To find some of the best fried chicken in the state, you’ll need to get out of Dodge.
Head toward Colorado Springs, then south on Highway 115, past Fort Carson and the insect museum, to a modest terra cotta house by the side of the road.
Juniper Valley Ranch — worth the drive but easy to miss — is a 68-year-old restaurant, situated on a turn-of-the-century family farm and serving the same dinner menu since 1951.
Here, members of the Dickey family still skillet-fry chicken drumsticks and thighs, bake fruit pies and rolls, rice potatoes and place two Cheez-Its on the side of a cup of sweet cherry cider or consomme (a tradition that started with a great-grandmother who enjoyed Cheez-Its in her soup but also didn’t want diners to lose their appetites).
They still wear blue jeans or flowing skirts and stand before clay walls covered in tintype photographs and knickknacks from the Old West. Inside the original dining rooms, wood hearths warm the backs of creaking chairs on cooler nights.
“Authentic” is a tough word to ascribe to restaurants and food these days, but stepping into the Dickey family’s adobe home will transport you.
“The menu hasn’t changed because it reminds (diners) of their childhoods or dinner at their grandma’s house, and I think there’s something really special about that,” chef Preston Dickey said.
In time for spring and Juniper Valley’s 68th season, Dickey, 35, has returned to his hometown along with his husband, Jan Kratzer, 28, to live full-time. They’re carrying on a four-generation family tradition, serving fried chicken dinners to weekend diners traveling through this part of the state.
On Friday and Saturday nights and all day on Sundays, Dickey and Kratzer, who previously worked in non-profits and fine dining restaurants, respectively, are in the kitchen cooking alongside Dickey’s extended family. His dad, Greg (who owns the restaurant), stepmom, sister, brother-in-law and aunts are all fixtures there.
Their meals still cost $22 per person for heaping, family-style portions in four courses.
You’ll get platters of crispy-outside-juicy-within fried chicken, served classic or hot (cayenne, cumin, chipotle and chili powders, plus apple cider vinegar for Juniper Valley’s touch); homemade apple butter to slather over hot biscuits; coleslaw and okra casserole and gravy to pour over it all.
“You can take people back in time or take them forward in time,” Dickey said of the effect of a restaurant. “Whichever experience they want.”
The forward and back is a balancing act for someone who grew up gay and “outspoken” in the ’80s and ’90s in Colorado Springs. But Dickey came from a long line of free-thinkers: homesteaders, business people, artists and matriarchs.
“Four girls inherited (Juniper Valley), and they kept it all together,” he said of his great-grandmother Ethel and her three sisters, who by the mid-20th century were running the ranch and building a business with their father, Guy Parker, on his land.
Between them, they sold sandwiches to construction workers, started a Mexican restaurant that later failed and then landed on skillet-fried chicken dinners, a model that stuck.
Dickey’s grandmother, Sydney, eventually took over the restaurant kitchen, and when he was born, his parents, who were right out of high school, were given the reins.
“The running joke is I was born in the restaurant,” Dickey laughed. For the first part of his life, he lived behind the restaurant in a converted chicken coop (that’s now a gift shop), before his family moved out to the original homestead house.
“Growing up in a rural area like this, it was kind of challenging,” Dickey said. “Colorado Springs 25 years ago was a different place. I felt like I needed to get away.”
Sydney helped with student loans so that Dickey could attend Tufts University outside Boston. While he was away, and soon after she had retired from the family business, she died in a car crash on her way from the ranch into town.
“Our family was really rocked by it,” Dickey said. “Because my parents had me so young, she was really influential in raising me.”
Dickey moved to Denver shortly after his grandmother’s death, and helped at the restaurant on weekends when he was needed. Ten years after her passing, he decided to become more involved.
For years, Sydney had made all the desserts at Juniper Valley. Dickey started to dabble in baking with just a butter crust and a box of peaches and thought “that would be that.” But the pies, and rolling out their dough every day, became a way for him to process his grief.
“It’s kind of like reconciling with my family and this place,” he said. “And now, I come back and feel like I do belong here.”
Last summer, he sourced fruit from farmers on the Western Slope and made 25 kinds of pies throughout the season — from blackberry to nectarine and plum — while pan-frying hundreds of pieces of chicken each day, “low and slow,” from birds that his dad would butcher every morning.
“We were really worried that a lot of our food traditions would die with her,” Dickey said of his grandmother. “We didn’t learn as much as we probably should have.”
But this season, he and Jan have rented out their Denver apartment on Airbnb and moved near Juniper Valley full-time. In addition to the regular menu, they’ve started baking their own sourdough bread, added local gin and tonics to the drink offerings, and are serving Nashville hot chicken as a Sunday special.
“I think Jan and I have spent a lot of our lives working on other people’s dreams. Here we get to take liberties and risks that just aren’t possible at other places,” Dickey said.
They bought three new milking cows that birthed their first calves this spring, adding to the 10 steer and six horses left on the 300-acre ranch.
By opening weekend in early April, the low-slung adobe was humming with families, first-time visitors and friends. Dickey’s sister, Olivia, and his dad greeted diners, who filled the worn-in rooms, tucking in at dining tables as the house settled into its 68th year.
“Something about this place is that it (…) it’s like local produce: It follows the season, and so do we,” Dickey said.
“If I could tell myself 20 years ago that I would be putting myself back here, I would have never believed it.”
If you go: Juniper Valley Ranch is located at 16350 Highway 115, southwest of Colorado Springs. It’s open from 5 to 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and from 1 to 7:30 p.m. Sundays. For reservations, call 719-576-0741, and for more information visit junipervalleyranch.com.