I love cheeseburgers. Seriously, madly, deeply. I love foie gras, too. I love maguro sushi. I love whole fish with their eyes rolled back, seared crisp and served under a blanket of dark, thick oyster sauce, and I love bacalao and blood sausage and agnolotti with sage and butternut squash. I love cassoulet that takes two or three days to make, and Indonesian roti that takes a minute.
I am polyglot and polyamorous in my affections, a slut of cuisine. But most of my relationships are complicated. I have problems with Italian food going back to my youth — Mommy and Daddy issues, because in the kitchen, I was born Italian and have never been able to let some of my first prejudices go. Bacalao and blood sausage are dark-eyed Spanish and Portugese temptresses, temperamental and bad for me. My dedication to the French is a bone-deep thing, a love-hate bond that will no doubt be the death of me. Foie and cassoulet, a perfect bowl of mussels, the spit of lardons in the pan — French food is a high-maintenance, spike-heeled bitch in a black dress with a yappy dog and breath that smells of Gauloises cigarettes and disdain. But I love her despite that. I love her because she is the purest, most defined love I've ever known, and I love her even though she hates me with the rare and white-hot zeal of the jingoist.
But the cheeseburger? The cheeseburger is simple. The cheeseburger is the girl next door, the one I grew up with. Between us there is no drama, no distance, no complexity. We're good together because we know each other inside and out. The cheeseburger is my heart and soul.
Wazee Supper Club
1600 15th Street
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-midnight Sunday
Half-pound cheeseburger: $6.80
14-inch pizza, double cheese and pepperoni: $13.75
Philly cheesesteak: $7.75
Standing outside the Wazee Supper Club a couple of weeks back, I was thinking about cheeseburgers — about great ones and poor ones, and the places I've had them. I was smoking a cigarette and pacing, lost in my own internal reverie, so didn't notice the ragged fella lurching up beside me until he was there at my shoulder, a bad angel of my past.
He asked for a cigarette, and I, the easy mark, gave it up, feeling the scrape of his rough skin as the cancer stick passed between my hand and his.
"Think about it like this," he said. "It's one less for you. I'm saving your life."
"I'll think about it like I'm doing you a favor, thanks," I said back, hating that rationalization every time I hear it from some grubber. "My life doesn't need saving."
He nodded. "Okay, then. Hey, you want to buy some smoke?"
"No, man. I don't."
He nodded again, head bobbing with a certain feral desperation, grin peeling up either side of his face.
I looked around. Broad daylight, a Sunday afternoon in downtown Denver. "No," I said. There's just something about this town.
My bad angel shrugged, scratched his face, asked for a light. I gave him one of the packs of matches I keep for just such moments. He asked if I had any change for the bus. I told him to go away. I was working, after all.
Three reasons I'm a fan of the Wazee:
One, should I ever decide to slip back into old, bad habits, the corner of 15th and Wazee streets is centrally located enough that, without too much walking, I could score just about any old thing I needed. And while, yeah, the odds are good that Scratchy McGee wasn't holding anything but the knife he would've used to unzip me had I been dim enough to follow him into the alley to buy a bag of his phantom weed, there are a lot of other corners in this part of town. No matter how many loft developments get thrown up, no matter how many wine bars or architectural studios are crammed into the old blocks, this is still Denver's historical tenderloin. There are ghosts here older than anyone now stalking the pavement. Plenty of them are still looking for a fix.
Two, the Wazee itself isn't exactly short on history. Open since 1974, it predates all the hipness, all the gentrification, all the retro this-and-that of LoDo. Founders Angelo and Jim Karagas actually opened their first spot, My Brother's Bar, in 1969, nine blocks farther down 15th, in a neighborhood known more for the rattle in the trap and the briskness of illicit trade than anything else. But the brothers obviously had a taste for sketchy 'hoods (and the kinds of places where sketchy hoods might tip a bit of whiskey), because thirty-odd years ago, they took a look at this former plumbing-supply warehouse and said to themselves, "Hey, you know what would work great here? A bar!"
