For days, I'd eaten nothing but crap and tourist fodder and overpriced lunches and dinners in the mountains while trying to pretend I was relaxing amid the spectacular views, German tourists and stands of regal, if dying, pine. I needed a great burger the way some people need oxygen while coming down from Everest. Going up, they're just fine — they've trained and are taking it slow. But coming down, once the summit has been attained, suddenly they have no breath. It was just like that for me, except that rather than oxygen, I needed a cheeseburger.
I believe that a great cheeseburger can change your life. Depending on the circumstances, depending on the time, the place, the company or lack thereof and, most important, depending on the cheeseburger itself, a truly great one can alter your fate, leave you feeling elated, confident that, at least in one aspect of your life, you have found the best and will forever have a solid base against which to judge all others. Most of us will never drive the greatest car ever made. Most of us will never live in the greatest house, own the greatest diamond, know the greatest men or drink the greatest wine ever decanted. Yes, we can say that the new Hyundai is better than our twelve-year-old Stanza, but we can't compare it in any real sense to that Bugatti or the McLaren F1, can we? We can drink the $200 bottle of Château d'Yquem and know that it is good, possibly great, but without independent means, a trust fund, a streak of fiscal suicide in our hearts, we will never be able to compare it to the '47 Cheval Blanc.
The best cheeseburger ever made is served at a small rattletrap bar and cafe down in San Antonio, New Mexico — in the land of dust, atomic zombies, tumbleweeds and green chiles. The second-best cheeseburger is served in a lot of places: It is the big, floppy burger with hot sauce at a little strip-mall joint in Rochester, the double-double at one of California's founding fast-food burger joints, a double cheeseburger with a cold Bud longneck at a former biker bar south of Denver. There are a lot of second-best burgers out there — but second-best, while still good, really just means first among the losers.
2525 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder
105 Edwards Village Boulevard, Edwards
Open daily, lunch and dinner
Turkey burger $6.25
Tuna burger $7.25
And then there's the next rung down: cheeseburgers that are great in situ, great for their time, their place; burgers that just might, someday, forty or fifty years down the line, rise a step up the ladder and become second-best. Burgers with potential, in other words. Good enough now, maybe great when I am an old man, doddering and complaining about the kids today who drink only Martian sodas and eat nothing but lasers.
I wasn't really looking forward to my burger at Larkburger, but it was right there when I needed it, just down the hill in Edwards. Back in 2006, Thomas Salamunovich of the Larkspur Restaurant in Vail started a little stand-alone restaurant in an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle. It was at the Larkspur that, through experimentation and long practice, he'd come up with a burger so good that even in the midst of the "fine-dining burger" frenzy that seized America a couple of years back, it stood out as a near-perfect example of the form. The thing was wildly popular at Salamunovich's fancy-pants restaurant, so Larkburger became a joint dedicated to nothing but the greater glory of the cheeseburger he'd slaved over. It was, in his words, "my vision for the perfect burger experience."
His original Larkburger is hidden in a labyrinth of strip-mall storefronts a little ways off the frontage road, but it's easy to find: You just look for the line that, on a good day, will spill all the way out the front door and form up like a starving mob just one small step from licking the front window glass. Inside, there's the fast-casual setup made familiar by Chipotle and all of Chipotle's imitators, with the requisite alley between dining room and counter, the basic menu hung above the registers. You order, are given a receipt, then step aside and wait for your number to be called, for a tray full of burgers and fries and milkshakes to be set on the counter. After that, it is seat-yourself in a room perpetually short on seats, on a patio ten times too small.
I ordered a plain-jane Larkburger (1/3 pound Black Angus patty, with lettuce, tomato, raw red onion, "secret sauce" and Tillamook cheddar), fries (without truffle oil) and the 24-ounce "Five Dollar Shake." I paid my money, got my ticket and stepped aside to wait. While I waited, I looked around the rather spartan, conservative space (nothing but raw wood paneling, polished chrome and the name, LARKBURGER, picked out in lovingly polished metal) and read the mission statement, the proud declaration of intent. All burgers Angus, all-natural and without preservatives. All stuff biodegradable and earth-friendly. All energy produced and utilized efficiently. Even the paneling came with a travel voucher: Monterrey Cyprus from Live Edge in Oakland, California.
