In my head, the perfect local, fast-casual restaurant offers three or four entrées and spends the rest of its time testing, fixing and bettering the ingredients in each dish. It obsesses over the little stuff until that hot thing in your hand changes your day with a taste. I don't want selection, I just want interesting, consistently executed expertise.
Casey's Dog House Grill isn't exactly that restaurant. For instance, it should probably be a food truck parked outside the late-night dens of downtown Colorado Springs, instead of the occupant of a table-dwarfing dining room in Woodland Park. That becomes even clearer considering the menu of cafeteria staples, like sliders and hot dogs.
But there's more heart behind these basics than I've seen in some fine-dining dishes. Don Hagan at Casey's keeps it small and tight, and turns the ordinary into a little something special. That's not to say it's a flawless mountaintop mecca, but you could do a lot worse than spend a night in the Dog House.
Take the french fries: fat, golden, hand-cut sticks that taste like a highlight reel from the day when peeled potatoes, hot oil and salt first met in unadulterated glory. These yield to bites with a musical, layered crunch reminiscent of biting through fresh pastry. Even burned, they're hard not to eat compulsively.
Elsewhere, the restaurant tends to over-rely on a smoky paprika mayonnaise called Doghouse Sauce. For instance, the portobello slider ($6.75) is one of the most delicious items on the menu, the fungus marinated and grilled into something like pure umami, but it's the only thing between the bread, other than the sauce. Give me a garlicky pesto, give me red onions and arugula, but just give me something.
The sauce shows up again on the Triple Pork Sliders ($6.50), where a chorizo patty and fat, curling bacon play nice with spinach and tomatoes — I didn't notice any ground pork — and again on the Veggie Wrap ($5.99). The latter is a seemingly too-simple affair of vegetables, tortilla and smoky, orange sauce, but what vegetables: fat hunks of onions, red bell-peppers, spinach, basil, zucchini and those blessed chunks of portobello did as good a job carrying an entrée as you're going to see.
At least, that was my thought until I bit into the similarly styled Veggie Quesadilla ($5.99). This one adds grilled onions and salty melted cheese to a large, buttery tortilla that's directly responsible for making me rethink the impossibility of vegetarianism. If the restaurant would throw some of those onions on the beef sliders ($6.99), and maybe a pickle or two, it would have a powerhouse, instead of a pretty good meat-and-bread thing.
Probably overpriced, the two-hander Chicago dog ($7.49) still packs an impressive wallop, all dripping meat-juices and clean flavors, on a bed of neon-green relish, onions, pickles and peppers. The side of baked beans ($1.89) is mushy, homemade and heavenly. And the "homemade apple pie" ($3.50) is more like the most incredible piece of fried dough, packed with lava-hot-and-gooey cinnamon apples, you've ever eaten.
I guess the definitely overpriced chicken wings ($12.99) aren't anything special, and the pickle spears are pretty raggedy, but Hagan's green chili ($3.99) is the real deal. I prefer tender strands of shredded pork to the ground stuff found here, but otherwise his green, lightly sweet little fruits build in intensity like a professional symphony.
All told, it's like the restaurant spent time perfecting something little, and ended up with something big.