The wait at the Cherry Cricket was twenty minutes, shading into thirty, late that Saturday afternoon. "That's a long time to wait for a burger," Laura said. "How's it look in there?"
"Busy," I told her. "It's always busy." And we sat down on the low wall in front of Cherry Creek's most dependably hot hotspot to wait and watch all the Escalades drive by.
It was a cheeseburger kind of weekend, cool and sunny with miles of blue sky, a Denver winter that would've been considered a very nice spring in most of the rest of the country. Laura and I both had a yen for good burgers, mine definitely more maniacal than hers (as is so often the case). And since I've always been of the opinion that yielding to temptation as often as possible is what makes a man healthy, happy and long-lived, we'd spent most of the past two days consuming Denver's greatest contribution to American culture: dead cow on bread, topped with a slice of cheese.
Denying temptation, struggling against it, thwarting those urges for any damn-fool desire under the sun -- that'll turn you bitter and angry and curl you like a knuckle around the wound of whatever it is you don't do when your brain and heart are at odds over what's best. The brain is a treacherous organ, always preaching denial and sensible abstention from wholesale indulgence in those things that make life worth living. Tacos for breakfast, boilermakers at two in the afternoon, a stand-up quickie with someone you love (or at least someone you love right now), blowing off work to sleep 'til noon, smoking the roach end of an old joint you found in the medicine cabinet and then watching cartoons all day in your underwear -- these are what the heart and gut demand when the brain advises sprouts or a half-hour at the gym. No surprise, but I have always been a heart-and-gut kind of guy.
And my heart and gut called out for a cheeseburger weekend.
We started at Citygrille, a place I've had a love/hate relationship with for years.
Citygrille claims to have the best burger in Denver. It claims this on every wall, every chalkboard, on the menu and on pamphlet-sized promotional material available in a rack by the front door. I wouldn't be surprised if Citygrille employees were tattooed with a variety of glowing recommendations for the house's burgers -- a show of ironclad loyalty not unlike that practiced by the Yakuza and the Hells Angels. And while Citygrille does offer a perfectly decent, wholly serviceable half-pound sirloin burger on an excellent grilled roll reminiscent in taste and texture of the Amoroso's hoagie rolls that are de rigueur for any cheesesteak, "decent" and "wholly serviceable" are not phrases that should ever be applied to anything claiming to be the best.
In boxing, there's this great descriptive used for guys who can hold their own in their class, who can get out there in the ring, stay off their heels, deliver a solid combo, put on a good show and even win with some frequency. In the patois of the boxing fan, these guys "punch their weight." Lightweight on lightweight, welter on welter, they're an even-money bet -- but bounce them up a class, and suddenly they're dog food, on the canvas before the announcer has even cleared the ropes.
Citygrille's burgers punch their weight, but no more than that. Stack 'em up against one of the town's real champs, and it's no contest: Boom, boom, out go the lights.
For starters, these burgers are served with silverware wrapped in a cloth napkin, which always makes me nervous. It makes me think of those gimmicky, fifty-dollar, truffle-stuffed, lobster-topped monstrosities that were all the rage a couple of years back in restaurants desperate for any hook that would put moneyed butts in otherwise empty seats. Truly great burgers are prepared and served with a certain monkish asceticism -- an understanding by both house and kitchen that the burger itself is made nervous by the kind of company that might demand real napkins.
Second, the ground beef is overworked at Citygrille, making for a pasty consistency that I find disconcerting, a texture more like that of a slice of meatloaf than a proper patty. And when I stopped in on cheeseburger weekend, my server -- who didn't bother to put down the phone while she took my order at the bar -- neglected to ask how I wanted my burger cooked. This is a big deal, and it had happened before at Citygrille. Both times the burgers arrived medium, which for me is only borderline edible.
But while the service is dodgy at best, Citygrille's space is just fine. There are high-backed booths upholstered in comfy black leather, six TVs tuned to both sports and news, plenty of ashtrays in the front room and a strangely geometric bar populated by equal numbers of neighbors and Cap Hill VIPs all falling for that "best burger in Denver" come-on. Still, surroundings count for only so much. I'd eat a burger thrown from a moving car if it was good enough. I'd sit on a milk crate behind a gas station to eat a great burger. As with scoring on Iron Chef, the real contenders know that taste is what settles all bets.
The next time I visit Gitygrille, I'll stick with an order of fries and the kitchen's weirdly sweet-hot Colorado-style green chile. Alone, the green chile is good. Alone, the fries are good -- crisp and super-salty and thin-cut, which I prefer. But put the two together and it's magic. Weird how these things work out sometimes.
