One of the most awesome things about this job is that I never have to worry about who's buying the cheeseburgers. I just have to worry about finding new cheeseburgers for my boss to buy.
That's no knock against Denver — God knows, this city has more burger joints than any normal human could reasonably expect. But after six years of diligently hunting them down and then compulsively cataloguing them like some kind of obsessed lepidopterist stomping the Congo, I have begun to run out of species. Burger bars? Check. Car-cult burger joints? Check. Weirdly historic hamburger stands with a creepy/incestuous backstory? Check. Next-gen, fast-casual, cutting-edge gourmet burger restaurants hoping to become the next Mickey D's? Check and double-check and triple-check, even, because Denver seems to be some kind of proving ground — a Mile High mad scientist's laboratory where every street corner and main drag offers another opportunity for testing one's kooky notions about cheeseburgers against the blade of unforgiving demographics and microcosmic expectations. Second only to the steakhouse, the burger joint is Denver's truest projection of its soul, and our appetite for burgers appears bottomless. Every place, no matter how harebrained or goofy, seems to find loyal fans who will erupt like soccer hooligans when someone dares to impugn their favorite. We like to say that the cheeseburger was invented in Denver. And while that particular bit of historic trivia might be up for debate, it doesn't much matter — because the cheeseburger has certainly been re-invented here a hundred times over.
Still, after years of looking for burgers and eating burgers and scrapping over burgers and comparing these burgers here to those burgers over there, I thought I'd seen 'em all. I'd had old-fashioned burgers and newfangled burgers, historic burgers and art nouvelle burgers. I'd had burgers made of fungus and others topped with truffles (gross, by the way). But while I may have seen nearly every possible variation of burger, I now know there are still new variations of burger restaurants to discover — because last week, I ventured into Hamburger Mary's, our first (and, to my knowledge, only) homosexual-themed burger restaurant.
The politically correct might encourage blinders, but I can't ignore this orientation any more than I could a dining room covered with NASCAR memorabilia or a restaurant decorated like Caligula's sitting room. And the owners wouldn't want you to, either. Hamburger Mary's, a chain out of California, has always billed itself as a "family dining" restaurant — albeit one where the definition of family is broad and the dining occasionally gives way to the odd drag-queen cabaret performance. Mary's got its start in San Francisco in 1972, when it was created in a haze of pot smoke by gay men and hippies (if the legend is to be believed) looking to make their own gay-friendly, truck-stop-style lunch counter. From there, it grew into a restaurant-world success story. The initial outlet closed back in 2001, but the concept has held on and slowly grown, franchising out a dozen or so locations around the country over the past few years, some of which made it, some of which didn't, some coming off almost like sports bars, others hewing more closely to the original's vibe — ruby slippers and all.
And Denver's Mary's, which opened last year, lays it on thick, making good and goddamn sure that even the most dim and culturally retarded customer will understand that there's something different about the place. If the heavily posterized portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Madonna at the bar, the black-and-white stills from Breakfast at Tiffany's and the names on the menu (Mile High Flamer, Big O Burger, an LGBT BLT sandwich made with lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato) don't clue you in, the Warhol hot-dog-and-banana print hung high on the side wall or the giant Stage Door Cafe neon billboard (the coolest piece of decor in the joint) certainly will. Then there's the fact that the place offers drag-queen karaoke and has a bingo night hosted by the Denver Cycle Sluts. And Mary's also heavily advertises its various brunch functions — brunch obviously being the gayest of all meals.
The space, which grew out of the old Cliff Young's/Dante Bichette restaurants, is great, with a long, comfortable bar in the dining area and a giant patio out back with a second bar, shaded tables, couches, a stage and at least as much seating as inside. Service is scattershot, depending on the day, the hour, the temper of the staff. I've been waved mutely past by an indifferent hostess; ignored by a bartender who spent ten minutes talking about his hair to one of the servers and experimenting with different configurations of his faux-hawk; and ably handled by a single waiter working about fifteen tables on a busy day, (literally) dancing between them and pausing to offer a short lecture on the provenance of the kitchen's tomatoes when I asked (owing to the recent salmonella scare) where they'd come from (an organic farm outside of California, if you're interested).
