Consider the diner: a haven, a warm place to sit enveloped by the atmospheric clink of plates and glasses, the buzz of conversation, the smell of pancakes and drip coffee. Is it just me, or are the best of them at least a half-step out of time? Walk into Loyola’s, for instance, and you could be in any era between the ’60s and the present day. When I’m in the mood to eat at a diner, it’s this limbo I crave.
So I was pleased stepping into Roper’s Restaurant on Central and Wyoming a few mornings ago. Twangy country music played through speakers, a huge pair of longhorns dominated the east wall, unidentifiable animal pelts were suspended near the doors. Obviously, the vibe is cowboy, but beyond that it belongs to no particular era. I floated through time and space into the Diner Zone.
My wife and I sat down, and the smiling waiter rustled us up some menus, this being the kind of place where things get rustled up. It was a herd of menus he brought us, too. A breakfast menu. A lunch menu. A special seasonal menu. Six for two people. I feared a menu stampede.
I chose one—breakfast—and faced quite a selection. Seven “Off the Griddle” options, six “South of the Border” meals, a dozen “Sunrise Specials.” I would have been paralyzed by the choices if I didn’t already have an inkling of what I was after. Buried in the “Off the Griddle” section is a dish that goes by the unassuming name of Santa Fe Pancakes. I’d heard the legend, and I had to have them.
My wife also stuck with breakfast and ordered a Cowboy Burrito (“It’s huge,” promises the menu). We waited for our food and sipped our reasonably strong coffee.
Now, let me tell you about those Santa Fe pancakes. They’re blue corn, obviously. (How could you get away with calling pancakes “Santa Fe” if they weren’t blue corn?) They’re also loaded with piñon nuts. And cheddar jack cheese. And green chile.
At what point have you crammed a pancake with so much non-pancake stuff that it stops being a pancake? You can advance your own arguments, but for me, it all comes down to the syrup line. If you can spread butter on it, douse it in syrup and still enjoy it, then it’s a pancake—unless it’s French toast, but you can usually tell that by the shape.
By that definition, then, the Santa Fe pancakes are still pancakes. The green chile is hot and tangy, the cheddar-jack cheese gives a savory weight, the piñon nuts are toasted, chewy morsels, and it all comes together in the full-bodied blue corn batter. Add a veneer of syrup and the flavors meld into a salty, spicy, nutty, savory and sweet concoction that is at once a true pancake and unlike any you’ve ever had before.
You won’t find the Cowboy Burrito anywhere else, either. It’s a beast of a dish: a chicken fried steak-and-egg burrito as long as your forearm, with two distinctive qualities separating it from the rest of the New Mexico breakfast burrito pack. The first are the fried potatoes beneath the eggs and cheese—they’re tender, wholesome and earthy. The second is the green chile-infused gravy that smothers the burrito. This is a Roper’s house specialty, a blend of Southwestern cuisine and Midwest comfort food. It’s creamy, peppery and spicy, and definitely something to seek out. The rest of the burrito didn’t live up to the precedent of those two outstanding ingredients, though. The chicken fried steak, I’m sorry to say, disappeared into the eggs, overwhelmed by the other flavors.
They do serve dinner at Roper’s, but it’s a different, and lesser, experience. Come nightfall, the restaurant is dark, quiet and nearly empty. We ordered the Indian Creek Quesso (their spelling) as a starter and were disappointed when it emerged as a crock of yellow Velveeta-esque cheese with a thick skin around the edge. It was garnished with black olives and tomatoes, but they imparted little flavor to the sticky, bland appetizer.
The fried catfish was a step up from that. Fillets of farm-raised fish are breaded in corn batter, thick and crunchy on the outside, the tender flesh preserved inside. Our server recommended the chicken friend steak as “out of this world,” and I’m happy to report that, separated from the burrito, the steak does emerge as something special. It’s hearty, with the fried batter imparting good crunch. The green chile gravy also makes a reappearance that ensures the dish’s place among the best chicken fried steak in town.
I ventured to ask about desserts, and the server informed me that pumpkin pie and red velvet cake were both available that evening. I pushed my luck and asked if Roper’s baked them in-house. “Oh no, we don’t make any of them here,” he answered.
“Where do you get them?”
“Sam’s Club,” he said.
We skipped dessert but departed full and satisfied. All in all, the dinner was fine in a fry-it-all Midwestern way, but I doubt I’d seek it out again. For the breakfast, on the other hand, I’d cross time and space.