H Burger answers the prayers of those searching for a satisfying workday lunch
There was a time when my profession required me to don ill-fitting business-casual attire and commute 45 minutes on a packed train, then be locked in a windowless conference room creating "deliverables" for hours on end, where I was often doomed to the dreaded working lunch, blindly taking down a brown-bagged sandwich or a soggy dish from whatever nearby restaurant was delivering. In those days, a real lunch hour — as opposed to a business lunch, an hours-long eating orgy on someone else's tab that I rarely got to enjoy — represented the chance to trudge a couple of blocks in hideously uncomfortable shoes, sit down in a restaurant chosen for its value and ability to deliver a satisfactory dish in fifteen minutes, and briefly pretend the office didn't exist.
I wish there'd been an H Burger down the street.
The dining room of this joint, which opened back in February, even looks efficient. At lunch, natural light streams in from floor-to-ceiling windows along the 16th Street Mall, illuminating rows of shiny white booths and sharp, geometric lines. The restaurant isn't cozy, but neither is it uninviting. That same aloof competence extends to the staff. Servers don't engage, but they do their jobs capably: reciting specials, taking orders and delivering food, and generally managing to get you in, out and on your way.
This is not all owners Pete and Ann Pflum envisioned for H Burger, however. Pete has years of restaurant experience, seven of them working alongside Dave Query at Lola and Jax and Zolo. Inspired by the spirit of those places, the Pflums wanted to open a cool, full-service burger joint, a spot that was simultaneously friendly to families and LoDo revelers, to neighbors living in condos in the building and suburbanites looking for a place to grab a bite before a downtown event. And because they were opening during the recession, they wanted their restaurant to be affordable, and so served up a menu filled with ways to eat a fast dinner for under ten bucks — hoping that grateful eaters would return on weekend nights, stay a while and further open their wallets.
But the weekend crowds have not materialized, and it's pretty empty on weeknights, too. When I've dropped in for dinner, I've found the place glowing with eerie brightness, with just a few parties dining quietly while servers linger, sheepish. H Burger even recently changed its hours, closing earlier. Lunch is no problem, though: Then, the diners come in droves.
I stopped in just after noon a few weeks ago to meet a friend, and the place was at capacity, with would-be diners who'd grudgingly agreed to go on a wait list overflowing onto the 16th Street patio and filling an alcove off the entrance. The hostess, who had abandoned her awkwardly located post in order to help control the crowd, sensed that most of us had precious few minutes out of the office and promised every party a five- to-ten minute wait for a seat, followed by a twelve-minute wait for food. She was accurate, too, at least for the parties ahead of us. We decided to sit at the bar.
Denver's molecular-gastronomy wizard, Ian Kleinman, who now peddles dessert from a mobile cart called the Inventing Room, drafted most of H Burger's original menu. Some of his touches are still obvious, like the line of liquid-nitrogen milkshakes, so cold and creamy they're almost powdery, the texture the same as what you get a mouthful of when you follow a friend down a ski hill after a deep dumping of snow. I'm partial to the hazelnut-chocolate Nutella version, topped with tiny marshmallows that crack on the teeth and dissipate instantly on the tongue, and I start just about every H Burger meal by ordering one. (It's great being an adult: You can have dessert first.) Since I was sitting at the bar for this lunch, though, I opted for the Brooklyn Breakfast cocktail, a mix of orange juice, maple syrup and bacon-infused Jim Beam. The menu description includes egg white, too, but the bartender said he left it out because of salmonella concerns. I was disappointed by that — I love egg white in a cocktail and am willing to risk my gastrointestinal well-being — but the drink itself wasn't a disappointment. It was sweet, slightly smoky and refreshing, and I sucked it down way too fast, if mostly so I could eat the ribbon of bacon that served as garnish.
The rest of the food doesn't have the flashiness of Kleinman's lab experiments, but flavor combinations like the H Burger — which pits sweet red pepper-tomato jam against the smoke of cheddar, bacon and roasted Hatch chiles — offer evidence of creativity behind the scenes, where Ty Powers now runs the kitchen. Still, we went with the very basic five-ounce quarter-pounder, a thick Angus beef patty cooked the requested medium-rare, served with typical toppings of crisp Bibb lettuce, a slice of juicy tomato and snappy dill pickles. All the burgers come on a dense, spongy brioche bun studded with sesame seeds, slightly sweet and lightly toasted. Made by City Bakery, it's wholesome and simple, like an upscale version of the fast-food bun, similar enough to be nostalgia-inducing, different enough to elevate the burger to another level altogether. Served with a side of fries the width of Pixy Stix, the burger was a bargain at just $5 and made me wish we'd ordered a couple of those with two-for-one PBRs (the second of which can be redeemed later in the day if two beers at lunch make you want to curl up under your desk and take a nap all afternoon). Our second dish was the tomato caprese grilled cheese sandwich, which stacked sweet, fresh melted mozzarella, sharp fontina cheese, lightly grilled tomatoes, a thick layer of basil pesto and a drizzle of earthy balsamic vinegar between two slices of thick, toasty ciabatta. The sandwich was satisfying, but at $8.95, it didn't have the same value as the quarter-pounder.
I learned my lesson at that lunch and stuck to burgers on return visits, whether at noon or night, eating my way through H Burger's various patties and toppings. The bacon, egg and cheese burger was my favorite: thick slices of sweet and spicy bacon, a thin coating of salty American cheese, and a fried egg, yolk exploding under the pressure of my fingers and oozing satisfactorily over everything. It was indulgent, savory and delicious, and worth every artery-clogging bite. The H Burger, a close second, is better when you order the jam on the side so that the sweetness doesn't overpower the chiles, smoked cheddar and more bacon. Because I am a gluttonous hedonist, I like that burger best with a fried egg on top.
The lamb burger didn't do much for me, though. Although I love lamb, it was slightly overcooked, which dulled some of the meat's pungent, gamey taste — which it needed to stand up to the hefty portion of tart feta cheese that topped the patty, in addition to a thick slab of beefsteak tomato and a thin layer of spicy aioli. And while the Eden burger sounded good — a veggie burger made of squash and beans bound by egg and topped with lightly sautéed bok choy, celebrating the earthy flavor of vegetables rather than trying to pose them as meat — I abandoned it after three bites, tired of trying to decide if it actually tasted good. It reminded me of stir-fries I made back in college, using the last of the sad vegetables in my fridge even though they didn't quite go together, and tossing in half a bottle of soy sauce to dictatorially quash opposing flavors.
All of the burgers come with the classic fries — but at no extra charge, you can substitute those with the light, crispy, sweet-potato fries served with sour cream spiced with sweet ginger and chives, a Kleinman creation. That's what I'll continue to do unless H Burger decides to offer the fried artichoke side — a lightly battered and fried vegetable balanced by tangy parmesan ranch dressing — as another no-cost switch.
My mid-day meals at H Burger were almost enough to make me wish I worked downtown and had to once again fight for every precious moment of unfettered joy and freedom. But as a late-night destination? H Burger is out to lunch.
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