Cafe Society

DIVE! DIVE!

Judging from the way his hamburgers always look, Jughead's criteria for the ultimate burger is a half-moon top bun, a meat pattie as thick as both bun halves put together and exactly the same width, two layers of frilly lettuce, a square of cheese hanging over the sides like a tablecloth, and two oblong pickle slices--neat, tidy and oh-so-perfect. In fact, the only things in better shape in Archie's world are Betty and Veronica.

Of course, comic-book characters don't have to worry their pretty little two-dimensional heads about such dangers as cholesterol and e. coli. In the real world, hamburgers often are treated like lethal weapons, poison pills that you consume at your own risk.

But in summer, when thousands of backyard grills send up their scent into the heavy twilight air, it's hard to remember all the dangers. I'm ready to risk anything to satisfy my craving for a great burger.

My illicit adventure began with a drive to the Skyline Cafe. Located in a dusty part of the Platte Valley known as the Bottoms, the Skyline is an eight-year-old shanty of a bar--a classic dive. One recent Monday night at dusk it was close to deserted, and the whole experience had an otherworldly, detached feel--sort of like the bathroom toilet I mistakenly leaned against and found to be not connected to anything (least of all the floor).

The clientele during our stop consisted of off-duty clock-punchers, although things definitely get hipper as the evening progresses, and weekend nights can be jammed. Even the kitchen was still gearing up, because ordering fries and onion rings was out of the question--the fryers were having an oil change.

We could hardly complain about that bit of healthy enterprise, and the side of pasta salad made a more than adequate substitute. Besides, we were there for the burgers. We ate them on the deck, where the booths aren't attached to the floor, either. But we quickly found ourselves attached to an unexpected bonus slathering our buns: a heavenly homemade mayonnaise with a ranch-dressing-like consistency and flavor. Coupled with the lettuce, tomato and red onions that topped each pattie, the superb sauce made it seem like we consumed a substantial salad with each bite of burger.

The oomph of the mayo saved my plain burger ($3.25), a charbroiled one-third-pounder. The pattie (Skyline uses Lombardi Brothers' regular ground-beef blend 85-15, which indicates the ratio of lean meat to fat) was dry on the outside and cooked pretty much medium well, so I couldn't discern what cook Cary Thompson calls a "secret medley of spices." When I later asked him if the recent e. coli scare accounted for Skyline waiters not asking customers their preferences and the kitchen cooking the meat so long, Thompson replied, "If I don't get any specs, I just cook it medium."

My companion's burger had gone well beyond that, but since she'd ordered the jalapeno cheese version ($3.95) with an added topping of bacon, the dry pattie was so smothered with an addictive combination of chopped peppers, cream cheese and more mayo that she had no gripes.

Besides, with the deck's remarkable view of Denver's skyline as a backdrop for our dinner, we would have forgiven the place if our burgers had come out of the kitchen as charred little chunks of coal.

Dryness was not a problem at Rodney's, an eight-year-old watering hole in Cherry Creek (there's a newer outpost at Tamarac Square, too). Each variety of Rodney's burger comes with a corresponding type of bread--sourdough, pumpernickel or light rye. Although the menu notes that an onion roll or sesame-seed bun is available on request, the bartender told us the bread was better. Better-tasting, maybe, but the half-pound Plainsman ($5.75), with grilled bacon and melted American cheese, soaked right through the sourdough bread and turned the whole sandwich into a meaty mess. The beef itself (Lombardi's 85-15 again) had been cooked slightly under my specifications; the pink juice didn't help the bread situation, but it did give a much-needed boost of flavor. On a second visit I tried the Fiesta ($5.75) in hopes that drier toppings--guacamole and green-chile strips--would make for a drier burger. No such luck: This time even an onion roll couldn't hold the whole dripping mass together.

When I wasn't trying to get a grip on my burger, I surveyed Rodney's equally juicy scenery: Desperate-looking divorces and divorcees sat hungrily at the bar, gnawing on drinks and trying to make eye contact. For real titillation, though, they should have been in the bathroom eyeing the wall hangings. Both the men's and the women's rooms boast lists of sexual world records, such as: "Number of corpses doctor such-and-such made love to: 852."

The scene at the Avenue Bar and Grill was only slightly less frenetic but the surroundings considerably more classy. The burger, however, was an odd disappointment. I ordered the unadulterated hamburger ($5.95 at lunch, $6.95 at dinner) medium rare; instead, I got an all-pink monster, a bit larger than the half-pound the menu promised. No complaint there, but after a few minutes this handful turned into a cold, unappetizing lump of raw-looking flesh. The only saving grace was the bun, a big, soft kaiser.

On a return trip I mentioned that I'd been the victim of a bum cooking job on my first visit. This time the kitchen went the other way, overcooking the meat until it formed a crust of craggy, dark brown hills. The guacamole (all toppings are 75 cents) helped, but not enough. After the brightness of the Avenue Grill, my eyes needed a few minutes to adjust to the dark interior of the Cherry Cricket, a fifty-year-old bar just down the street from Rodney's. But my tastebuds managed to wrap themselves around the Cricket's burger in no time.

Eli McGuire, who bought the bar in 1990, brought in a Charglo grill--essentially a barbecue-style setup that uses lava rocks--because of its even heating and less harsh treatment of the meat. "You get a quick searing of the outside," she explains, "but not so much that someone who wants a well-done burger is going to end up with a hockey puck."

I ordered my half-pounder ($3.95) medium rare, and the kitchen was right on. The meat was pink in the very center, light brown toward the edges, and had a faintly crusty outside--in short, all the animal magnetism of a great burger. The grill had imparted only the faintest hint of the cooking process while preserving the earthy, primal essences of a burger made from Black Angus trim--one of the better beef patties available from Lombardi. McGuire goes with a 70-30 mix: Although customers might profess that they're looking for leaner meat, the flavor is in the fat.

For extra taste, the Cricket offers an extensive topping list. The guacamole ($1) was a creamy blend of avocado and tomatoes with just the right hint of onion. My more ambitious combination of herbed cream cheese (55 cents) and sauteed mushrooms ($1) was too much for the bun to hold; I wound up eating a lot of mushrooms with a fork.

Still, even Jughead would have approved.