, just when I'd pegged Colorado's culinary thrust as another attempt at the fatigued Southwestern concept, I spied crab rangoon and cold Thai noodles, dishes for which only a deranged mind could yearn in a Lassie-come-home movie set that cries out for barbecue on tin plates. Ethnic allusions continued to collide: Greek salad, Vietnamese stir-fry, Caribbean jerked pork, pizza, fajitas, burgers. Only then did my scowling sense of foreboding congeal into a horrible truth: Colorado is a something-for-everyone restaurant.
One is, or at least one ought to be, skeptical of any kitchen proposing even a whispered proficiency in so many disparate cuisines. Such a menu begs the triumph of chaos over artistry; unless the chef is terribly gifted, the probable outcome -- and Colorado proved no exception -- is mediocrity gnarled with disappointment. Restaurateurs should avoid at all costs the something-for-everyone snafu. That's what food courts are for.
Thus were our stomachs and our emotions -- and at dinner, the two are indistinguishable -- yanked in a hundred directions. The only thing that stood out was that nothing stood out. We brooded like clouds over a barren crag. Still, something had to be done; we were faint from hunger. So I bespoke of our unflaggingly gracious waiter an order of guacamole.
As all sentient beings know, guacamole is a monument of human ingenuity; it ranks with pizza, wine and Quezel raspberry sorbet as one of the great epicurean breakthroughs of all time. It is also the simplest of dishes, but for some reason hardly anybody this side of the Brazos River makes it properly. Colorado's version troubled me on three levels. (1) Texture: A goopy green emulsion, of which this was one, is always inferior to a chunky recipe. (2) Color: I'm no forensic pathologist, but a sickly pastel hue suggested the presence of some dairy additive -- mayo? sour cream? -- which diluted the subtle buttery sweetness of the fruit and effectively transmuted the stuff into avocado sauce. (3) Unidentified foreign matter: Multiple inch-long hunks of a dense, brown, rubbery substance remain a mystery. Even after extensive testing (Rotten dissected a sample, and Tweeter and I actually tasted it), we were unable to ascertain whether it was animal, vegetable or mineral. Suffice it to say that whatever the origin of this contaminant, it had no business in a batch of guacamole.
The night wore on. Two linguine dishes -- one with chicken in a pesto cream, the other in tomato sauce with sautéed vegetables (which turned out to be zucchini, yellow squash and a lone broccoli floret) -- were substantial enough but utterly devoid of character. Like the Stouffer's frozen entrees they resembled, I would recommend them for use only as emergency rations.
Affecting a similar institutional flavor ethos was the spurious chicken enchilada I'd had the misfortune to encounter at high noon earlier that week. Colorado's poetic license with the term "enchilada" notwithstanding (this specimen, made with a flavorless flour tortilla, was actually a burrito and bore no resemblance to the genuine article), this dish was nothing short of a bummer. The green-chile sauce had a bitter, tired, canned taste, and the filling drawled lazily, "Chicken pot pie." Likewise, a pair of mushy trout crepes, served at a temperature I would hesitate to call "hot," had the unexpected and rather unpleasant consistency of baby food and all the appeal of smoked paper pulp.
Yet just as I began to compose a long and woeful lament on the chef's inexplicable indifference to my yearning palate, our charming waiter presented the grilled salmon. This moist fillet, cooked precisely medium-rare and drizzled with a delicate soy glaze, was tucked into a bowl of deliciously fragrant, ginger-spiked rice. Enhanced by a sprinkling of scallion and black sesame seed, this well-balanced dish revived my flagging spirits. I was moved to recall fondly the flank-steak sandwich I'd sampled at lunch. A filling tucker of flavorful beef, grilled vegetables and gooey cheese, it would have been a perfect belly-bomb had the bottom slice of bread not all but disintegrated in the au jus. Perhaps, I mused, gazing at all our half-eaten food, we'd just ordered the wrong stuff.
But alas, the porterhouse steak renewed the onslaught on our delicate sensibilities. Dry, fibrous and sinewy, it failed to distract even Woofer, whose beef-loving ways know even fewer bounds than his guitar playing. If this was typical of Colorado cooking, no wonder the much-maligned Rocky Mountain cannibal Alferd Packer opted to eat his friends.
COLORADO, 3761 Laclede, 652-3044. Hours: lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; dinner, 5:30-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 5:30-10:30 p.m. Fri. and Sat.; 5:30-9 p.m. Sun. Entrees: $8.95-$15.50.