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For days, I'd eaten nothing but crap and tourist fodder and overpriced lunches and dinners in the mountains while trying to pretend I was relaxing amid the spectacular views, German tourists and stands of regal, if dying, pine. I needed a great burger the way some people need oxygen while coming down from Everest. Going up, they're just fine — they've trained and are taking it slow. But coming down, once the summit has been attained, suddenly they have no breath. It was just like that for me, except that rather than oxygen, I needed a cheeseburger.
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I believe that a great cheeseburger can change your life. Depending on the circumstances, depending on the time, the place, the company or lack thereof and, most important, depending on the cheeseburger itself, a truly great one can alter your fate, leave you feeling elated, confident that, at least in one aspect of your life, you have found the best and will forever have a solid base against which to judge all others. Most of us will never drive the greatest car ever made. Most of us will never live in the greatest house, own the greatest diamond, know the greatest men or drink the greatest wine ever decanted. Yes, we can say that the new Hyundai is better than our twelve-year-old Stanza, but we can't compare it in any real sense to that Bugatti or the McLaren F1, can we? We can drink the $200 bottle of Château d'Yquem and know that it is good, possibly great, but without independent means, a trust fund, a streak of fiscal suicide in our hearts, we will never be able to compare it to the '47 Cheval Blanc.
The best cheeseburger ever made is served at a small rattletrap bar and cafe down in San Antonio, New Mexico — in the land of dust, atomic zombies, tumbleweeds and green chiles. The second-best cheeseburger is served in a lot of places: It is the big, floppy burger with hot sauce at a little strip-mall joint in Rochester, the double-double at one of California's founding fast-food burger joints, a double cheeseburger with a cold Bud longneck at a former biker bar south of Denver. There are a lot of second-best burgers out there — but second-best, while still good, really just means first among the losers.
And then there's the next rung down: cheeseburgers that are great in situ, great for their time, their place; burgers that just might, someday, forty or fifty years down the line, rise a step up the ladder and become second-best. Burgers with potential, in other words. Good enough now, maybe great when I am an old man, doddering and complaining about the kids today who drink only Martian sodas and eat nothing but lasers.
I wasn't really looking forward to my burger at Larkburger, but it was right there when I needed it, just down the hill in Edwards. Back in 2006, Thomas Salamunovich of the Larkspur Restaurant in Vail started a little stand-alone restaurant in an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle. It was at the Larkspur that, through experimentation and long practice, he'd come up with a burger so good that even in the midst of the "fine-dining burger" frenzy that seized America a couple of years back, it stood out as a near-perfect example of the form. The thing was wildly popular at Salamunovich's fancy-pants restaurant, so Larkburger became a joint dedicated to nothing but the greater glory of the cheeseburger he'd slaved over. It was, in his words, "my vision for the perfect burger experience."
His original Larkburger is hidden in a labyrinth of strip-mall storefronts a little ways off the frontage road, but it's easy to find: You just look for the line that, on a good day, will spill all the way out the front door and form up like a starving mob just one small step from licking the front window glass. Inside, there's the fast-casual setup made familiar by Chipotle and all of Chipotle's imitators, with the requisite alley between dining room and counter, the basic menu hung above the registers. You order, are given a receipt, then step aside and wait for your number to be called, for a tray full of burgers and fries and milkshakes to be set on the counter. After that, it is seat-yourself in a room perpetually short on seats, on a patio ten times too small.
I ordered a plain-jane Larkburger (1/3 pound Black Angus patty, with lettuce, tomato, raw red onion, "secret sauce" and Tillamook cheddar), fries (without truffle oil) and the 24-ounce "Five Dollar Shake." I paid my money, got my ticket and stepped aside to wait. While I waited, I looked around the rather spartan, conservative space (nothing but raw wood paneling, polished chrome and the name, LARKBURGER, picked out in lovingly polished metal) and read the mission statement, the proud declaration of intent. All burgers Angus, all-natural and without preservatives. All stuff biodegradable and earth-friendly. All energy produced and utilized efficiently. Even the paneling came with a travel voucher: Monterrey Cyprus from Live Edge in Oakland, California.
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