By Gretchen Kurtz
By Cafe Society
By Mark Antonation
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By Jonathan Shikes
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By Patricia Calhoun
There's a debate raging in food circles about tasting menus and whether chefs have become tyrants by forcing multi-hour parades of plates on unwitting guests. For now, Troy Guard's name doesn't factor into that discussion, but I wouldn't put forty courses past him. After all, this is a chef who loves to fly in the face of the status quo, first with fusion when it wasn't cool, then with raw food in a basement.
But if we are ever going to see that course-without-end side of Guard, it's not at his latest venture, TAG Burger Bar, which replaced Madison Street last fall. According to Guard, burgers outsold everything else eight to one there, so the restaurant — where he became an operating partner in 2011 — was renamed and reinvented to give people more of the burgers they were asking for.
See also: Behind the Scenes at TAG Burger Bar
1222 Madison St.
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
With enough combinations of proteins and toppings to befuddle a mathematician, the menu reads like a manifesto of freedom. Want a lamb burger with avocado and a fried egg? You can have that. How about a salmon burger with ranch and Cheez Whiz? You can have that, too — though you probably wouldn't want to, except on a dare. And after a boozy milkshake or two — yes, it's that kind of place — who knows what kinds of shenanigans might transpire around the table?
I'd heard that the restaurant fills quickly and that parking is scarce. So on my first visit, a Saturday night, I went early. So early, in fact, that I had my pick of the room: large half-moon booths; long community counter with a view of the bar and TVs; two-tops by the red-and-green graffiti-covered wall. Within fifteen minutes, though, most of the seats aside from a few stray stools had filled, and groups walking through the door were bumping into an already-assembled crowd waiting for the chance to down happy-hour margaritas with fistfuls of fries.
Or maybe that's just what I was waiting for. The newcomers might have been after one of the twenty beers on tap and the barbecue beef-brisket nachos. All I know is I was glad to be seated, my order in ahead of the rush. Because as much as Guard and his other partners tried to jazz up the space, adding new booth coverings, lighting and wood paneling on the walls, atmosphere isn't what draws you here; it's the promise of burgers by a big-name chef.
Yes, there are other things on the menu — some pretty good ones, at that, like the Kung Fu Panda salad, with whole peanuts, soybeans and shredded cabbage in a soy dressing; smooth, saucy macaroni and cheese, with Goldfish and crumbled Cheez-Its irreverently blended with panko breadcrumbs; and fried Brussels sprouts, a dead ringer for others in LoDo or LoHi. But these dishes, and others like them from the Tastes, Leaves and Bistro sections of the menu, feel like opening acts: intriguing, but not the main event.
That's where the burgers come in. To differentiate TAG Burger Bar from other high-end joints that opened when the burger trend came to town a few years ago, Guard has designed a menu that's nothing if not pro-choice (I told you he was no tyrant). First you select your protein: beef, lamb, salmon, turkey, veggie or bison. Next up, the bun: You can get your burger on a puffy, seeded creation from Bluepoint Bakery, on a gluten-free option, or enjoy it naked — i.e., with butter lettuce. Prices range from $7 to $10, depending on the patty, and go up in $2, $3, $4, $5 and $20 increments based on what style you choose. À la carte options, like that Cheez Whiz, are listed separately and cost fifty cents to three times that. Fancy pairings don't necessarily make a better burger. Indeed, one of the best (and probably most overlooked) options is the classic Angus burger, which costs just $7, half the price of many other combos. With lettuce, tomato and no other ingredient static to interfere with the straight-up taste of beef, it allows you to appreciate the high-quality blend of short ribs, brisket and chuck. Another standout is the $2 "Congress Park" topping, a simple, fresh combo with mashed avocado, lettuce, tomato and spicy mayo.
Sometimes, however, more is better. Not the "Andrew Jackson" more, a $20 add-on that boasts everything from crispy chicken skin and truffle aioli to pork belly. (For that kind of cash, I'll head to one of Guard's other establishments.) But the "Colorado Proud" more, which unites much of what I love about this state short of the slopes and above-treeline trails. With Boulder honey blended into Haystack Mountain goat cheese and house-roasted Pueblo green chiles, this burger is the visitors' bureau's best friend. As with the equally tasty "Menage a Trois," with caramelized onions, Grey Poupon and Gruyère, however, the toppings tend toward the strong side, so don't order either if you want to savor the underlying protein. Same story with the "Blind in Texas," a popular $4 addition, with barbecue sauce, aged Cheddar and scratch-made crispy onions that are many cuts above those on green-bean casseroles.
"Lady Gaga," a $3 topping, brings the energy you'd expect to the veggie burger, though surely this singer deserves a racier combination than burrata, tomato, basil and balsamic. While it would no doubt be good with many of the options, I don't suggest it unadorned (as if the Lady herself would ever be), with just lettuce, tomato and a pickle. Made from garbanzo beans, soybeans and herbs, the spongy, green-hued patty lacks the toothsome texture and depth of flavor found in common substitutions such as brown rice, lentils and mushrooms.
When a big-name chef launches a casual outpost, expectations run high. But mistakes happen, especially when Guard (who accompanies sous chef Sam Freund in the kitchen a couple times a week) isn't around, such as the time the Brussels sprouts arrived with garlic aioli, not the brighter lemon-walnut vinaigrette, and the day the kitchen ran out of ice cream for several specialty shakes. Once, the beer-battered onion rings reminded me of the Michelin Man: puffy, pale and soft. You'd think a chef with Guard's cred would know better than to deep-fry Oreos, even if they are plated with Nutella-vanilla sauce. And some recipes aren't quite up to snuff from the start, like the "One Night in Bangkok" topping, which, despite papaya slaw, mint and sriracha aioli, ends up tamer than one night in Boise.
More problematic is the perception that, despite clever combinations and well-sourced ingredients, you're not getting what you pay for. In part, this comes from charging extra for fries, not just specialty ones like sweet potato or duck fat (both fantastic), but regular russets, too. Guard's not alone in this practice, but when burgers cost upwards of $14, as they often do here, the add-on seems like price-gouging from a hotel mini-bar. Compounding this feeling is the size of the Bluepoint buns, so large they make the more than third-pound burgers seem smaller than they are. Aside from the veggie, every burger I've eaten at TAG ended up with several bites of meatless bun, the good stuff having disappeared before the bread. That's why the naked option is such a good one: The starch doesn't overwhelm the meat.
Though customers didn't know it, they already voted once to turn Madison Street into TAG Burger Bar. With every bourbon-spiked milkshake, each "Colorado Proud," every order of duck-fat fries, they're again voicing support. Long live democracy.