And they were right. The Wazee has aged well — not so much like a fine wine, but more like that last bottle of beer that somehow got shoved to the back of the fridge, the one you find accidentally, joyously, on a hot night long after last call, when you'd gladly sell your brother to a passing gypsy for just one more drink. Nothing tastes better than a lost-and-found beer when you really need it. No place works better than the Wazee when you need a place to crash-land for a couple of hours, a couple of years, a lifetime. It's seen some famous faces in its time (and it had one as an owner, since John Hickenlooper's restaurant group bought it after Angelo Karagas passed away), but has also served 10,000 times as many nobodies like me. Families eat here. Politicians, lawyers, writers and other lowlifes gather here. Drunken mobs of sports fans with pony-keg bellies and hot, flushed faces sometimes descend on the bar and yell at the televisions — but even then, it has a weird sort of placid class. No matter what happens at the Wazee, the walls have seen better and they've seen worse. For some reason, I find this comforting.
Three: The cheeseburgers. They're good. They're not the best cheeseburgers in the world by any stretch, but the Wazee itself is a great spot for them, a perfect wedding of food and place. The menu offers three kinds — half-pound of beef, third-pound of beef and a third-pound of buffalo — if you don't count the veggie burger (and I don't), and puts your burger on a large bun, fresh and crisped up on the grill. It offers fifteen different things to put on your burger, and nine of them are cheese and one of them is bacon — all anyone should ever need for a lifetime of variety. And when I ask for my burger bloody-rare, the Wazee kitchen does it right. My waitress doesn't cluck her tongue at me. I don't get a food-safety lecture on the hazards of eating under-cooked beef and, more important, no one tells me I can't have it rare — as has been happening more often lately in restaurants where the owners are so terrified of a customer suing them because he picked up spongiform encephalopathy or some kind of carnivorous intestinal fluke from eating a T-bone done less than Hiroshima-well that every piece of meat in the kitchen is now blasted into carbon before being garnished with a sprig of irradiated parsley and served.
Fuck that. I'll take my chances with mad cow disease, thanks. And if it comes, it would be a fitting revenge by the bovines, taking down one who has eaten so many of their brethren over the years. It would be poetic.
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There's other food on the Wazee menu, much of it a horror. The Philly cheesesteak is an insult to anyone who's ever had the real thing — a gloppy mess of ribeye, white cheese, mushrooms, onions and green peppers that is as much about Philly as the Denver omelet is about the Mile High. The wings are scrawny, the mozzarella sticks redolent of freezer burn and shelf stabilizers, the "Z sticks" a weird, riffing knockoff of Thai chicken satay, and the bruschetta just hummus, tapenade and tomato relish-flavored yuppie bait to get the early diners to drink more chardonnay. But the chili (with beans, the way I like it) is decent on its own, better when dumped onto a bacon cheeseburger.
And then there's the pizza, which the Wazee says is its claim to fame — only because saying your actual claim to fame is over-serving literary types and being a favored last-call destination for weeknight drinkers in need of a snack (the kitchen serves 'til 1 a.m. every night but Sunday) will get you talked about by all the wrong people. Still, while the pizza may not be the best in the world, it's a pretty good pie — set on a hybrid thick/thin cornmeal-dusted crust, slathered with a red sauce made from scratch with a little bite, and generously loaded with toppings. I'd normally complain about the dash of oregano across the top, except that owing to some quirk of Wazee pizza construction, it actually adds flavor without being overwhelmingly sizzle-y on the tongue, as oregano so often is.
I've been back and back again to the Wazee — often enough that at this point, the black-and-white tiles on the floor, the arc of recovered Elk's Club bench seats and the smooth art-deco reach of the long bar feel like home. I've grown into the place over the years, come here on nights when I really needed a spot to crash, to celebrate, or just to blend in with the crowds of regulars. I've fought with my wife at its tables, met friends in from out of town, hidden on weekends when even little old Denver has seemed too big, and eaten lots and lots of cheeseburgers in the anonymous haze of midnight at the back tables. While 15th and Wazee might not be my neighborhood, the Wazee Supper Club has become my neighborhood bar — a place full of Denver's ghosts and Denver's past, stiff drinks and good company. It's the place where nobody knows my name.
Which is exactly the way I like it.