It's been eight years now since Thomas Rudis moved his Golden West Cafe from its original storefront operation into its current home on The Avenue in Hampden. It continues to flourish, and if Hampden is a town, Golden West is its town hall.
Along with its neighbors, Holy Frijoles and Cafe Hon, Golden West deserves credit for helping to establish Hampden as a dining and drinking destination. All three restaurants, and many of their successors, have been accused of trafficking in kitsch and whimsy, but from the start Rudis seemed serious about its menu, the core of which is inspired by the cuisines of New Mexico. Also from the start, though, there were smartly assembled Asian entree salads, elaborate burgers and, especially, a full-on Sunday brunch that quickly established itself as a city favorite.
The well-kept dining room remains colorfully bright and spacious, filled from ceiling to floor with festive murals and joyfully assembled junk. Risers and partitions keep the big space from overwhelming diners, and upbeat music keeps the mood elevated.
Kids love it. A recent visit was during the children's hour, when there are as many diners in highchairs as in booths. One of the most winning things about Golden West is how completely it has accepted, and even embraced, its role as a family restaurant. These families, by common accord, tend to clear out of the dining room by nightfall, when Golden West fills up with young couples and groups of friends. And as the night wears on, the energy relocates to the back bar, known as the Long Bar, an established amenity for the neighborhood.
The truth is that Golden West has mellowed into a nice old age.
The service, which long had a reputation for being aloof, insolent and cooler-than-you, has improved greatly. I've had agreeable service at Golden West on occasional visits over the past year or two (but I'm far from a regular). The service I had most recently, for the purposes of this review, was especially sweet-natured and considerate. I don't know how it could have been better or what more anyone could want from a waiter. So when someone tells me that the restaurant still has rude or disagreeable service, I'm not sure what to think.
Granted, maybe the guys who serve as hosts here aren't exactly Mr. Warmth. Smiling would help.
Golden West has also removed, or otherwise toned down, much of the explanatory language on its menu — rules for eating our food — which many diners, myself included, found obnoxious.
But a few of the rules remain in place, at least according to its website. There is still no splitting of checks (although it's a simple thing to do on a point-of-sale system). There are still no substitutions allowed (OK, fine). Nor will Golden West honor requests to leave out or even reduce the amount of sauce on an entree (bizarre).
This is the kind of thing a restaurant can get away with, maybe, when it's playing at the grand-master level, but Golden West is not. The restaurant reliably turns out satisfying and filling food at reasonable prices; portions are ample, and the best items on the menu have the legitimate appeal of great trash cooking. I mean that as praise.
The Frito Pie is an exemplary Golden West appetizer. It's a pileup of cheese, chile sauce, corn chips and salsa fresca with beans or chorizo (or both), served in a sliced-open Fritos bag. No one should confuse this with fine cuisine, but it accomplishes its mission — it fills your stomach, and it's quite tasty; the ground chorizo sounds particularly sweet cinnamon notes.
Another early winner was savory potato "tots," served with an excellent homemade ranch dressing and chili mayonnaise, delivered in what ends up feeling like a bottomless paper cone. It's a perfect junky appetizer. Still another: the brussels sprouts, which the kitchen fries until their tender leaves crisp up and serves with a full-flavored teriyaki sauce.
The entrees are where the food at Golden West starts to feel uneven, indistinct and at times even slovenly. The problem has more to do with execution than conception. The Aztec burrito, a vegetarian option with fried plantains, grilled squash, roasted corn and black beans, was a victim of inattentiveness — the shell was undergrilled, the chile sauce overapplied and the crema underdrizzled. It was a mess. A "dinner polenta" had similar problems: too much salsa, the polenta itself sliced too thickly and undergrilled.
The "Hangover Burger" — bacon, guacamole, jack cheese and a sunny-side-up egg — is meant to be excessive, but its effects are muted by a burger that has been overhandled and underseasoned. The best entree was the simplest — well-seasoned and tender skirt steak, served with more of those teriyaki brussels sprouts. It's the only dish we finished.
For many years, Golden West has divided patrons right down the middle. As of today, I'm siding in favor of the service and the atmosphere and leaning a little against the food, which needs only some fresh attention, perhaps a little editing, to have me on its side.
Golden West Cafe
Where: 1105 W. 36th St., Hampden
Contact: 410-889-8891, goldenwestcafe.com
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily and for Saturday and Sunday brunch
Prices: Appetizers, $4-$9.99 Entrees, $8.99-$16.99
Atmosphere: ✭✭✭ 1/2
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]