The Kid's Not All Right
Max Burgerworks should have been a great restaurant. Like a privileged kid saddled with a goofy name (and not even a truly awful one like Hubertus, Melvin or Agamemnon, but one only slightly unfortunate) or a Montessori rugrat born with every advantage, it had the potential for doing wonderful things, for becoming something special. And Max, no doubt, was expected to do just that.
Only Max didn't. And now, after five months of operation, Max is doing nothing more noteworthy than any of its less advantaged contemporaries were already doing seven days a week all over the city. It's the restaurant that should have been great, had every reason to be great, but isn't.
And that's a shame, because this kid still has promise. It's got a good home, right at the corner of 15th and Lawrence streets in Writer Square, smack in the middle of everything downtown, with nearby parking and the kind of moneyed, well-heeled foot traffic most owners would kill for. The slightly subterranean location is bright and well-lit, decked out in a palette of those weird colors you only get when you buy the big box of Crayolas -- mustard and lime and cerise -- with large, contrasting polka dots on the walls. At first glance, it looks like a room made up for a never-ending six-year-old's birthday party, all soft shades and rounded corners. But look a bit longer, and it starts seeming too contrived, too designed, to be just plain fun. Plus, there's a full bar hung with art-glass lamps like upside-down wineglasses -- and I don't know about you, but I don't remember any of my birthday parties being held at a place with a liquor license. Had they been, I'm sure the parents would have all been a whole lot happier. But who knows? Maybe the privileged kids have their own special Chuck E. Cheese's with a cigar bar and martini menu for the adults. If they do, I'll bet it looks a lot like Max Burgerworks -- clean and shiny and perfectly new all the time. I'll bet it even has the same smell -- the odor of precisely nothing at all hanging in the air. No meat on the grill. No onions caramelizing. Nada. Just air, no artificial flavors added.
Max has the benefit of coming from a good family, too, one with a successful and well-respected sibling and parents who know what they're doing. Max is owned and run by Gerard Rudofsky of Zaidy's fame; Gerard's son, Jason; and Greg Waldbaum, an Internet entrepreneur and friend of the Rudofsky clan with roots in the restaurant business: His great-grandmother owned Rosen's Restaurant way back in the day, his aunt was a caterer who happened to do Gerard's bar mitzvah fifty-odd years ago. And it was while cooking at a party for his parents that Waldbaum and the Rudofskys decided the time was right for the gourmet hamburger restaurant Gerard had been dreaming about for thirty years, long before he opened Zaidy's. They found the space (it's the former home of Mel Master's Top Hat, as well as many other eateries), they wrote menus, they picked suppliers. And just like that, Max Burgerworks was born. But it was no accident; it wasn't what you'd call unplanned. The kid burst onto the scene in July with a grand-opening shindig and the potential for a glowing future.
But Max doesn't look too bright right now.
The menu is Max's biggest burden. I like burgers. Everyone likes burgers. (Okay, vegetarians don't like burgers very much, and a simple veggie burger is conspicuously absent, although there is a portobello version.) But the trouble is, by last summer, the upscale-burger thing was already going the way of white rap metal and Madonna's movie career: It was cute at first, and a funny distraction from the norm, but now it's just goddamned annoying. Fifty-dollar truffle-stuffed Kobe (the cow, not the basketball player) burgers in Manhattan. Beef from open-range, organic, pesticide-free cows raised on a strict diet of foie gras and cotton candy, massaged daily by fifteen-year-old Chinese virgins and read poetry every night. Hamburgers served on thirty-grain wheat rolls with artisan mayonnaise and breeds of lettuce heretofore unknown to man. It's way past time for that nonsense to stop. A burger is a burger -- dead cow on bread -- and too much fussiness does nothing but insult the food gods of our grandfathers, for whom a rare patty on a supermarket bun with American cheese and maybe a couple of pickles was just fine. Some innovation is good. But tarting up a hunk of ground beef like you were taking it out for a night on the town is just plain wrong. And a little scary.
But it's not like Max had to become another Mickey D's. Or another New American clone featuring a few special burgers on the board of fare. Since damn near every restaurant in town now has some kind of jumped-up meat patty on its menu, Max had the opportunity to best them by simply doing the burger thing better -- by being innovative without getting excessive, and by keeping the burger in its rightful place as an essential element of cuisine. Rather than doing any of that, though, Max chose to not do much of anything, to take no chances whatsoever and stay right on the yellow line running straight down the middle of the road. Its two big, daring departures from burger-stand staples are a salmon burger with cheddar, smeared with a mystery aioli, and a ground-chicken burger topped by avocado slices, smoked bacon and caramelized onion. That's as exciting as things get.
