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Juniper Valley Ranch has a strong showing in 66th year

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Fried chicken co-stars on JVR's home-style menu. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Fried chicken co-stars on JVR's home-style menu.

Census bureau estimates for 2015 rank Colorado Springs as the 40th most populous city in the country. But, lacking any surrounding metropolitan area, it so rarely feels like that. Drive half an hour south, past where Nevada Avenue becomes State Highway 115, past The Broadmoor and Fort Carson, and you're out where the endless skies and red-dirt scrublands that embody the rural Southwest rule.

To the east of the highway, marked by a wooden arrow sign and little else, there's a compound of adobe buildings: Juniper Valley Ranch, a family business that has served up homestyle cooking since 1951. On April 7, the weekend-only eatery (which closes for winter months) opened up for its 66th season of service.

The restaurant's website recommends calling for reservations, advice we're happy to have taken when we see inside the packed-full dining house. It also notes they don't take plastic, one more reason to make this an occasion rather than an impulse choice. Instead of a menu, we receive an informational pamphlet, which talks about the history of the restaurant. Founders Evelyn Ellis and Ethel Shirola grew up on the ranch, two of the four daughters of Guy and Bessie Parker. After Evelyn and husband Walt converted the ranch into a café in 1947, Ethel and her husband, Matt, returned to help expand the operation into a full-on family-style restaurant. It's now run by Ethel's oldest grandson, Greg.

The menu, unchanged since the restaurant's opening, lets diners choose an appetizer, a protein and a dessert, with all sides fixed and served family-style, totaling around $20 after tax. For appetizers, we have the choice of a cherry cider or a curry consommé, presumably perennially misspelled as "consumé." The former gives a 4-ounce clean sip a step or two above Kool-Aid, but the consommé sips clear yet creamy, with a mild spice profile.

It's not Friday — the only night they serve chicken-fried steak — so we sample the two remaining proteins: baked ham and skillet-fried chicken. Both come overcooked by just a touch. But we're fond of the strong seasoning on the half-chicken we're provided. The ham, three slices in cooking liquid under a neon-red apple slice, does fine.

But the sides leave the strongest impression. Riced potatoes — potatoes extruded into rice-size lengths — come light, creamy and healthier than fat-added mashers, leaving more caloric space for the rich gravy, anchored with chicken rather than beef stock, deep in flavor and smooth in texture. Biscuits come with dairy butter or apple butter, the latter bearing a reserved cinnamon nose. And while the okra casserole doesn't so much resemble a casserole, that's not a problem. The tender veggies and rice get a strong onion-celery base and a subdued but present spice kick.

Moving on to dessert, which includes an all-too-welcome offer of coffee after the heavy dinner, we opt for a menu-regular butterscotch sundae and a piece of bread pudding. Portions are mercifully small. The bread pudding's fine, but we love the rich house-made butterscotch and indulgent vanilla ice cream.

Small faults in the cooking aside, there's an undeniable appeal to this ranch simulacrum. Vaguely condescending travel magazines would refer to this spot as "an experience." But for people who've gotten a taste for the rural Southwest, this place scratches a hard-to-reach itch. Besides, few institutions last for 66 years without doing something right.

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