There is almost nothing better in the world than really good green chile spread on top of a juicy beef patty or slathered over a pile of hand-cut fries. Five Star Burgers is a transplant from Taos, and even with this city's staggering number of burger joints, Five Star manages to shine because of its warm, roasty green chile. And that's not all that's warm at this small chain: The service is enjoyable and attentive, and you can end your meal with something weird, unexpected and wonderful: a dessert made with deep-fried banana bread.
Five Star Burgers is owned by the Taos Restaurant Group, which also owns Old Blinking Light in Taos and Highlands Ranch, and has six Five Star locations scattered between New Mexico, Missouri (that state's spot has a special "Iron Skillet" burger smothered in bacon gravy and topped with a fried egg) and Denver, where it has locations at 2330 East Arapahoe Road in Littleton and 555 Broadway -- the spot where Kokoro used to be.
I'd heard that Five Star uses fresh, all-natural, hormone- and antibiotic-free Angus beef in the burger patties, and cooks them on a steam-powered grill. So one recent day I wandered south from the Westword office to the Five Star on Broadway. There's a nice-sized, sunny, twelve-table patio out front with a cozy fire pit in the middle; the inside dining area has bright orange and purple walls with a single bleached cow skull hanging on one, as well as an artfully pitted, finished concrete floor the color of seasoned leather. I spent several years in Albuquerque and got used to the standard issue, terrible décor in too many New Mexico restaurants -- a lot of beige, sands and turquoise color palettes with Georgia O'Keefe prints and fake Navaho pottery -- and in comparison, this was tame and non-ridiculous.
As I was led to a table near the bar I considered asking for a booth near the windows instead, but I was glad I refrained -- the bartender/lifter of heavy beer kegs turned out to be an excellent server, too. I love being helped by staffers who seem genuinely happy to be there, know the menu by heart and really, truly smile at you -- none of that fakey, robotic customer-service stuff. She had pink hair and awesome plug earrings (it's downright beautiful to find a chain restaurant that doesn't get bent out of shape over a little ink or a few piercings), and she didn't do the typical barely-discernible-but-there nose-wrinkle when I ordered a bananas Foster shake. (Anyone who has ever bartended knows that most bartenders despise making shakes.)
Shakes are shakes, but on occasion I get one that is something special, and this was: incredibly thick, with a fantastic banana-caramelly flavor. The whipped cream on top was actual whipped cream, and there was a single, deep burgundy Bordeaux cherry plopped on that. A restaurant gets mad points for shedding the yucky maraschino cherries in favor of their plumper, better-flavored, more decorative cousins.
My server told me the menu had been revamped only the week before, and it wasn't particularly huge or diverse: burgers, fries, a few sides, beer and wine, and three desserts. I ordered the fried jalapeno bottle caps ($3), fried pickle spears ($3), the yellowfin tuna burger with chile cheese fries ($14), the signature green chile cheeseburger with bleu cheese bacon fries ($10.95) and a lamb burger with Parmesan truffle fries ($12). The massive fries upgrades are a steal, because the loaded fries are $5 on their own -- but if you order burgers that come with fries, it's only an extra buck to load them up.
Five Star purchases its beef from California-based Harris Ranch, and its fat, eggy brioche buns and Hatch chiles from New Mexico. At the perfect stage of ripeness, properly cleaned and roasted, Hatch chiles are the best ones in the big, wide expanse of the universe. They are fruity, grassy, start out warm and then the heat creeps up until you are a little sweaty and can't wait for the next bite. Five Star's fried jalapeno slices and fried pickles were a good warm-up for the chile, with the peppers spicier than I anticipated (awesome) and the pickles far better breaded than expected. Both came with cool, creamy, green chile-infused dipping sauces, and eating jalapeno peppers dipped in green chile/chipotle sauce is an experience only a pepper-obsessed New Mexico-born joint can offer -- an almost sensual immersion.
I didn't want to use ketchup and mustard on the first burger because the green chile was so good I just wanted to taste that. And I wasn't disappointed: the green chile cheeseburger was an exercise in Southwestern excess and ecstasy, with a fat, medium-rare burger that dripped pinky beef juice, smothered with diced green chiles, covered with a slab of melted pepperjack cheese and the bottom bun spread with green chile mayo. Every bite was better than the one before, and I was almost sorry to switch my attention to the other two burgers...at least until I bit into each of them.
Five Star gets credit for not skimping on the good stuff, and the yellowfin tuna burger was a huge, thick filet, barely seared and glazed with sweet soy sauce, decorated with spears of jicama and half an avocado, neatly fanned out, and all drizzled with wasabi cream sauce. It tasted like horseradish and delicious sea-meat.
I was also happy to see the lamb burger on the menu -- not enough restaurants do enough things with lamb -- and the result was beyond satisfying. The well-peppered lamb patty had been cooked a perfect medium, and came with fresh tomato and cucumber slices, as well as Five Star's clever tzatziki sauce -- more sour cream than yogurt, with cucumber shreds and a lemony tang.
Each set of loaded fries was loaded with something superb: the bleu cheese bacon ones had liberal gobs of house-made, turbo-chunky bleu cheese dressing and full-on crispy pieces -- not bits -- of bacon, the Parmesan truffle fries were well-saturated with pungent truffle oil and melty Parmesan shavings, and the green chile ones came with Five Star's vegetarian green chile sauce that's rich, medium-thick, medium-hot and a deep caramel color with bits of tomato and more fine, fruity diced chiles.
I was stuffed -- but then I noticed the new "Banana Delight," and had to order it. Super-server smiled when I did, and it took only a taste to figure out why. The dessert was a slice of banana bread, deep-fried, with bruleed bananas, caramel sauce, walnuts and whipped cream -- with another Bordeaux cherry on top. I've eaten a score of deep-fried things from decades of state-fair attendance, but I'd never tried fried banana bread. It was positively sinful with a dark, crisp, sweet outside, and a warm, spongy inside. The bananas were cut lengthwise; each piece had a delicate, golden crust of caramelized sugar.
If you are a fan of banana bread or bananas, or are just a breathing, carbon-based life form, you really need to try this dessert before you die -- it's that good.
I felt like I more than got my money's worth at Five Star Burgers, a feeling I don't get nearly often enough. And it sounds like this spot will soon be an even better deal: Super-server told me there are plans in the works to have live music on the patio this summer. Five Star could turn into an excellent, casual warm-weather party spot, because nothing says party like beer, burgers, green chile -- and deep-fried banana bread.