I cared not even a little bit.
Five minutes later, my order was up. I walked out to the patio, then past it — to a pleasant grassy rise between the parking lot and the road. I sipped my milkshake, and it was exactly what I'd hoped for. For me, a milkshake is traveling food — something I learned from my dad long ago, on interminable car trips in a succession of used cars with bad shocks and no air conditioning. Chocolate, always, and the thicker the better. Even though I'd skipped the truffle oil and shake of parmesan cheese, the fries weren't as good: hand-cut, but only single-dropped and not cooked enough, leaving them a bit limp and greasy.
Then the burger. I took a bite, and it hit me like a hammer in the forehead, a lightning bolt straight to the pleasure center in my brain specifically reserved for cheeseburgers. Perfectly medium rare, fat but not too fat, seared on all sides, set on a toasted bun with beautifully fresh and thick-cut toppings. It was a brilliant cheeseburger at just the moment that I needed one. I ate it the way you always do when you are handed such a burger, taking another bite before I was done chewing the previous one, rushing my way through because I couldn't eat it any other way.
It was not the best burger ever, nor did it rate that charmed pantheon of second-best burgers. But it was certainly the best burger at that moment, no doubt the best burger in Edwards, and probably in the top five for Colorado, maybe even the top three. It was a burger with a lot of potential.
Two weeks later, I was at Larkburger's second location, which opened in Boulder this March. The space here is almost identical to the one in Edwards, with a scene reminiscent of (if not quite as overwhelming as) the original. This time, I made a more formal tour of the menu, trying the turkey burger (okay as far as turkey burgers go, though not nearly as juicy as the cow-flavored version and not as well balanced in terms of flavor, either) and the tuna burger (slabs of seared tuna instead of beef and an alleged wasabi-ginger sauce and cilantro, none of which I taste at all, in place of the secret burger sauce), and a beer because, yes, Larkburger has a license, thank God. I again steered clear of the truffle fries because, as far as I'm concerned, I can go the rest of my life without ever tasting another truffle fry and die a perfectly satisfied man. For that matter, I can skip the turkey burger and the tuna burger and the veggie burger and the squirrel burger, too: They've never going to be better than a bit of ground cow, grilled and made into a sandwich.
So when I return to this Larkburger, I order simply: one Larkburger, medium rare, one side of plain fries, one chocolate milkshake. And then I stand aside to wait.
The kitchen loses my order. In the depths of a late-lunch rush (third hit in a day that could easily see Larkburger serving 200 or 300 or 400 customers), my ticket — number 225 — somehow gets passed over, forgotten in the melee of burgers and shakes and fries. I stand there waiting while order number 230 is called, then 235 and 240. When they get to 250, I'm pissed and hungry and tired of waiting for the house to realize its own mistake, so I call a cashier over.
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I'm apologized to by the cashier, then by a cook and then by the manager, who actually comes out, looks me in the eye and says it's all their fault and they'll fly me my order as fast as humanly possible. I'm given a $15 gift card. Most important, though, I'm given my fries (fried right this time — a ball of shoestrings nicely crispy and lightly salted), my shake and my burger. And when I bite into the burger, once again I'm overwhelmed by the ideal balance of the thing — by its heft in my hand and the lovely, perfectly seared patty not at all overpowered by the bread, the onion, the secret sauce. By its looks, which are good enough to be a porn-y food-mag centerfold. By the smell, all beefy and delicious.
It's a great burger. Not the best, not the second-best, but again, with the potential to someday rise into the territory of legendary. And for the moment, it's exactly the burger I want. I forgive everything — the waiting, the annoyance — with that one bite.
Of course, I'm also really hungry — as hungry as I was when I was coming down the mountain — and serious need, serious hunger, might be the secret to having the best possible Larkburger experience. Sometimes the great burgers come to you. Sometimes, though, you have to really want them and, even when knowing they're not the best ever, love them just for what they are.