In a town more famous for structural homogeneity than architectural originality, where whole neighborhoods look the same, a castle is bound to stick out. Especially if it lies in the middle of downtown, surrounded by offices and government buildings, sporting a purple paint job.
Welcome to the King's Chef Diner. Most folks in town have driven past it, but how many have gone there to eat? If you're one of those people who has only chuckled as you passed by without ever stopping to go inside and eat, you've been missing out on some of the best, down-home breakfast and lunch items and good-all-the-time green chili that Colorado Springs has to offer.
Dating to 1956, its trademark metal-trimmed building came completely prefabricated from Kansas's Valentine Corporation, as did many of its ilk in the years following World War II. The diner has only 10 stools set in an L-shape around the counter, plus three more that face out the side window. When the weather turns warm, there's additional seating outside, both front and back. Sam Johnson, who owned the diner for 30 years, moved it one-half block from its original location to its present spot. After a brief stint of being owned by a former Broncos assistant coach, the diner was bought in 1997 by Gary Geiser, who has run the show ever since, mixing old recipes with new ones he has labored to perfect.
Chief among these is King's Chef's own green chili, which is by far the best in Colorado Springs. Carefully tinkering with and testing batch after batch, Geiser arrived at a magical formula of ingredients that cook for exactly 4 hours and 20 minutes. The bright green, tomato-flecked chili starts out sweet, turns slightly smoky and tangy, then finishes with a fabulous fire. What's great about it is the way it balances the flavors with the spiciness so that neither dominates the other. But, do heed the warnings about the heat -- this is hot stuff and those who are sensitive might want to try it on the side before they have it slathered all over their food. The chili has rightfully won a slew of award, and a place on shelves throughout the United States, as King's Chef offers it for sale at the diner and online.
Equally famous, at least locally, is The Thing: a massive slab of Texas toast piled high with hash browns, your choice of meat, eggs, cheese, and the green chili. Chef David began by grabbing two whole potatoes and grating them by hand directly onto the hot griddle. There he seasoned them, and he also fired up the toast and cooked the eggs to my liking. At King's Chef, "cooked to order" is clearly not an empty phrase. When everything was ready to eat, the assembly began. Toast down on the plate, then hash browns, eggs on top and a dusting of shredded cheese. Then comes the fiery chili, on top or on the side.
A whole order is more than a normal person can handle. I had a half order, which filled a big plate and stood more than 4 inches high. Although I slowed as I finished the serving, it's important to eat it all, otherwise you won't get a "King's Chef Clean Plate Club" sticker or a chance to dip into the candy box.
If you aren't up to the chili, you can go for The Grump instead. Along with toast, hash browns and eggs you get green bell peppers and a dousing of country gravy. Sweet and savory rather than spicy, this dish is equally filling.
Another standout here is the French toast. King's Chef uses four Texas triangles and fires them on the griddle until they're crispy on the outside but warm and soft in the middle. This was so good I only managed to steal one bite from my wife's plate before she too had earned herself a sticker and a trip to the candy box.
Good food does not alone a classic diner make; it has to have a lively cast of characters, both eating inside and working behind the counter. King's Chef has this covered. Amory, the cheery and sassy waitress, knows her customers by their first names and their orders. The kitchen's open intolerance for high-maintenance customers only adds to the homey feel.
The more I think about it, the more I find King's Chef a most pleasant study in contrasts. A castle outside, it's anything but palatial on the inside. And, while most of us think it's Disneylandish exterior is whimsical, there's nothing funny about the food they cook up behind the counter. Most importantly, you can eat like royalty at a working person's price. And be sure to come hungry, because it would be a terrible shame to miss out on your sticker and a trip to the candy box. With food this good, it shouldn't be a problem.
King's Chef Diner
110 E. Costilla
Open Monday Friday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.