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When Chipotle changed the way people thought about fast-casual, restaurateurs everywhere began dreaming up ways to be Chipotle without, of course, actually being Chipotle. They launched similarly streamlined eateries on corners all over town, sometimes two or three to a corner, hawking salads, pizzas, burgers and even Korean kalbi, but mostly tiptoeing around the Mexican turf staked out by the master. Not Clay Markwell, though: When this former adman and fine-dining convert opened his first restaurant last summer, he opted for the same concept that put Chipotle on the map: burritos.
His place, called Scratch Burrito and Happy Tap because nearly everything but the empanada dough is made in-house, has a familiar minimalist aesthetic. Floors are concrete. The menu is compact and written on the wall. Burritos are encased in foil and served on a metal tray. But to Markwell, the similarities end there. "We're really doing something completely different than Chipotle," he says, even if tortillas are central to what he is doing.
4262 Lowell Blvd.
Denver, CO 80211
Region: Northwest Denver
Instead of limiting these flour-based wrappers to holding rice, beans, meats and pico, Markwell treats them like plates, loading them with the same kinds of proteins, vegetables and starches you'd find coming out of a globally inspired kitchen. This idea was born not just of Markwell's love of burritos, but also his Southern upbringing, where white bread was used like a utensil to "scoop everything...and bring a delicious bite to your mouth," he explains.
There's no white bread at Scratch Burrito, though one of the eight burritos on the current roster does have a Southern feel, since it features blackened catfish, Old Bay slaw, and red beans and rice. But it was another kind of rice — curried brown rice, to be exact — that caught my attention and gave me the first hint that Markwell might not have been crazy to take the world's chief burrito-slinger head-on. Borrowing a page from an Indian cookbook, the kitchen hits hot oil with madras curry powder, fennel, cumin, garlic and ginger, then swirls the intensely fragrant sauce into the grains. The rice is layered with braised, shredded lamb, crispy onions, dill pickles and creamy raita, but it's the curry that front-loads the dish with flavor and shows that Markwell is in the game for keeps. Like all burritos here, this one comes with a seasonal side salad — pasta or curried garbanzos this time of year, pickled vegetables or tomatoes in the summer, when the restaurant is flush with produce from Golden Acre Farm.
Other burritos also benefit from lessons that Markwell learned during his two years under Troy Guard at TAG — lessons in texture, temperature and flavor that show he's thinking like a chef, even if his environs say otherwise. The best of the bunch are the globe-trotters, like that tandoori lamb. The Korean-themed number seven, for example, marries chopped beef and sweet soy sauce, the snap of kimchi and rich fried rice. Thai number six is another standout, with vegetable stir-fry, brown rice and organic chicken slicked with a velvety sauce of red curry paste, coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. People who like their foods separated by white space on a plate might not be so enchanted, but I loved the mingling; the sauces pulled everything together while allowing all ingredients a voice.
A few burritos could have used a coach to help them find their voice, though. Flavors in the chipotle steak that should've sung loud and clear — charred peppers and onions, guacamole and cilantro-lime crema — must have canceled each other out, so bland was their harmony. Meanwhile, the vegetarian option, with root vegetables, grains, white-bean purée and tofu, must still be looking for a lead singer. And some flavors simply seemed to be holding back: The kimchi could've been more fermented and funky, and the red curry would really pop if allowed more heat. Global flavors appeal for a reason; why tame them down and play into increasingly outdated notions about what Americans do and don't like?
When the restaurant first opened, people would come in asking for a breakfast burrito. Markwell listened, and added one to the menu with the latest seasonal change. His version is made with the usual suspects, such as eggs, pork and green chile, as well as an unusual one: Healthier and more flavorful sweet potatoes stand in for regular spuds. (Too bad whole-wheat tortillas aren't offered as an equally healthy option.) The same green chile is sometimes offered as the soup of the day, and if you're lucky it will be your day, since the irresistible base — made from puréed tomatillos, serranos, jalapeños, onions and cumin — is thickened not with gummy roux, but with plenty of pork and hominy. Grab a cup of soup with a cheese quesadilla on the side or a Scratch salad (with quinoa, napa cabbage and a host of Mexican complements in bright chile-lime dressing) when you're not in the mood for a Chipotle-sized burrito.
Or forget about that main event altogether and head to Scratch Burrito for the same reason you frequent any number of other spots in town: for small plates and drinks. Markwell conceived of Scratch as both a burrito joint and a local watering hole, hence the "Happy Tap" part of the name. With a concrete bar, six local beers on tap, a community counter and a flat-screen TV, the right-hand dining room is a place to hang out, kick back and order an assortment of globally influenced appetizers — Vietnamese chicken wings, chicken empanadas, vegetarian egg rolls with kale and sweet potatoes — to share among friends. Dinner gatherings lend themselves better to this approach than time-pressed lunches, unless the other side of Scratch happens to be filled with toddlers running laps and screeching, as it was on my first visit. With little in the way of soundproofing at this restaurant, should this happen to you, your best resort is to order another Strange IPAphany IPA and hope for an early bedtime (theirs, not yours) so that you can stick around.
Because Scratch has shown that there's room for another burrito joint — and that's saying something in the town that launched Chipotle.