Burgers and barbecue aren't the most likely menu mates: On the one hand, you've got the fast sizzle and leaping fire of the burger grill, and on the other, the long, slow cook over charcoal. But two Denver barbecue restaurants have figured out how to tame the flame and capture the smoky goodness of the barbecue pit in their cheeseburgers.
At Owlbear Barbecue (2826 Larimer Street), owner Karl Fallenius uses brisket trimmings to grind and form third-pound patties that he smokes for about 45 minutes until the beef reaches an internal temperature of 135 degrees or so. "We mix in our brisket rub so the salt emulsifies the meat and the fat a little, so we treat it almost more like a sausage than a burger patty," Fallenius explains.
From there, the meat goes on a Martin's potato bun with American cheese, pickles, onions and special sauce. You can also throw on some of Owlbear's smoked pork belly. What started out as a weekly special, where lines on Saturdays were getting out of hand, has turned into an everyday menu item.
Christopher Nicki, owner of Hank's Texas Barbecue (5410 East Colfax Avenue), says that he helped Fallenius serve burgers at an Owlbear pop-up fundraiser for Black Lives Matter this past summer, and he also has his own smoked burger. "My burger is more like Whataburger's, and that would make Karl's more like In-N-Out," Texas native Nicki points out.
Hank's uses an 80/20 ground beef blend and smokes the seven-ounce patties for an hour to an hour and a half before finishing them on the flat top — "to give them a crispy edge," Nicki explains — then places them on a Martin's potato bun smeared with garlic aioli. The burger comes with dill pickle chips, two slices of American cheese (melted while the burger is still on the flat top), finely diced onion and shredded lettuce.
"We have some awesome regulars who bring us Whataburger spicy ketchup [from Texas], so we serve that with our fries," the pit master adds. Hank's serves burgers every Friday starting at lunch until they sell out.
And that's how you get a fast-food masterpiece out of low and slow.