This great nation of ours holds as one of its dearest principles the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty, penned by Emma Lazarus: "'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.'" The words welcome the people of the world to make a new home in the United States — and with those people comes new food and new ingredients. But can we live up to the words of Lazarus even when the sanctity of one of our greatest treasures, the hamburger, gets remodeled with these new ingredients?
We say there's room enough between our teeming shores for all kinds of burgers, from the simplest beef patty on a bun to elaborate constructions revved up with exotic sauces and seasonings brought by recent immigrants. Here are three Denver eateries that prove the hamburger is as accommodating and mutable as our own society, while still remaining true to its basic nature.
1. The Bulgogi Burger at Departure
249 Columbine Street
Was the bulgogi burger invented by the Koreans or for the Koreans? After all, McDonald's serves a bulgogi burger at its Seoul restaurants. But here in Denver, Departure chefs Gregory Gourdet and Khamla Vongsakoun have created a luxury sandwich with a powerful wallop of Korean flavor. The hefty patty is made with wagyu beef cooked to a uniform medium-rare from edge to edge, with only the exterior sporting a dark, crusty sear. That's topped with spicy, chunky ssamjang and a soft egg (the menu says fried, but ours was poached or slow-cooked in an immersion circulator). A little spicy-sweet sauce stains the lofty bun, and a pretty sprinkle of scallions and sesame seeds decorates the egg. Departure's $18 beast comes sided with taro chips instead of fries and a mess of kimchi, pickles and lettuce that could be either a salad or additional topping for the burger (it worked well as both). This is definitely not for the burger traditionalist looking for a slight variation on a classic; it's better suited for the intrepid adventurer looking for Korean flavors more common to Aurora than Cherry Creek.
2. The Mongolian Burger at Sizzle Grill
7422 South University Boulevard, Centennial
We were disappointed to see one of our Peruvian favorites, La Polleria, close down in Centennial, but curiosity got the best of us when we saw the new menu at the Chinese-ish eatery that took its place. Sizzle Grill actually leans more all-American, even if it's run by a charming Chinese family and even if appetizers include sesame balls, egg rolls, cheese wontons and salt-and-pepper green beans, which bolster a menu of ten burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches and other diner-style eats (soups and a few stir-fried dishes add the aroma of a Chinese kitchen to the place).
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The crew at Sizzle Grill must have spent plenty of time in Midwestern roadhouses and burger joints, because the Mongolian burger is a masterpiece of griddle cookery. The burger itself, a healthy slab of 100-percent Angus, is cooked to a juicy medium, with just the right amount of pink but no red (even without having to ask). The Mongolian sauce is brown and meaty, with just a hint of soy, and the caramelized onions could easily sidle up to some fried liver on a farmhouse dinner plate. Everything's held together by a blanket of American cheese, molten to the point of becoming a sauce itself. It's a greasy, sloppy mess between two halves of a squishy potato bun — a dead-on classic with just the right hint of fusion weirdness. But Sizzle Grill departs in multiple directions with other options, from a Southwestern green-chile burger topped with a fried egg to an oddball pairing of sweet potato and peanut butter. The Mongolian rings in at $6.95, but fries are extra.
3. The Tempura Burger at Wok Hei
2720 South Colorado Boulevard
The name Wok Hei comes from the Chinese phrase that means "breath of the wok": the distinct flavor imparted on food cooked in a well-seasoned wok at high heat. But at this new South Colorado Boulevard fast-casual joint, you might encounter a little "fryer hei" when you order the tempura burger. Here, the beef patty is lightly battered and deep-fried, giving a pleasing crunch to the finished sandwich. A mild, creamy slaw tinged with wasabi provides a fresh, light counterpoint to the beef, while hot Chinese mustard mingles with the wasabi for a little (but not too much) sinus-clearing heat. The burger and fries ring in at a reasonable $7.50, leaving a little money to indulge in a cup of housemade ice cream in tempting flavors like coconut and avocado-lime. As a bonus, grab a fortune cookie on the way out; yours will read "You will soon eat another tempura burger."