Double-Wide Eyed

The Waterwheel Lounge doesn't look like the sort of place that serves up delicious home-style food. It looks like the sort of place you go to get your head bludgeoned on the rim of a toilet by a hulking longshoreman named Ted who's been drinking boilermakers since sunrise. Let's start with the parking lot. It's gravel, and patrons' cars are all double-parked. The structure that contains the Waterwheel is essentially a low-slung, red double-wide with faux-wood floors and dusty blinds perpetually drawn shut. This is pure roadhouse chic, set smack in the middle of the urban hodgepodge that defines 15th Avenue Northwest, otherwise known as Aurora's quieter, slightly less scuzzy brother to the west. Once you've entered the Waterwheel's peculiar ecosystem, there's no easy way out. On a Wednesday evening in late September, shortly after quittin' time, there are half a dozen salty, middle-aged regulars sipping drinks at the Waterwheel's horseshoe bar. One of them is a biker whose accent betrays an Eastern European heritage. A few feet from the bar is a lone pool table with a dusty, inflatable bottle of Rainier suspended from the ceiling overhead, and a handful of large plastic containers filled with Christmas ornaments underneath. Also a few feet from the bar—everything at the Waterwheel is a few feet from the bar—a couple of heavyset young women seated at a tiny circular table are drinking Jägermeister shots with Busch backs. But two factors defuse this potentially combustible atmosphere: (1) an incredibly sweet bartender named Susan, and (2) the Waterwheel's devotion to churning out first-rate Americana meals from an itsy-bitsy kitchen in the back of the double-wide. Casually dressed in a white sweatshirt, track pants, and flip-flops, Susan is a seasoned, middle-aged cocktail slinger who strikes a matronly tone with all her customers, old and new. Her calming presence pervades a room where a fistfight over whether to play "Whipping Post" or "Blue Sky" on the jukebox would otherwise be apt to erupt. Instead, it's like you're drinking with your favorite aunts and uncles. The Waterwheel's menu calls to mind the down-home goodness of Linda's Tavern or Hattie's Hat, minus the hipper-than-thou clientele (although there was a table of pierced-nostril dive bombers present on a second visit at a later hour). For those in the know, the lounge's delectable selection of 5-ounce burgers is its calling card. But the chicken-fried steak, pork chops, and a grilled club sandwich on rustic bread also show that the Waterwheel takes its chow as seriously as it does its hooch, further proof that you can't judge a roadhouse on looks alone.

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