Throughout the year, we eat countless burgers in every dive bar, dining room and neighborhood joint imaginable, looking for the perfect bite of beefy satisfaction. The criteria are simple: If the patty itself isn't perfect, nothing else matters. And anything other than beef between the buns should be there to enhance the ground beef, not distract from it. On our eating quest, we found many solid, perennial stand-bys that will always do the job when we want a burger. But when it comes to the Best of Denver, we're looking not for a good burger or even a great burger — we're looking for the best burger.
So how did we arrive at the conclusion that, at least for this year, the Ditka burger at Jimmy's Urban Bar &Grill outshines them all? After a lot of eating, we started eliminating close contenders. Newcomer (at least to Denver) Hopdoddy got its start in Austin, so it seemed natural that this small chain — only seven restaurants, with just two outside of the Lone Star State — would not only do right by its beef but also serve up a sandwich to the customer's specifications. After all, a good grillmaster can nail rare, medium-rare or well-done using any one of the five senses (a medium-rare patty even sizzles differently than one cooked past pink). So Hopdoddy's Primetime burger, made from the Texan descendants of a Japanese heritage breed called Akaushi, seemed like a good test of the kitchen's prowess. Unfortunately, even though the counter clerk recommended medium-rare, and even though we enthusiastically agreed, the burger came out without a trace of pink. The truffle aioli was tasty (even if it squirted out the a hole in the top of the bun created by the oversized skewer that pierces every burger ordered), but the patty itself was not as flavorful or unique as its Japanese ancestry would suggest. While the Primetime burger didn't quite hit the sweet spot, there's still plenty to like about Hopdoddy, though, including good toppings and excellent, gluten-free buns made from scratch daily (or even more frequently, depending on demand) for those who can't partake of wheat.
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On our eating excursions, we also revisited last year's winner, the house burger at Humboldt, which is made with a blend of house-ground Niman Ranch beef and bacon — the bacon is actually ground in with the beef to add fat and smoky flavor. It's a delicious and savory burger...but forming the patty with so much ground bacon must be tricky, because two of the three burgers at a recent dinner fell apart after the first couple of bites, forcing fork-and-knife cleanup of the remainders. While that didn't detract from the flavor, the best burger needs to maintain its structural integrity from start to finish.
Another close call came at the new Spruce Tap House, located in the space that was home to the original Blake Street Tavern and has seen several other tenants in the years since that sports bar moved to bigger digs down the street. On a tip from a friend, we went looking for the Spruce's pastrami burger, topped with pastrami that's cured and smoked in-house. Since the Spruce specializes in smoked meats, this seemed like a perfect solution for sampling the pitmaster's skills while indulging our hamburger addiction. Unfortunately, the pastrami is not a regular item on the menu; the time-consuming process means that right now, the kitchen only makes it every few weeks. So instead, we sampled a straight-up cheeseburger, which certainly did not disappoint. But next time, we're calling ahead to see if the pastrami is on deck, because a touch of that salty, smoky cured brisket with the peppery crust could be just the right bit of magic to put Spruce's burger over the top.
We ate many other burgers throughout the year, some coming as close as these contenders and others mere shadows of greatness. Ultimately, Jimmy's came out on top because the kitchen gets the color and temperature of its beef just right, and because the tangy heat of the giardiniera and the juicy, thin-sliced Chicago beef provide excellent enhancements to the half-pound burger. Read the full description of this year's Best Hamburger winner here.