Beyond the Five Napkin Burger: Tarbell's rises to the occasion

Beyond the Five Napkin Burger: Tarbell's rises to the occasion
The Five Napkin Burger at Tarbell's. See a slideshow from Tarbell's.

When I was growing up in the southern suburbs, Southglenn was the only mall within several miles, and I'd frequently stroll through it with a preteen friend, one unfastened strap of my overalls dangling jauntily behind me like some weird denim tail. I'd buy a pair of cheap plastic earrings at Claire's or maybe a poster at It's Your Move, and then every trip would end with me spending the last of my allowance on an Orange Julius or a Cinnabon, the best dining options available, and consuming it while I sat at a plastic table, waiting for my mother to load us into her minivan and take us home.

I was a fickle fan, though, and I quickly abandoned Southglenn when Park Meadows, with all its slick stores, ski-resort feel and sunny, spacious food court, opened just a few miles away. Even as a self-absorbed teenager, I knew it was only a matter of time before the old mall, anchored by a shabby Sears, would have its date with the bulldozer.

That inevitable date came, wiping the Southglenn mall off the map. And like a strategically designed phoenix meant to lure consumers with its ostentatious beauty and grace, last August the Streets at SouthGlenn rose resplendently from the ashes.

Chef Matthew Fenton came up with the idea for the Five Napkin Burger at Tarbell's.
Mark Manger
Chef Matthew Fenton came up with the idea for the Five Napkin Burger at Tarbell's.

Location Info


Tarbell's SouthGlenn

6955 S. York St.
Littleton, CO 80122

Category: Restaurant > Comfort Foods

Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs



Mom's mac n cheese $10
Soft-shell crab sandwich $14
Fried chicken with coleslaw $15
Five Napkin Burger $10
Omega-3 fettuccine $16
Seared ahi tuna $24
Fish tacos $14

6955 South York Court, Centennial
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily

The vast swatch of property that backs up to University Boulevard between Arapahoe and Dry Creek now boasts a carefully constructed outdoor village, a mix of luxury rentals, artisan shops and restaurants. Where fast-food chains once dominated, there are handcrafted-pizza places, Middle Eastern falafel joints, even a pho shop. The development is a testament to the expansion of dining culture in Denver and the urbanizing of the suburbs.

It was here, in the upscaled outskirts of the Mile High City, that former Iron Chef America winner Mark Tarbell chose to put the latest in his expanding group of restaurants. Tarbell already had a successful fine-dining restaurant in Phoenix when he opened his first Colorado restaurant in another new suburban development, Lakewood's Belmar. The Oven Pizza e Vino was a quick hit there, and a few years later, he opened another eatery, Mark & Isabella's. But that kitschy Italian concept never found its rhythm, and it lasted just eleven months before closing abruptly in November 2009.

The same month that Mark & Isabella's shut down, Tarbell opened a second outpost of the Oven in SouthGlenn. And just a month later, he opened Home, his second attempt at finer dining, a meditation on American cuisine in both traditional and modern form. The airy, high-ceilinged space looked great, filled with dark, modern furniture, one wall adorned with cross-sections of dozens of tree trunks. But the name was a problem.

Diners thought the place was a housewares vendor, and another Denver restaurant that had the word "home" in its name didn't like what it saw as brand infringement. So in February, Home became Tarbell's, taking the name — if not the menu — of the Phoenix flagship. And now, with the distraction of Mark & Isabella's and the drama of the name change over, Tarbell's has truly made itself at home. Tarbell and his executive chef, Matthew Fenton, who is responsible for the day-to-day kitchen management and much of the menu development, are doing one hell of a job.

The menu is split between vintage and modern, with the latter a nod toward haute-American food, drawing influence from both the East and West. The fish tacos — white cod in a grainy crust of fried cornmeal topped with cilantro and chipotle crème — were smart and well-executed. The ahi tuna, cool-centered and medium rare, came on a bed of edamame-studded wasabi mashed potatoes that had a pleasant kick but didn't detract from the rest of the savory flavors on the plate. And the omega-3 hand-cut fettuccine was nicely al dente and much lighter than I expected, the flat noodles glistening in parmesan broth, all richness derived from the earthiness of the highlighted wild mushrooms.

The vintage dishes, elevated versions of classics, were even better. The macaroni and cheese was a standout, with Manchego, fontina, white American and white cheddar cheeses mixing in a tangy, sharp roux over a bed of elbow macaroni. The fried chicken was precisely what fried chicken should be: moist white and dark pieces of the bird in a light, crispy, golden-brown batter, served with a moderately dressed tart coleslaw that cut the heaviness of the dish — and prevented fried-food-related guilt (if I eat 100 grams of fat with a vegetable, it doesn't count, right?). The open-faced soft-shell crab sandwich was exquisite, a stack of challah toast, lightly battered soft-shelled crab, and a fried egg whose yolk lent soft richness to the hard bite of the other two components.

Like so many dishes at Tarbell's, the crab sandwich spoke of a chef who considers not just flavor, but also mouthfeel when constructing food. I saw that consideration again in a side of slick sautéed mustard greens garnished with a crunch of wispy fried onions. And again in minuscule brioche croutons, which brought balance to a salad made of field greens and blanched seasonal vegetables, including beets and carrots, and drizzled with carrot-juice vinaigrette.

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