By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
And a live hand grenade coated in butter.
It's delicious. My first time at Culver's, I sat in the blue-and-white dining room that looks exactly like you'd imagine a franchised, quick-serve family restaurant would look: friendly, bright, welcoming, made for people with large appetites and larger pants sizes. I ordered what could be considered the defining Midwestern meal: a single butterburger with cheese, a side of fried cheese curds and a root beer that's the chain's own blend and brand. The root beer was sweeter than usual and would make an excellent float with a little vanilla ice cream and a double shot of bourbon. The fried cheese curds were breaded, not battered, and forgettable. The butterburger was a nothingburger after one bite, curious after two, addicting after three and gone after six.
At first glance, the butterburger doesn't seem different from any other decent cheeseburger out there — better, absolutely, than McDonald's (where Craig Culver worked for four years before throwing in with Mom and Dad), not so good as the best bar burgers. It's small, flat and oddly shiny — shellacked, even, and set on a bun that's been buttered and browned to a crisp on the flat-top. After two or three bites, that butter — all that beautiful, slick butter — begins to make itself felt, coating the mouth, mixing with the juices of a patty that's thin but by no means dry. The taste is rich and smooth and uncompromisingly decadent — an eye-opening lushness that builds with every bite. Beef and butter isn't an original idea (it's been done for centuries in Africa, and the French were hip early on to such fat-on-protein tricks), but here it's codified and brought to fruition.
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My second time at Culver's, I went through the drive-thru for a deluxe butterburger with bacon (Leviticus be damned); crinkle-cut fries, heavily salted, served in a paper envelope dotted with grease; more root beer and a small bucket of mashed potatoes topped with thick chicken gravy. I didn't eat everything, but I ate a lot. And though my logical next stop should have been a church where I could've made my peace with God before expiring messily in the breakdown lane of the highway from multiple heart attacks, I instead went home because home is where I keep my beer — a burger's best friend — and Culver's is a dry operation.
In other biblical passages, fasting receives much attention as a method of purifying the soul, and gluttony is laid out quite plainly as a sin. For those writers of the Old Testament, to overdo a thing was to lack dignity and humility — two qualities I've never been accused of possessing in great store, anyway. So the next morning, I was ready for more burgers.
I headed for Smashburger, a new, Colorado-based chain currently just two links long — but with beer! The owner is Cervantes Capital, which acquired the semi-famous Icon Burger in Lafayette about two years ago and used it as a "living laboratory" to experiment with the QSR concept, then opened the first Smashburger in south Denver almost six months ago, in a South Colorado Boulevard strip mall. Smashburger has all the affectations of a standard QSR operation: counter-ordering and tableside delivery, a fast and easily navigable menu, a simple and easily duplicatable decor of red and gray, tables and booths, swooping curves and iron mesh. But it also has a far from standard burger. "Smashburger was designed for the two or three out of ten QSR customers who wanted something better," explains Tom Ryan, Cervantes's chief concept officer.
Like Culver's, Smashburger has figured out the trick of buttering the egg buns and grilling them on the flat-top for that extra, luxurious kick of fat. But unlike at Culver's, the better-burger variation at Smashburger is mostly physical, not ingredientiary. Here the burgers are truly smashed — thrown and mashed onto the flat-top grill with a press that I at first thought was for show, then realized played an important role. When a half-pound of ground, nicely fatty Angus beef is whacked onto the hot steel, it produces a flood of meat juice that caramelizes instantly into a crispy halo of blood and fat around the edge of the burger. It's like meat candy, the delicacy you lose when a burger is cooked on a slotted grill — the traditional cooking surface for burgers smashed by hand.
This burger is fantastic not at the third bite or the fourth, but from the very first. For starters, there's that crisp bit of caramelized juice, then the tender, luscious (even at medium-well) meat, a secret sauce (that isn't really that secret: just ketchup, mayonnaise, chopped pickle and lemon juice), quality toppings that include chili, guacamole or a fried egg. It's an excellent, if somewhat calculated, burger made by an excellent, if somewhat calculating, operation.
And it's good enough to make following the conventions of Leviticus seem easy. With a burger like this, who needs lizards?
Still, every time I find myself standing before the counter at Smashburger, filling out the little card with my wants and needs, checking this and circling that, I can't help but add a cross of applewood-smoked bacon, sometimes double bacon, to my smashburger with cheese. May God have mercy on my soul.