And while the salmon burger is good, it's far from groundbreaking. Salmon, clam and lobster rolls have been around since forever, and clever little line cooks at fishhouses the world over -- needing to get rid of unused product before it starts to stink up the coolers -- have been wadding up leftover salmon and grilling it on the fire for as long as food cost has been an issue. Which also means forever.
With the chicken burger, Max does have something unique. Something uniquely awful. Imagine a perfectly good, perfectly innocent chicken breast walking down the street, minding its own business. Suddenly, it's set upon by thugs and ruffians who grab it, beat the living crap out of it, throw it in the back of a van, take it to the nearest rendering plant and put it through the meat grinder. The resultant chicken mush is left out to dry, salted and peppered all to hell, then formed into a patty bulked out by wood chips and Styrofoam packing peanuts, grilled for about an hour and a half under a greasy brick and served. Voilà! The Max chicken burger: a dry, flavorless, strangely crunchy meat puck that, while not actually containing wood chips and Styrofoam, sure tastes that way.
The biggest insult, though, is that Max charges eleven bucks for that burger. The cheapest burger on the board -- the Max Burger with onions -- is $8.50. A lunch of one appetizer, a salad, two burgers and two non-adult beverages ran me forty bucks, pre-tip. I'm not usually one to bitch about price, because I know that if I'm not out spending my folding money on food, I'm just gonna blow it on phone sex and my campaign to have Bobby Flay deported to Tierra del Fuego, but come on. That's a lot to pay for Max's lack of innovation.
Still, Max does some things well. The service is quick and friendly without being overbearing. The space is comfortable and (no surprise) not often crowded, so getting a big booth by the windows isn't much trouble. The folks in the kitchen, bless their hearts, know the difference between medium and medium rare, and they hit it every time. They also make fantastic baked beans, good burger-stand-style chili (thin, meaty, spicy but not hot, and studded with about three kidney beans per gallon), big salads with very fresh greens and interesting dressings. They hand-cut every order of fries -- which are excellent when they're not limp from sitting too long in the fryer basket -- and then offer those fries with guacamole and salsa, something I wish other restaurants would start doing.
Admirably, the cooks also stay out of the whole artisan, multi-grain, nun-baked, ethno-specific breadmaking fray by offering a choice of only fresh-baked kaiser, challah or whole-grain buns. They also use Niman Ranch beef, a good choice even before the current sky-is-falling panic over the U.S.'s first mad-cow scare, since Niman ranchers raise organic cows in a controlled environment. The Niman beef makes for perfectly acceptable meaty, tender burgers that won't give you spongiform encephalitis -- only anemia of the wallet.
But then the kitchen runs up against Max's spiritual malaise, its lack of variety. In the entire pantheon of burgers on offer -- from the simple Max to the just-plain-wrong Reuben burger -- the kitchen uses only sixteen ingredients. And that's counting the stock of four cheeses -- cheddar, Swiss, bleu and mozzarella. That's counting different kinds of lettuces, like the romaine on the Caesar burger. That's counting avocados and guacamole as two separate ingredients. That's a total of sixteen possible ingredients, all included.
Looking at the rest of the menu, at the appetizers and salads, specialties and sides, I see those same sixteen repeated again and again. There's avocado on the chopped salad, on the Colorado burger and the chicken burger; sautéed peppers on the guacamole burger (along with more avocado), the chili burger, both the Chicago and chili-cheese dogs, the portobello burger, the Italian sausage burger, the chili-cheese fries and chili-cheese onion rings, then again on the steak burger. Caramelized onions appear on the menu no fewer than fifteen times on fifteen plates, and yet nowhere is there a green-chile burger. Or a chutney, a relish or a mojo. There are no interesting ketchups or mustards, no rémoulade instead of mayonnaise, no salsas. And the most engaging vegetable is an onion ring.
Frankly, Max's biggest problem is that the kid's boring. On just three visits, I tried nearly everything it has to offer. (Except breakfast, which Max recently began serving.) The burgers are all assembled with a modicum of skill, from good ingredients, in limited variety by a kitchen handy enough to know rare from well, but they never come together into something finer in combination than you'd imagine from a simple reading of the menu.
And while I could pretend that this minimalism is a showcase for the quality of the raw ingredients, I just can't make myself believe it. When all is said and done, what Max Burgerworks really looks like is a kid who's had everything handed to him throwing it all away out of pure laziness and lack of imagination.
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