Cheeseburgers are the single most recognizable American contribution to the world culinary scene (and, according to a monument on Speer Boulevard, an actual Denver invention). They're also the ideal thing to eat on a blazing-hot afternoon.
So last week when the temperature hit 97 degrees, I hit the road for Jim's Burger Haven on Sheridan Boulevard in Westminster. I like Jim's because it has no drive-thru. No neon. No chrome. No affectation whatsoever. This is a burger shack that doesn't pretend to be anything else, and other than the booths that have recently been reupholstered into a ranked simulacrum of fresh-off-the-showroom-floor, muscle-car bench seats, the place proudly shows its age in every scuffed table, grease-stained ceiling tile and crooked Little League photo hung on the walls alongside the faded custom hot-rod snaps.
Jim's -- both this second outpost and the original on 88th Avenue in Thornton, which moved from the true original location a few blocks away some years ago -- is a car-cult burger joint, its family and genus traceable back to the glory days of ten-cent milkshakes, miniskirted carhops and those full-lead Corvettes and Mustangs. It still hosts the cruisers now and then, the parking lot filling up with classic street rods, perfectly preserved and shiny as hard candy. Like Gunther Toody's wishes it could be, Jim's is a real artifact of early-'60s pop culture, and stumbling across it is like wandering through the desert and tripping over a Tyrannosaurus rex. Not the skeleton of one, but an actual one. Sleeping maybe, or sunning itself on top of a butte.
Reasons why cheeseburgers are the greatest food in the world (first in a series): Cheeseburgers are versatile.
There's only one correct way to make tête de veau, to make a supremes sauce, to make mashed potatoes. But there are infinite variations on the cheeseburger, and each of them is valid and true in its own way. For example, I'm not a big fan of the thin-and-crispy style of burger-making as practiced at Jim's, but legions of Denverites swear by it, and I understand their loyalty.
The kitchen makes big, thin patties of loose-packed meat, then cooks them to order on the flat grill until they're well-done and crispy 'round the edges. Fashioned this way, the burger acts almost like lunchmeat, spreading out into a layer that can both support and interact with a wide variety of toppings; it's then served on a big, squishy bun totally inadequate for maintaining the structural integrity of anything larger than a small single, the cheapskate burger that costs 89 cents. The burger comes loaded unless you ask for it otherwise, the meat becoming just another stratum of flavor and texture, thereby elevating the importance of the interplay of toppings and folding everything -- bun, burger, gooey cheese, mustard and ketchup, bright onion, sweet tomato, lettuce and vinegar brine of pickles -- into a single, over-arching burger gestalt. Are the cooks thinking in such lofty terms as they stand there, slapping together my double meat and cheese, hold the tommies? I doubt it, but that's fine. They're busy, and a burger -- so long as it is approached with the respect it's due -- can generally take care of itself. Do anything you like to it, and its inherent goodness is unaffected.
Unless, of course, you add shredded lettuce, as Jim's does. Shredded lettuce is never a good idea. The heat turns it stringy, wilts it almost immediately, and the grease turns it slimy. Give me a whole leaf any day or, better yet, just forget it entirely.
Jim's kitchen also does decent, thin-cut fries that always need a little extra salt, battered onion rings, milkshakes far too thin and milky for my taste -- the standards -- as well as hot dogs, sandwiches and a lot of extraneous stuff that I've never heard anyone order. And because all true burger joints seem to require some bizarre, totally discordant, quick-serve, fried-from-frozen impulse item that's advertised on greasy table-tents shoved off next to the salt and pepper shakers (at Griff's, it's jalapeño-cheese-stuffed tater tots), Jim's also offers deep-fried, breaded macaroni-and-cheese wedges. On the table-tent, there's a picture of some wide-eyed kid eating one -- pupils blown out like the thing was stuffed with espresso beans and crack. Although I'm a daring eater, having no problem with calves' brains or squid testicles or what-have-you, I've never been tempted by the mac-n-cheez wedges. Grilled field mice? Bring 'em on. But I'm pretty sure the fried macaroni would kill me stone dead.
From the fried macaroni, it's not far -- not psychically, at least -- to Cheesy Jane's, one of three outposts of the Texas-based mini-chain, and the only one in Colorado. Centennial, to be precise. Cheesy Jane's is only a few years old, but it has a weak '50s theme going with its Johnny Rockets-lite decor, a short counter, a little chrome, some red vinyl and neon. The big space looks unfinished, as if decorating was only an afterthought. And that would be fine (see Jim's), if the burgers were something worth writing home about. Hell, it would be enough if they were simply better than average.
But they aren't.
