According to Mike Majoue, Julia Child really could debone a chicken in under a minute. He watched her do it while in culinary school at Scottsdale, Ariz.'s Le Cordon Bleu in 1990, where he spent just enough time with the famous personality to call it "training" with her.
That, of course, looks great on any kitchen résumé, as do the 65 years of collective experience that Majoue and his wife Dianne have racked up all over the country. Mike says he's plated food at "every kind of restaurant you could possibly think of," from Charlotte, N.C., to New Orleans to Phoenix and beyond. Dianne has cooked since she was a child, and began waiting tables at 11 years old.
Which is all encouraging, but not especially helpful in trying to figure out why their new Woodland Park eatery is called Buster O'Brians. For what it's worth, the website doesn't really help, either: "I'm Buster, but to my husband & chef (Mike) and our customers, I am just Dianne. However, if you ask for Buster, Mike will probably come out to chat."
Perplexing! But read farther down the page, and it becomes clearer that Mike is Buster, and that the outfit draws its name from his trademark O'Brian breakfast potatoes.
Bread bowl beauties
I visited for lunch and dinner, both of which bring Cajun and American plates. Mike's original vision was actually for a menu twice as big, since he and Dianne love to cook and eat many of their family recipes. But it's still a large menu, and besides the canned beets and garbanzos on the fresh, 30-item salad bar (and cans of cream of mushroom soup visible behind the register), Mike says everything, including stocks, dressings and sauces, is made from scratch.
"This is good chow," commented a local to a friend in a booth behind me. And overall I agree, though there are some missteps, too.
The Cajun chicken pasta ($7.95 lunch/$10.95 dinner), featuring what Mike calls a heavy cream sauce "kicked up with spices," remains fairly tame (even when requested extra spicy) but super-tasty with green bell pepper accents. A barbecue combo plate ($10.95, Thursday nights only) delivers a ton of value with a visit to the salad bar (included in all non-sandwich dinner entrées), followed by a heaping plate of chili-powder-dominant, Cajun-baked pintos and chili beans; mildly spicy coleslaw (or corn); a buttery baguette wedge; pulled pork that was slightly gamey (for lack of a better description) and a well-prepared half-rack of ribs.
Our server failed to offer several sauce options later described to me by phone — and service was the largest pitfall, with forgotten items, missing silverware and a lack of food knowledge — but the default Big Hoss Barbecue Sauce is good. The meat could use a touch more char, but it's plenty tender from, and surprisingly smoky for, having been dry rubbed and slow-baked in a tandoor-like clay pot — an indoor-friendly method Mike learned while in Alaska.
Mike's chicken and sausage gumbo ($8.95) and Cajun seafood étouffée ($9.95) are strong, each served thick in a fine sourdough bread bowl next to a small ceramic pot of rice, topped with either sausage on the gumbo or blackened tilapia on the étouffée. Both bring generous chunks of protein, ample spice and overall strong flavors.
Po-boys and oh-boys
By contrast, our Cajun cheeseburger ($5.95), ordered extra spicy (an option our server did remember to offer), delivered no noticeable Cajun accent, and essentially tasted like a below-average normal burger. It's a shame, because when Mike later describes dusting the Colorado beef with blackening seasoning, adding caramelized onions and bell peppers with pepperjack and his own "swamp fire pepper sauce," it sounds awesome. Ours needed more of everything.
Having recently fawned over a cheaper oyster po-boy at Springs Orleans downtown, we found Buster O'Brians' rendition ($10.50) lacking. It places oily and heavily fried oysters on a crusty baguette with lettuce and tomato with either house tartar or cocktail sauce. It's hard to eat, with sharp edges everywhere and too much crunch. At least the accompanying "twice-fried" (blanched, then fried) daily-cut French fries are cooked to order, in trans fat-free oil, and deliver a home-style, soft texture.
Dessert reasserts the kitchen's strength with dense but wholly decent beignets (two for $2.25) and excellent rotating baked items from Dianne, like a fruit medley ($4.25) that's essentially an oat- and brown-sugar-rich berry crisp baked with bread hunks inside a pie crust.
Mike says he'll soon shop from farmers markets to support the local community; the restaurant is a great addition to it, and clearly appreciated already. With somewhat tacky signs above each of the narrow dining room's tables (that say something like "no business meetings between 11 and 2") which detract from an otherwise quaint blend of French Quarter and archival Colorado Springs artwork, the family has already keyed into Woodland Park's quirky aesthetic.