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Uptown in Pueblo

Steel City Diner more than worth the drive

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There was a bit of grumbling among my food-weary friends when I tried to round them up for an assignment in Pueblo. "Too far," they complained. "That drive is so tedious." By the time we finished our meal at Steel City Diner, however, they would have walked to Pueblo to do it again.

This is why you should drive, the quicker the better, to Steel City Diner: impeccable food, exquisitely prepared and presented, and desserts to die for. Or kill for, as almost happened at our table with the last few bites of a malted milk chocolate creme brule.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Let's begin at the beginning: step into a space warmed by dark wood booths, brightened by a pressed tin ceiling, a place our parents would have found familiar. A friendly staff will seat you at a table clothed in crisp heavy linens. A small, eclectic wine list will surprise you: prices unheard of (no bottle over $28), and all available by the glass. Colorado microbrews and Thomas Kemper root beer are also available. Fortify yourself with something to drink for the deliciously arduous task of deciding what to eat.

There are frequent menu changes, most of which have to do with sauces and preparations. Crab cakes may come with a red pepper rouille one month or, as we had them, with a delicate drizzle of remoulade and a generous bed of Chimayo slaw. Regardless of the sauce, these crab cakes are heavy on the crab, light on the breading, and thoroughly delicious. The plum dipping sauce that accompanied the coconut shrimp had a lovely touch of Asian chili, giving the typically cloying sauce a little kick. The Southwestern quesadilla was a meal in itself.

With Chef Richard Warner's emphasis on local and organic produce, you can be sure the salads are superb and, though the portions are large, they won't fill you up. The Caesar was one of the best I've ever tasted, with cheese, lemon and anchovy flavors in perfect balance. A simple butter lettuce salad came with a fine blend of creamy garlicky buttermilk dressing and bits of bacon -- elegant in its simplicity.

Entrees bear witness not only to Chef Warner's training at the Culinary Institute of America but also his innovative blending of subtle influences. His menu boasts Oaxacan mole, Israeli couscous, Colorado lamb and Thai curry. Our entrees were a melange of brilliant culinary ideas, effortlessly presented. The meats are Colorado grown, and grilled perfectly -- slightly crusty on the outside, fork tender within. The star anise that seasoned the pork tenderloin was balanced by a sweet potato gratin and sweet bits of apple compote. Something as traditional as New York strip steak gets jazzed up with chive mashed potatoes -- as green as new grass. The Colorado lamb was tender enough to be eaten by the toothless, and was served with couscous flavored sweetly with mint and tartly with Kalamata olives. Most entrees were accompanied by fresh lightly cooked asparagus.

None of the presentations were fussy; all were beautiful. The grilled salmon sat on a bed of braised greens; the wild mushroom ravioli could have been arranged by a photographer. The well-chosen colored plates became another visual element in a lovely tableau.

As I write this I'm nibbling on one of pastry chef and co-owner Mary Oreskovich's Tropical Cookies, packed with coconut and Macadamia nuts. After we had dessert, we headed home with some of the best cookies we've ever had. Good as those cookies are, though, dessert at Steel City was better.

Strawberry-rhubarb cobbler with the tastiest crust imaginable won the hearts of the rhubarb-phobic at the table (helped, perhaps, by the cinnamon ice cream melting atop it). A lemon cheesecake tart, set off by blueberry compote, was light enough to levitate, and trying to share the earlier mentioned creme brule could put a wedge in the strongest marriage. The showstopper, however, was the chocolate and banana wontons served on a thin layer of rum custard and a necklace of candied hazelnuts. Words fail me.

Steel City Diner is open for lunch with some of the dinner items appearing in smaller, less expensive dishes. Nothing, I must emphasize, even at dinner, is expensive; most entrees are under $18, appetizers under $8 and desserts under $5.50. The lunch menu also offers sandwiches, burgers and, according to a friend whose eyes misted up as she described it, the best macaroni and cheese around. I saw a bowl of it served to a young boy nearby the night we were there; it looked mighty tasty.

More to the point, however, is the fact that that sort of accommodation was being made -- a special dish for a child. That speaks to the overall feel of the menu, the cozy crowded place and the people: comfort food in a comfortable setting prepared and served by friendly folks. What more reason do you need to drive to Pueblo? Ok, here's one: The men's bathroom is a shrine to Marilyn Monroe. Honest. Check out the pictures. You'll thank me.

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