Wow: I knew burgers were important, but I never knew quite how important until I opened the can of worms that is the Tommy's/In-N-Out/Fatburger debate in the January 1 Bite Me. Since then, the Bite Me HQ mailroom has been flooded with letters, e-mails, screeds and missives on a variety of burger-related issues -- from which Tommy's is the real Tommy's Original World Famous, to detailed histories of when and where people had their first In-N-Out, to what's gone wrong with Fatburger since that chain's founding in 1952 -- but almost all of them also included at least one line like this: "And by the way, dude, you don't have to drive all the way to Barstow for an In-N-Out burger -- there's one right in Vegas."
Which is true. There's also one just across the way in Henderson, Nevada. And according to the In-N-Out Web site (www.in-n-out.com, which I can't believe wasn't snapped up by some enterprising smut peddler), making the trip, door-to-door, from the Westword offices to 2900 West Sahara Boulevard in Las Vegas is a mere 750.1 miles and an investment of twelve hours, 34 minutes of my life. Not too shabby. To make Henderson's one and only location would be 759.9 miles, twelve hours and 44 minutes, and to go booming across the Mojave in a fast red convertible with the top down would be a trip of 907.7 miles -- roughly fifteen hours, depending on traffic.
But then there's this, a tip given on the sly not once, not twice, but in three different e-mails: The new Burgers-n-Sports opened by baseball legend Goose Gossage, a Colorado native, may be an In-N-Out in disguise! Apparently, the good folks behind the In-N-Out chain refuse to franchise the name outside of direct-delivery, fresh-produce areas, so instead have begun selling the concept -- the menu, the recipes, the color scheme and font, the whole megillah, except for the moniker. That means a new burger business must source its own suppliers and come up with a snappy name, but the guts of the place will still be In-N-Out. Neat trick, huh? If only someone could convince Ferrara's Pizza back in my hometown of Rochester, New York, to do the same thing.
I went to Burgers-n-Sports at the corner of Stage Run and Dransfeldt Road out in Parker, and if it isn't a secret In-N-Out, it's the next-best thing. Yes, the place is full of sports memorabilia, complete with its own Goose-centric gift shop and a few TVs tuned to ESPN. But beneath that dugout decor, it looked like an In-N-Out, smelled like an In-N-Out and you know what they say about something that looks, walks and acts like a duck, right? Plus, the food tasted like In-N-Out. The huge burgers were stacked high with incredibly fresh ingredients and came dripping with special sauce that the menu just called "spread," same as at In-N-Out. The fries were blanched, pomme frite-style; the shakes so thick I nearly gave myself an aneurysm trying to suck one through the straw. And the best part? Just like in Vegas, Henderson, Barstow or wherever, I got two cheeseburgers (one of them a double), two orders of fries, an orange Fanta and a chocolate shake for less than ten bucks.While waiting at the counter to pay, I mentioned to the fella working the register that this spot reminded me of my all-time, stuck-on-a-desert-island, favorite hamburger stand -- how, underneath all the fancy wrapping, it just felt like an In-N-Out. "So honestly," I asked. "Is it?"
"No, sir," he said with a smile. "This is Burgers-n-Sports."
You know what? That's good enough for me.
Sadly, the Micky Manor -- the last place in Denver to serve the fondly remembered Rockybilt -- has laid those legendary burgers to rest. People dropped by the Micky Manor to grab a few of these little devils because they'd grown up eating the real thing at Rockybilt outlets -- the last of which closed in 1980. To me, they sound like the burgers that White Castle produced by the billions back in its heyday, and I'm sure they came all tied up in the same sort of nostalgia for old Denver that the Castle minis create for former bridge-and-tunnel kids. But the burger was never much by In-N-Out standards, just a thin patty, greasy and tough, on a little, soft bun, with some mustard-based secret sauce whose recipe was purchased from the defunct Rockybilt chain by Ron Bay, Micky Manor's former owner.
"Initially, he let us serve them and use the Rockybilt name, but he was losing too much money, so he stopped making the sauce for us," says Jerri Sanchez who, with her husband, Richard, bought the eatery from Bay in 1996. "Now we're still serving what we call mini-burgers, but we can't call them Rockybilts anymore."
But Rockybilts were always more about tradition than sustenance, anyhow. And old traditions die hard.
In more meaty news, Max Burgerworks, which debuted the same month that Burgers-n-Sports fired up the grill, has a new and improved menu. I gave the joint a lukewarm reception a few weeks ago ("The Kid's Not All Right," January 1), because the kitchen made some pretty basic mistakes when it was responsible for making little more than fries and burgers -- and pretty boring ones, at that.
But, huzzah! I got a pre-rollout copy of the new Max menu, and things look to be taking a turn for the better. There's more variety, the same emphasis on high-quality product (Red Bird chicken, Niman Ranch beef and brats, and now bison available for a fifty-cent bump in the basic price of any burger) and -- maybe most important -- a friggin' green-chile burger finally on the big board.
Max is also adding a soup of the day, a weekly chef's special (which frightens me a little, because my biggest problem with the place was the kitchen's crippling lack of creativity), new appetizers, a beefed-up wine-and-beer list, and a larger selection of desserts being trucked over from Zaidy's, Max's sibling in Cherry Creek.
According to Kelly Johnson, who wrangles the press for Max, the shift in focus and new menu have been in the works since October. Owners Greg Waldbaum and Gerard Rudofsky have spent a long time "experimenting with some new recipes," she says, "and this is the end result."
Better late than never, right?
Leftovers: I knew this was going to happen. This is why I have to learn not to get so attached to places, because I'm suffering big-time over the closing of Korea Palace, a great Korean BBQ joint shoehorned into an abandoned McDonald's in my favorite little Mexican-Korean-Vietnamese-Afghan-Chinese-American 'hood ("How I Learned to Love Kimchi," June 26, 2003). It used to anchor what has become a disjointed, fractious, ever-changing area of ethnic strip-mall dining and mom-and-pop operations always on the ragged edge of bankruptcy.
But now Korea Palace is gone. And the odds of another worthy venture moving into this odd space where the most recent owners never bothered to file down the big McDonald's Ms on the door handles? Not good, my friends. Not good at all.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.