In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard - south to north - within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
There are almost as many burger joints in Denver as there are opinions about burger joints. If you haven't already found your favorite place to take a bite out of some succulent ground cow, even if you've only been a Front Ranger for a few days, you're probably either a vegetarian or maybe even a Canadian. Eating a burger is first and foremost an inalienable right in this country, on par with driving on a multi-lane freeway at 75 mph or yelling at your TV for sixteen-plus Sundays every autumn and winter. Nobody's going to talk you out of your love/hate relationship with your favorite football team (no matter how grim things get) and nobody's going to convince you to take a Greyhound on your next trip to Sterling to visit Aunt Frieda. You've probably already been to Grandpa's Burger Haven and decided that you love it or hate it after that first bite, or you've never been because you're absolutely sure that there's no better burger than the one for which you already profess your passion.
So, okay; I'm not going to attempt to convince you one way or the other. I get that you grew up eating burger X -- perhaps only on those cross-town adventures to your grandparents' house or as a reward when your report card came in the mail -- and your food memories and emotions are more entangled than a sack of curly-cut fries. Or you're an intrepid burger pioneer seeking out the perfect puck of medium-rare, grass-fed organic beef hand-cranked through a vintage meat grinder and topped with local cheese, foraged mushrooms and sustainably grown caramelized heirloom onions. Yours is a never-ending quest for the one ingredient nobody ever thought to top a burger with, so you barely even take note of something as pedestrian as American cheese or as offensive as hard slabs of flavorless winter tomatoes.
That leaves only one or two reasons to set foot inside the glassed-in, institutional cinder-block bunker of Grandpa's atrium, which is little more than a porch with an order window and enough room for a few people stand and make small-talk while waiting for their white paper sacks of goodies to appear on the concrete counter.
The first is that Grandpa's has been serving burgers from the same inconspicuous address since 1953. Whether or not you buy the idea that they must have been doing something right to stay open for all those decades, it's at least a little awe-inspiring to partake in a food ritual so primordial and unchanged. This was the way burger shacks operated until fancy establishments like McDonald's decided that customers might actually want tables and chairs so they could sit down and enjoy a meal, rather than furtively grabbing an unmarked bag and wolfing down its contents either at a lone picnic table within a gravel-shower's distance of Federal Boulevard or balanced on your knees in the relative comfort of your vehicle. It's a frozen slice of history -- a link between generations of working-class Denverites, kids out for a cheap bite, and neighbors who've lived in their aluminum-clad bungalows on the side streets just off Federal long enough that they might even remember when Grandpa's first opened.
The second reason is that you just might enjoy one of Grandpa's burgers (and make no mistake; despite a few steak and chicken sandwiches on the menu, the burgers are why you go). Whether you choose the small (on a four-inch bun) or the large (about the size of a child's head), opt for a double over the single. The patties are thin, so you'll want the extra meat to offset the ample bun (actually, the "big big bun," according to the sign out front). Plus, there's something about leaving your dental impression in a good burger after your first bite that's a sure indicator of its merit on the comfort-food scale. Grandpa's burgers are dense and expertly stacked so that each bite yields a little bread, a layer of seared beef griddled to well-done, a gluey spread of molten yellow cheese and enough sharp tang from the pickles and onions to cut through the fat. Don't get all finicky; just take it the way they serve it -- any attempts at customization will only mar the structural integrity of the sandwich and will likely get you fingered as a yuppie, foodie, or worse.
If you need a side, the onion rings offer more crunch and flavor than the woefully soft fries (of the thick and stubby configuration). I also wouldn't leave Grandpa's without a shake, if only because the burger and shake combination is as American and traditional in its delightful excess as a double-feature at the drive-in or an all-day college football marathon in front of the TV. My choice? A crunchy peanut butter shake blended as I watched.
You may as well have a strong opinion about burgers when you walk into Grandpa's. With a set attitude, there's no need for discussion. This will leave your brain free to form other opinions through banter and debate with the other guests in the atrium: Did the NSA make a deal with Facebook? Are there military drones circling Sports Authority Field? Don't dismiss your fellow burger patrons as wingnuts or conspiracy theorists; you'll want to remain in good standing for when you see them again. Because you'll be back -- you know you'll be back.
Opinions aside, a Grandpa's burger is a treasure of American efficiency, a care package from the past that will not upset the order of your attitudes, but will instead meld all of your various burger experiences into a kind of continuity so that each new chef's creation and upstart fast-casual contender will be informed by one of the few remaining originals.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.