One hundred percent ground chuck on a toasted bun, that's good. Six kinds of cheese, that's okay, too -- although a slice of American would do just fine. But all burgers prepared medium-well by rote decree, as it says right on the menu? That's dangerous territory. And dried-out, mid-well burgers aren't improved by toppings that are all diced. Diced tomato, diced onion, shredded lettuce, pickle relish -- if I want something on top of my burger, I don't want it to be taco fixings, okay? One bite and the whole thing just falls to pieces.
The menu also includes tater tots, Boca Burgers, Caesar salads, chalupas and Fritos pie -- a lineup that smacks of trying to be all things to all people, and carries a fair guarantee of being a failure on all counts. Then again, Cheesy Jane's does make an excellent cherry milkshake, can make a proper chocolate malt if you ask, and its steak-cut fries are crisp and nicely done.
Reasons why cheeseburgers are the greatest food in the world (second in a series): Cheeseburgers are a benchmark.
I don't care what else a restaurant has on its menu, but if a cheeseburger is listed, it had better be a good one. That doesn't mean it has to be Kobe beef; it doesn't have to come on an artisan, multi-grain bun with butter lettuce and a red pepper remoulade. Plain or fancy, big or small, grilled, fried or even steamed, it just has to be a good burger -- because if the grillman can't make a proper, mid-rare cheeseburger the way I want it, why would I trust him to cook my steak frites or my tournedoes or even to dunk my tater tots?
Although burgers are fairly simple, a great cheeseburger can be a work of art, just as deserving of a cook's obsessive love and skill as any lobe of foie gras or spun-sugar patisserie masterpiece. Ask any good kitchen guy who's done the schizophrenic two-step between roadhouse galley and multi-starred line, and he'll tell you there's not much difference between grilling a steak for steak and eggs and grilling a steak for steak Diane. Jacques Pepin spent the early years of his career cooking in many fine French hotels, and for three French heads of state, and then -- when faced with the choice between serving as personal chef to Kennedy or going to work in the prep kitchen at Howard Johnson's -- he chose HoJo's. Pepin saw no reason why diner food shouldn't be just as good and just as satisfying as any Michelin cuisine, and he was right.
My cheeseburger quest ends at Bud's Bar in Sedalia, mecca of the itinerant beef seeker. If you're a burger purist, Bud's is the place.
Bud's does burgers. Bud's does cheeseburgers. Bud's does doubles of each. And that's it. Bud's motto, spelled out plain on the menu: "We don't have no damn fries." Bud's other motto, hung up behind the great, long bar: "If our food, drinks or service aren't up to your standards, please lower your standards." That's beautiful.
Bud's, a little roadhouse with a dirt parking lot and an ancient juke, has been around since 1948. It's been a biker joint some of the time, a family place some of the time and a burger elysium all of the time for locals and pilgrims alike, usually with a line out the door. They come for Bud's burger, served plain with a bowl of pickles and onions, a bag of chips on the side. And for cold beers. That's it.
The burger itself is a simple, thick beef patty on a bun, slapped down on wax paper in a plastic basket. Take a bite, though, and there's no doubt that you're in the presence of greatness. That greatness could be attributed to the thickness of the burger and the fact that "rare" here means that thirty seconds ago, the meat was still mooing. There's also something to be said for the presentation (or, more accurately, absolute lack thereof) and the company you keep while eating (lots of neighbors, lots of tourists, quite a few dusty bikers doing the loop down through Bailey and Deckers on a sunny afternoon, every last one of them knowing that they've got something truly special in their hands). But all of that is secondary to the actual experience of tasting one. There's something downright mythic about a perfect double cheeseburger, served hot, with no distractions, in an atmosphere of almost worshipful appreciation, and if you don't think so, then friend, you've got bigger problems than we can deal with here.
Reasons why cheeseburgers are the greatest food in the world (third in a series): Cheeseburgers are situational.
Would a Bud's burger be so great outside of Bud's, the place? I'd like to say yes, of course -- that food and place are easily divisible. But I'm not so sure. There's no doubt in my mind that Bud's kitchen (such as it is) makes a fine burger -- but the fact that it does only that and does it in an environment that draws people from all over the place just to get a taste? That counts for something, too. A hot burger and a cold beer at just the right moment -- say, at the good end of a backyard cook-out, or after a long, hot drive -- can reach realms of perfection you would ordinarily think closed to such simple, pedestrian grub. And Bud's takes full advantage of that quality in the human heart that tends to make object and environment inseparable.
Would a Bud's burger be as good if taken to go? I guess that would depend on where you were taking it. But I can't think of any reason in the world why you wouldn't want to just pull up a stool at Bud's bar, crack open a bottle of beer and settle in for the next ten or twelve years. If you've looked so long and come so far to find burger Nirvana, why would you ever leave?
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