Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Juniper Valley Ranch: Perfectly Simple and Simply Perfect

By Brad Laybourne

Being a food snob in Colorado Springs is not easy. There's no denying that the city suffers from a dearth of reasonably-priced and delicious fare. That's why I suggest making the picturesque twenty minute drive south of town to Juniper Valley Ranch in Penrose.

The one of a kind restaurant sits right on Highway 115, and your only hope of not driving right past is a large sign announcing that you are 250 feet away. Pull into the gravel parking lot and look for the beautiful horses that pasture just past the lot, as this is a real working ranch.

The entrance to the mud hut dining room is surrounded by juniper bushes and lots of patrons waiting outside on the porch. This place is very popular so make sure you have reservations. The casual and old-timey dining room is, well, different. It reminds you of your grandma's farmhouse, if you were lucky enough to have a grandma with a farmhouse. There are lots of nick-knacks, old rickety furniture and a wood-burning fireplace.

The excellent service will ask for your order early, as there are only a couple of things to decide, namely, whether you would like curry consomm or cherry cider for a starter, and whether you would like chicken or ham. Go with a large party and just order equal amounts of both. The food is all you can eat so feel free to share. A the of writing, the chicken costs $17.50 and the ham is $18.50.

First they serve your the consomm or the cider. The consomm is a light curried broth that comes with Cheez-its, I swear. The complex flavor of the broth is hard to describe because it is so unique. All you need to know is that it is delicious and satisfying. The cherry cider is also wonderful, with the perfect amount of sweetness. You can't go wrong with either choice.

Next comes the cole slaw, which is absolutely fantastic. The pieces of cabbage are cut small and the sweet vinegary dressing is balanced and just darn good.

The main meal is next. The chicken is a pan-fried style; juicy, tender, flavorful. Go for the dark meat, as it retains the moistness best. The ham is a country-baked style in a sweet gravy. Kind of like HoneyBaked but drenched in the syrupy gravy so more moist with a better texture. Sides include riced potatoes, a cream gravy and okra casserole. Spicy, bright and fresh, this casserole is the unsung star of the meal, combining tomatoes, rice and okra in a balanced melange of huge flavors.

And then there's the biscuits and apple butter. The biscuits' texture is browned on the outside and airy in the middle, perfect for taking on the flavor of whatever you are sopping off your plate or the incomparable apple butter. The apple butter is unlike any you have had before, and better than you have ever had before, with a style more like a preserve. The desserts are fantastic as well. Every night they feature a different one, like bread pudding, cobblers, etc. These are consistently amazing. They also serve an excellent, house-made butterscotch sauce over ice cream. Skip the chocolate sundae and the peppermint ice cream.

Beer and wine are available, and go ahead and bring the kids. If young enough, they eat off your plate for free, and the staff accommodates well-behaved children enthusiastically. They will certainly enjoy seeing the horses, as they graze just off the parking lot.

You'll leave full and happy, without a huge dent in your wallet. And just maybe you'll think the Colorado Springs dining scene isn't too shabby after all.

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