When Matt Selby and Josh and Jen Wolkon were planning Steuben's, their paean to classic Americana that opened in a coolly retro space at 523 East 17th Avenue two years ago, they worked hard to get their showpiece lobster roll just right. This was a sandwich they cared passionately about, that they researched and tested for months — even traveling to the northeast (as much the pellucid home of the lobster roll as Denver is not) in order to sample all the famous ones, the ones they hoped to rip off when they re-created the sandwich in the Rocky Mountain West. And their efforts paid off. The Steuben's lobster roll is either the best or the second-best — the order depends on my mood that day — lobster roll in Denver.
Granted, they went to a lot of trouble for something that's essentially lobster meat and mayonnaise on a butter roll. And calling the Steuben's lobster roll the best in the Rocky Mountain West is kinda like saying some Rhode Island diner has the best breakfast burrito east of the Mississippi. Still, I understand their urge to get it right — or at least as right as is possible in this particular time zone.
Paying homage, borrowing and sometimes resorting to out-and-out thievery are all long and noble traditions in the food-service industry. While yes, there are some wildly original chefs who go their own way and disdain the thought of poaching on another chef's preserve, this notion of copycatting is really more the rule than the exception. And thank God for that, because otherwise I'd still be stuck driving six or seven hours south in order to get a great green-chile cheeseburger at the original Owl Bar in New Mexico. Instead, I can stop by the Santa Fe Tequila Company for a burger that, if not atom-by-atom perfect, is at least closer to the Apollonian ideal than anyone else in town has managed to come. (Even Steuben's, which worked hard on its green-chile cheeseburger, too.)
Virtually every plate on the Tequila Company's menu has been taken from somewhere else. But while many of those plates still don't work, the kitchen has come up with a near-perfect Owl imitation. This burger, with its soft and squishy grocery-store bun, shredded lettuce on the bottom and a mix of sweet-hot, chopped Southern New Mexico chiles and gooey melted cheese (dosed with a little mayo and mustard) on top, was excellent, a restrained and well-handled masterpiece that differed from the Owl's only in that the Owl hand-grinds its meat every morning (something that the Tequila Company does not claim to do) and serves a significantly smaller burger. The Owl also serves its burger with a side of chile beans (on request), and though the Tequila Company attempted to replicate that, too, their beans were nothing but a miserable mess.
Still, the burger was damn fine — and a good thing, too, because its description on the menu seemed deliberately designed to bait me (the menu also takes a swipe at Lori Midson for her excoriation of the house margarita in the Rocky Mountain News). To wit: "Green Chile Cheeseburger Seven-ounce hamburger with cheese, green chile, lettuce, mayo, and mustard, served with steak fries or homemade cole slaw — One of the best in town - J.S.?"
I asked several different people at the Tequila Company about that "J.S." Some had no idea what I was talking about; one waitress said it had been a mystery since it appeared on the menu and that she'd been asked about it several times before. A bartender thought it might be an ingredient. Or some kind of sauce. Or a typo. But seeing as I've never made a secret of my time in New Mexico or of my love for the Owl Bar's green-chile cheeseburger in all its Atomic Age glory, I have to assume that this cryptic taunt was meant for me.
Which was definitely tempting fate, because if the burger had sucked, I'd never let the Tequila Company forget it. But as it is, I'm happy to know I can get my fix closer to home. Because with gas at four bucks a gallon and with an overnight stay required, that one green-chile cheeseburger at the Owl would run me almost two hundred bucks today. It's almost enough to make a ten-dollar green-chile cheeseburger at the Santa Fe Tequila Company seem like the better bargain.
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Leftovers: Sometimes it seems like there's a new pizza joint popping up every other week in this town. But Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria, which opened June 11 at 2129 Larimer Street, is shaping up to be something special.
Why? Because owners Mark and Kristy Dym come from an East Coast pizza tradition and know a thing or two about their pies. (Mark based all of Marco's pie offerings on the regions of Italy and the boroughs of New York City where he grew up.) But more important, because they decided to go way east with Marco's, bringing in custom pizza ovens from Naples and a champion pizza man, Roberto Caporuscio, to oversee the kitchen. The heat of these ovens (which blast at about a bazillion degrees) can blister up a 'za in about two minutes. And because of the absolute commitment of the Dyms and Caporuscio to their trade, the joint has already been blessed by the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napolitano — that very picky and very strict regulating body in Naples that decides what can and can't be considered a Neapolitan pizza anywhere in the world.