After eating our Citygrille burgers, we headed over to Grandpa's Burger Haven, the progenitor of the twisty Jim's/Tami's/ Grandpa's mini-empire and a hole-in-the-wall in the truest sense, a joint where you order through a literal hole in the wall. Originally, this was all there was to Grandpa's -- just a little white and chrome box with a kitchen inside and a window in the front to shout your desires though. But now the place has a kind of enclosed solarium where customers can stand out of the wind and the rain while they wait. There are still no tables, no waiters or waitresses, no plates. Orders are written on the white bags they're eventually delivered in, and tips are pushed through a slot in a tin can. And that's it, the alpha and omega of the Grandpa's experience -- except, that is, for the burgers themselves.
Grandpa's burgers come from the thin-and-crispy school, the ground cow almost of a loose-meat consistency, requiring that the ladies in their hairnets and aprons at the grill work the patties with long spatulas just to keep them from falling apart. The resulting burger (in my case, always a double, always with cheese, and always with crinkle-cut fries that I never eat and a cherry shake on the side) is about the size of the plate used in those uppity small-plates restaurants downtown and set on a massive soft bun with shredded lettuce, tomato, chopped onions and pickles -- unless you ask for it otherwise.
Actually, even if you ask for it otherwise, most of the buns still come dressed that way, but that's because Grandpa's isn't so much turning out a burger as a culinary archetype. A quick lunch here is like a look back at the history of burger-making in America. There was a day when all hamburger stands were like this; today, almost no hamburger stands are. That's why Grandpa's is such a venerable treasure.
Laura and I were talking about that outside the Cricket the next day, cheeseburger penitents waiting to be let into the promised land.
I've had wonderful burgers at the Cricket, burgers so good they shot straight into the hallowed strata of my top five of all time, and I've had terrible ones, burgers that were dried out and overcooked and falling apart, pushing the absolute boundaries of suck. Some of this inconsistency comes from pure backwards commerce: The busier the Cricket is, the better the kitchen seems to work. Some of it has to do with me: Showing up five minutes before closing on a Tuesday night and demanding magnificence from any kitchen is asking a lot.
But on this Saturday, all the stars were aligned. The place was rocking, jamming in the customers shoulder to shoulder and on each other's laps. The floor was well-staffed. Every table and all the seats at the bar were full, and the kitchen -- which works off a menu as long as a Chinese restaurant's and in what must be a hellish haze of smoke and waitresses and rapid-fire table turns -- was hitting on all cylinders. Laura and I were put at a table wedged into one corner of the non-smoking room added last year, and I got to watch bull-riding on TV while the waitress brought my Genny Cream and Jameson and gave us a minute to look over the menu.
But there was no need: We knew what we were there for. I could've just pointed at the TV and said, "I'll take one of those, rare, with cheese and green chile" -- meaning the giant cow, of course, not the cowboy trying to ride my lunch. From the long list of toppings, I picked the only two that matter to me -- white cheddar and green chiles, roasted and cut into strips -- and ordered my burger medium rare. At the Cricket, rare means bloody and cool to the touch -- a patty barely introduced to the grill and certainly not left lingering long enough to make friends -- so despite my blood-soaked preferences, I generally go with mid-rare to ensure that my sandwich doesn't fall into damp pieces the minute I try to lift it.
The smell -- that beefy, salty, bloody odor tinged with char and chile sweetness -- proceeded our burgers to the table by a good foot and a half. In fact, the entire Cricket smelled like cheeseburgers -- like cheeseburgers, smoke and stale beer, a delicious juke-joint stink even though the place draws too diverse a crowd and is too post-modernly enamored of its own long history to be a true juke joint. In the beginning, under the stewardship of original owner Mary Zimmerman, the divey dive bar catered to the sanitation engineers working the old city dump that once occupied the plot of land where the Cherry Creek Shopping Center now sits. Over the years, the Cricket has played host to all manner of neighbors and night creatures. It's become a favorite hangout for off-duty chefs and gigging rock stars, boasts more fiercely loyal regulars than probably any other address in the city, and is so thoroughly anti-Creek -- so wrapped in its own outsider vibe -- that were the present owners, the "Wynkoop family of restaurants," to take a look in the mirror someday, I'll bet they could see their own backs.
Still, I can't think of any better smell in the world for a man on a burger binge than the inside of the Cricket. When you've got the hunger, that's just the smell of home.
And right now, I can't think of a better burger within Denver city limits. On a bad day, a Cricket burger can be very bad, but on a good one, the burger is transcendent. And mine was. Coarsely ground, well-formed, perfectly cooked and greasy as hell, it was big enough to be imposing, but not so huge that it posed any immediate threat of jaw dislocation. It was tender and hot, pink in the center, and leaked its vital juices straight down my arm when I lifted it, staining my jeans with burger grease. The bun was soft and thin, almost an afterthought -- a handle like the crust on a good slice of pizza, purely a mechanical inclusion to stop people from just eating beef with their fingers.
And though this was my third serious cheeseburger of a short weekend, it might as well have been my first and only. I attacked it like a new love affair, finishing the thing in a half-dozen huge bites, washed it down with my shot-and-a-beer, and felt like a better man for it.
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