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I love cheeseburgers. Seriously, madly, deeply. I love foie gras, too. I love maguro sushi. I love whole fish with their eyes rolled back, seared crisp and served under a blanket of dark, thick oyster sauce, and I love bacalao and blood sausage and agnolotti with sage and butternut squash. I love cassoulet that takes two or three days to make, and Indonesian roti that takes a minute.
1600 15th St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
Half-pound cheeseburger: $6.80
14-inch pizza, double cheese and pepperoni: $13.75
Philly cheesesteak: $7.75
I am polyglot and polyamorous in my affections, a slut of cuisine. But most of my relationships are complicated. I have problems with Italian food going back to my youth — Mommy and Daddy issues, because in the kitchen, I was born Italian and have never been able to let some of my first prejudices go. Bacalao and blood sausage are dark-eyed Spanish and Portugese temptresses, temperamental and bad for me. My dedication to the French is a bone-deep thing, a love-hate bond that will no doubt be the death of me. Foie and cassoulet, a perfect bowl of mussels, the spit of lardons in the pan — French food is a high-maintenance, spike-heeled bitch in a black dress with a yappy dog and breath that smells of Gauloises cigarettes and disdain. But I love her despite that. I love her because she is the purest, most defined love I've ever known, and I love her even though she hates me with the rare and white-hot zeal of the jingoist.
But the cheeseburger? The cheeseburger is simple. The cheeseburger is the girl next door, the one I grew up with. Between us there is no drama, no distance, no complexity. We're good together because we know each other inside and out. The cheeseburger is my heart and soul.
Standing outside the Wazee Supper Club a couple of weeks back, I was thinking about cheeseburgers — about great ones and poor ones, and the places I've had them. I was smoking a cigarette and pacing, lost in my own internal reverie, so didn't notice the ragged fella lurching up beside me until he was there at my shoulder, a bad angel of my past.
He asked for a cigarette, and I, the easy mark, gave it up, feeling the scrape of his rough skin as the cancer stick passed between my hand and his.
"Think about it like this," he said. "It's one less for you. I'm saving your life."
"I'll think about it like I'm doing you a favor, thanks," I said back, hating that rationalization every time I hear it from some grubber. "My life doesn't need saving."
He nodded. "Okay, then. Hey, you want to buy some smoke?"
"No, man. I don't."
He nodded again, head bobbing with a certain feral desperation, grin peeling up either side of his face.
I looked around. Broad daylight, a Sunday afternoon in downtown Denver. "No," I said. There's just something about this town.
My bad angel shrugged, scratched his face, asked for a light. I gave him one of the packs of matches I keep for just such moments. He asked if I had any change for the bus. I told him to go away. I was working, after all.
Three reasons I'm a fan of the Wazee:
One, should I ever decide to slip back into old, bad habits, the corner of 15th and Wazee streets is centrally located enough that, without too much walking, I could score just about any old thing I needed. And while, yeah, the odds are good that Scratchy McGee wasn't holding anything but the knife he would've used to unzip me had I been dim enough to follow him into the alley to buy a bag of his phantom weed, there are a lot of other corners in this part of town. No matter how many loft developments get thrown up, no matter how many wine bars or architectural studios are crammed into the old blocks, this is still Denver's historical tenderloin. There are ghosts here older than anyone now stalking the pavement. Plenty of them are still looking for a fix.
Two, the Wazee itself isn't exactly short on history. Open since 1974, it predates all the hipness, all the gentrification, all the retro this-and-that of LoDo. Founders Angelo and Jim Karagas actually opened their first spot, My Brother's Bar, in 1969, nine blocks farther down 15th, in a neighborhood known more for the rattle in the trap and the briskness of illicit trade than anything else. But the brothers obviously had a taste for sketchy 'hoods (and the kinds of places where sketchy hoods might tip a bit of whiskey), because thirty-odd years ago, they took a look at this former plumbing-supply warehouse and said to themselves, "Hey, you know what would work great here? A bar!"
And they were right. The Wazee has aged well — not so much like a fine wine, but more like that last bottle of beer that somehow got shoved to the back of the fridge, the one you find accidentally, joyously, on a hot night long after last call, when you'd gladly sell your brother to a passing gypsy for just one more drink. Nothing tastes better than a lost-and-found beer when you really need it. No place works better than the Wazee when you need a place to crash-land for a couple of hours, a couple of years, a lifetime. It's seen some famous faces in its time (and it had one as an owner, since John Hickenlooper's restaurant group bought it after Angelo Karagas passed away), but has also served 10,000 times as many nobodies like me. Families eat here. Politicians, lawyers, writers and other lowlifes gather here. Drunken mobs of sports fans with pony-keg bellies and hot, flushed faces sometimes descend on the bar and yell at the televisions — but even then, it has a weird sort of placid class. No matter what happens at the Wazee, the walls have seen better and they've seen worse. For some reason, I find this comforting.
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