But all of this — the theme, the setup, the staff — is secondary to the most important thing at Mary's: the burgers. And while other items coming out of the kitchen can be disappointing, the burgers are excellent.
My first turn through the dining room was midday on a Sunday — a busy time, and just an hour ahead of a big party on the patio. I went right for the core of the menu: the Queen Mary burger, a half-pound of beef, cheddar and Jack cheese, smoked bacon, grilled white onions and the same quote/unquote special sauce as at every other burger restaurant in the universe — thinned, sugar-sweet, pinkish goop, a cross between Thousand Island salad dressing and Arby's sauce. Before my burger arrived, I had time to drink a couple of beers, test the nachos (about as good as what you'd find in an uppity bowling alley) and try an order of the kitchen's drunken shrimp — big 10-20s, jacketed in a Corona beer batter, fried and served with a Cajun dipping sauce. The shrimp were awful in every way possible. The batter was flavorless, undercooked and mealy, the shrimp inside mostly raw, and the dipping sauce tasted like Vaseline jacked with blackening spice and Old Bay seasoning. I took one bite of three different shrimp, spit them all out, hid the evidence in a napkin and dumped it in the men's room.
The burger arrived just as I was getting back to the table — a monster on a soft sesame-seed bun with a steak knife stabbed through the center and sticking rigidly out the top like a flagpole. Or something else. It was a great burger — done a perfect mid-rare, cheesy and bacony. I ate half to take the edge off my hunger, then finished the rest out of pure gluttonous joy. The fries on the side were forgettable — limp, dank and over-seasoned with salt and garlic powder and paprika, the same kind of season-all you can buy in any grocery store.
My second visit was for a weeknight dinner. Once again, the drunken shrimp were terrible. Once again, the fries were flaccid and gray-brown and over-seasoned. But once again, the burger was superb. This time I'd ordered a Mile High Flamer, a big burger served open-faced and topped with cheese, Colorado-style green chile that was more savory than hot, sour cream, shredded lettuce and tomatoes. The plate was a mess, so I ate the burger with a fork (how dignified...) and found that the up-from-frozen fries — even the bad ones — were delicious after a bath in the green chile.
Returning early on a Friday night and feeling frisky, I ordered the smoked pulled pork sandwich. Eating this pedestrian sandwich was the equivalent of having a pie from Pizza Hut on the day after you return from a month in Naples. Served wet with sticky and overly-sweet sauce on a brioche bun with a side of coleslaw, it wasn't terrible, but it could never come close to the real thing at a barbecue restaurant — to a mound of pulled shoulder, fresh from the smoker, and a splash of scratch-made sauce. But Mary's doesn't have a smoker out back. Instead, it has a patio designed for partiers who, wisely, don't come here looking for barbecue.
In addition to the burgers, the disappointing barbecue and the worse shrimp, Mary's offers salads, a short list of pizzas, a long list of cocktails and a kids' menu — but even the staff will say that you should probably leave the kids at home after six or seven o'clock. The menu features some local specialties, too: enchiladas and burritos because this is not Orlando or Cedar Rapids, but because Mary's is part of a chain, there's also the ubiquitous sesame-crusted ahi tuna. And, in fact, once you get past the gay-friendly marketing and gay-fabulous decor, past the trappings of special events and dedicated regulars on the patio, once you look really closely at the menu, you'll recognize that Mary's is really just another theme restaurant — a kind of Castro District Outback or Fire Island Bennigan's. Though, granted, one that makes really, really good burgers.
So if there are gay folk in town who feel uncomfortable hanging with the bikers at Bud's or the line cooks at the Cherry Cricket, I'm glad they have a burger place of their own, where they can feel welcome and unthreatened. But they're going to have to make room for me, too, because the burgers here are so good that I wouldn't care if the theme was Conservative Republicanism or Hitler's March on Poland. I'd just throw on a brown shirt, grow a little mustache and show up anyway.
I wouldn't order the drunken shrimp, though. Or the pulled pork. It's enough that there's something about the burgers at Mary's...
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