In Denver to promote her latest cookbook, Patricia Wells, restaurant critic for the International Herald-Tribune, complained about cooking's newest trend: fusion. "Most of the time it's throwing foods together from different cuisines, like an experiment to see if they work," she said. "I don't think the chefs actually sit down and eat it, and sometimes it's awful. Why don't they try to make the perfect burger instead?"
Good question. Because when you're in the mood for a good hamburger, the best wasabe mashed potatoes served with curried chicken over penne pasta just won't do. It's gotta be a thick patty releasing greasy juice into a fresh, spongy roll, or nothing. No fuss, no frills, no fusion.
When I'm craving a great burger--not gourmet, not ground filet--I head to My Brother's Bar. This place cooks up close to the perfect burger, and the atmosphere makes it taste even better. (The hours are better yet: This kitchen keeps cooking until 1:30 a.m.)
My Brother's Bar has been famous for its working-class setting, classical-music backdrop and great burgers for close to three decades. Jim Karagas still owns it and runs it--his brother, Angelo, managed the Wazee Supper Club until he died a few years ago--and even though the area is suddenly filled with other dining options, Brother's continues to pack people into the cozy, unpretentious dining areas and the attractive outside terrace.
Karagas always seems a little surprised that Brother's has done as well as it has, particularly since none of the eatery's beloved amenities were really planned. "Everyone asks about the classical music," he says. "We started out with more mainstream stuff, but in the beginning, KVOD's Jake Williams and Charley Sampson were bartenders part-time, and when no one was looking, they would switch the radio over to KVOD. Then there were all these truck drivers jamming to the classical, so we kept it."
Adds Karagas: "Everything about this place evolved--not having a sign, all the quirks. They sort of happened."
The food is no quirk, however. From the start, the brothers decided to keep it simple, reasonably priced--which is particularly welcome now, given the prevalence of expensive pub grub in LoDo--and just plain good. And the service is usually up to the kitchen's standards, although on game days when the place is standing room only, the waitstaff can seem pretty taxed.
While the menu, which is posted on assorted walls at Brother's, has grown over the years, the main draw remains the burger ($3.95), a quarter-pound of 80-percent-lean ground round grilled over gas and sandwiched inside one of Entenmann's fluffy buns. This is one of the few local kitchens that knows how to coax flavor out of such lean beef; since the fat is where much of beef's flavor lies, the lack of it here means the patty has to be seared very quickly and watched closely to make sure the juices don't escape. Brother's also does a good job with ground buffalo ($5.25), keeping this ultra-lean meat from drying out.
Although the burger--bison or beef--is just fine on its own, for another buck you can get a Johnnyburger, one of my personal favorites, slathered with melted Swiss, American and jalapeno cream cheeses and a side of onions grilled so long they're almost caramelized. The burgers come wrappped in wax paper and accompanied by a plastic box of condiments: bowls of pickles, pepperoncini, relish and onions (raw this time), as well as ketchup and mustard, napkins and salt and pepper. I always add a side of the kidney-bean-heavy chili (50 cents for a little plastic ramekin) and a combo basket of the canola-oil-dipped French fries and beer-battered onion rings ($3.25 for a portion big enough to share among two or three). A few micros from the tap, Beethoven's Ninth from the speakers, and I am living large.
By contrast, my visit to The Parlour, another Denver oldie that original owner Shiloh opened in 1974, found the place on its best--and quietest--behavior. This has always been a business-lunch, after-work, late-night kind of place, and it was nearly empty during a dinner-hour stop on a Saturday. We had the charming, fern-bar-style second floor almost to ourselves.
Shiloh sold the restaurant to George Huong two years ago. Huong kept most of the menu--including the extensive burger roster--and added a few more items, many of which have since been deleted because they weren't selling well (this according to our waiter). While the burger is no longer the best in town--there ought to be a statute of limitations on how long Best of Denver awards are allowed to hang--it remains respectable: a half-pound of 70-percent-lean ground sirloin, char-grilled and placed on another Entenmann's bun. The original Parlour version ($5.50) came with cheese (American, Swiss, provolone, cheddar or sharp white cheddar) and a choice of sides: soup, salad, cottage cheese, spaghetti or big, fat, puffy fries. With our burgers we tried a boring iceberg salad with too-thin blue-cheese dressing, bland minestrone and diner-style spaghetti. The burgers were much more interesting. The stroganoff ($6.50) smothered a patty with sour-creamy mushrooms and melted cheddar; the longhorn ($6.50) nearly buried the meat under a gringo red chile, cheddar and onion. All three burgers (we also tried one plain) were nicely cooked, and despite the liquidy toppings on two of them, the buns held up well.
The Parlour's non-burger offerings did not. An order of fettuccine Alfredo ($6.95) brought a bounteous portion of pasta coated in a sauce that tasted of cheap butter and cheap cheese; the Monte Cristo ($6.95) skimped on both ham and turkey and didn't appear to have been battered at all--it looked like the sandwich had simply been grilled in butter. And the French dip ($6.95) would have needed to stay submerged for weeks before it approached edible; the edges of the roast beef were so dry they crunched, and the Swiss cheese was only half-melted.
We also found burgers the only true keepers at JD's Bait Shop. Owners Jennifer and Dennis McCann (the J and D) and Ed and Sue Hahn opened their sports bar fifteen months ago; they call the place a bait shop because fisherman Dennis grew up in Alabama, where bait shops carry a little bit of everything. But since they assumed burgers would be the catch of the day, they also took inspiration from Bud's Bar and Grill in Sedalia, except "people wanted fries with their burgers," says Dennis, instead of Bud's standard bag of chips.
While JD's burgers aren't as good as Bud's, they'll do in a pinch. The 80-percent-lean quarter-pounders are grilled until the outer shells are crisp-charred and the meat inside is still juicy, then plopped on steamed buns. The basic burger ($3.25) comes with chips, fries or coleslaw, all of which tasted fine to us. Adding flavor was the bar's sports-charged atmosphere--with different-sized TVs all around--as well as huge, fish-filled aquariums.
The fishing theme carried through to cutesy names on other menu items: the Tackle Box ($5.95), an appetizer combo that contained onion lures (deep-fried onion strings), bobbers (basic Jack-cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped, deep-fried jalapenos) and two triangles of cheese quesadilla, which we should have thrown back, since they consisted of nothing but a slice of Jack slapped between two tortillas and grilled. The onion strings and the jalapenos were unmistakably previously frozen. Even less appetizing was a bowl of chili ($3.50) that was so thick we could have used it to patch holes in a boat. Adding injury to insult, the fourteen-inch pizza we'd ordered to go came out burned on the bottom; since we had to leave, we were stuck with it. Our waitress never apologized and kept giving us this "Well, too bad" look. But then, she'd been no help at all through the entire meal because a table full of cute, football-watching guys needed her attention. In addition to the burned pizza, we took away a slice of apple pie ($2.50) that sported a lardy crust and also tasted like it had been frozen.
When a restaurant is fishing around like that, a critic can be forgiven for hanging out her "gone fusion" sign. But I'd rather have a hamburger instead.
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My Brother's Bar, 2376 15th St., 455-9991. Hours: 11 a.m.-1:30 a.m. Monday-Saturday.
The Parlour, 846 Broadway, 837-0660. Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Monday-Saturday.
JD's Bait Shop, 9555 E. Arapahoe Rd., Greenwood Village, 790-4744. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday.