The Buckhorn Exchange is, without doubt, the most mental restaurant I have ever had the pleasure of dining in. And despite being a young pup on what will (hopefully) be a long, eventful food odyssey throughout my life, I’m still not sure if there’s anywhere quite like Denver’s oldest, meatiest, most eccentric eatery.
At 120 years old this year and a legit National Landmark, the Buckhorn is the proud owner of Colorado’s first ever liquor licence and has served five presidents some of the finest American fare money can buy: both Roosevelts, Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan have chowed down on buffalo, elk, porterhouse steak, Colorado lamb and steaming hot Dutch apple pie over the years. Not to mention an endless list of household names that would make one of Jay Gatsby’s parties look totally non-exclusive by comparison. The Buckhorn is a piece of living, breathing, BBQ mad American history and has to be seen to be believed.
So as it celebrates its 120th anniversary, I can’t help but cast my mind back to 2006, when as an exceptionally greedy teenager (as opposed to now being an even greedier adult), I had the opportunity to eat here. I say eat; no, eating is far too polite a word for the massacre that occurred. I left feeling like Brucie from Matilda after he scoffs that enormous chocolate cake: disgustingly full but quietly proud of my achievements, barely able to walk but who really cares when meat is this perfectly cooked?
The restaurant’s history surpasses being merely impressive to settle firmly on being a place of unparalleled American folklore, up there in its own smaller, parochial way with Mount Rushmore, The Hoover Dam or Yosemite Falls. Founded by the legendary Henry H. Zietz in 1893, otherwise known as ‘Shorty Scout’ by the infamous Indian leader Chief Sitting Bull, Zietz was a notorious figure in America’s Wild West. After encountering Buffalo Bill Cody in 1875 (Zietz was just 10), the buccaneering youngster was employed as a ‘hard-riding, straight-shooting scout’ according to The Buckhorn’s website. Much remains unchanged since those early heady days – the 125 piece gun collection, containing Colts, Winchesters and Derringers amongst others remains. Oh, as does the 575 items of taxidermy on the walls. Yes, five, hundred, and, seventy, five. All hanging ominously off the walls and staring you straight in the eye as you tuck into their relatives. Pretty intense.
The bowel-busting array of barbecued animals means eating isn’t an option. At The Buckhorn, you feast. Mammoth American portions are the norm here and it’s advisable to eat light during the day. In fact, the food was so impressive and so shockingly vast, I can still remember, seven years on, precisely what I ate. This is not something I do regularly – I’m not some sort of gastronomic Rain Man – but The Buckhorn just has that effect on you.
To start, the now infamous (in my family at least) ‘Rocky Mountain Oysters’. I was quite surprised, as a naive 15 year old, to see oysters on such a meat-oriented menu; such delicate molluscs, and from the Rocky Mountains no less, what a treat! Something from the sea to prepare me for something from the land.
Naturally, my parents didn’t tell me that I was, in fact, consuming deep fried testes. I had probably unintentionally crashed what was intended as a romantic getaway, and put on hold their hopes of candlelit bath-times and wistful walks through the Rocky Mountains. Allowing me to fall into a big meaty man cow trap was the least I deserved, when you think about it. Schadenfreude at its finest as I choked on both their cruel sniggers and then the bollocks in my mouth.
But the thing is (and once I overcame my initial shock), the Rocky Mountain Oysters were actually, well, nice. Surprisingly intricate, with crisp breadcrumbs on the outside, the ‘oysters’ were cooked to golden perfection. Not chewy, perhaps slightly greasy, but in the best, start of a meal starving hungry sort of way; they begun the meal splendidly. I seem to remember my mother ordering Alligator Tail – it was so huge I assumed she’d been served a whole alligator – which she enjoyed immensely, with a cocktail sauce that was creamy and indulgent but not overpowering.
As you would expect, the main course was a suitably carnivorous affair; with the diverse selection of meat and game on offer, choosing was a difficult business. Which dish should I opt for to provide me with my monthly intake of protein in one sitting? After eventually deciding on the High Plains Buffalo Prime Rib (large, naturally), I was served with a mountain of what tasted like sweet, smoky heaven. Tender buffalo meat, falling off the bone; you didn’t even need a knife, it was that magical. Although the sides provided weren’t especially ambitious (chips, baked potatoes or mash), they didn’t need to be. The consistent brilliance of the meat is all that matters here.
With some difficulty, I managed to save room for dessert, in my case, the famous Hot Dutch Apple Pie with Cinnamon Rum Sauce. As I tucked into the gooey, piping hot pie, I pondered the meal I’d just had. Exemplary American service, friendly to the point of me wondering whether or not the waitress was some long lost aunt, was to be expected; it’s what American restaurants often do best, even if sometimes the pandering can be excessive and insincere. Not the case here.
I looked up, unintentionally making eye contact with what can only be described as a massive dead moose. This was a staring contest I was never going to win. I can only hope that one day, I get to visit The Buckhorn Exchange again and stare at that poor moose as steaming apple pie drips down my chin.