Cafe Society

Patty Melt

Cheeseburgers are the single most recognizable American contribution to the world culinary scene (and, according to a monument on Speer Boulevard, an actual Denver invention). They're also the ideal thing to eat on a blazing-hot afternoon.

So last week when the temperature hit 97 degrees, I hit the road for Jim's Burger Haven on Sheridan Boulevard in Westminster. I like Jim's because it has no drive-thru. No neon. No chrome. No affectation whatsoever. This is a burger shack that doesn't pretend to be anything else, and other than the booths that have recently been reupholstered into a ranked simulacrum of fresh-off-the-showroom-floor, muscle-car bench seats, the place proudly shows its age in every scuffed table, grease-stained ceiling tile and crooked Little League photo hung on the walls alongside the faded custom hot-rod snaps.

Jim's -- both this second outpost and the original on 88th Avenue in Thornton, which moved from the true original location a few blocks away some years ago -- is a car-cult burger joint, its family and genus traceable back to the glory days of ten-cent milkshakes, miniskirted carhops and those full-lead Corvettes and Mustangs. It still hosts the cruisers now and then, the parking lot filling up with classic street rods, perfectly preserved and shiny as hard candy. Like Gunther Toody's wishes it could be, Jim's is a real artifact of early-'60s pop culture, and stumbling across it is like wandering through the desert and tripping over a Tyrannosaurus rex. Not the skeleton of one, but an actual one. Sleeping maybe, or sunning itself on top of a butte.

Reasons why cheeseburgers are the greatest food in the world (first in a series): Cheeseburgers are versatile.

There's only one correct way to make tête de veau, to make a supremes sauce, to make mashed potatoes. But there are infinite variations on the cheeseburger, and each of them is valid and true in its own way. For example, I'm not a big fan of the thin-and-crispy style of burger-making as practiced at Jim's, but legions of Denverites swear by it, and I understand their loyalty.

The kitchen makes big, thin patties of loose-packed meat, then cooks them to order on the flat grill until they're well-done and crispy 'round the edges. Fashioned this way, the burger acts almost like lunchmeat, spreading out into a layer that can both support and interact with a wide variety of toppings; it's then served on a big, squishy bun totally inadequate for maintaining the structural integrity of anything larger than a small single, the cheapskate burger that costs 89 cents. The burger comes loaded unless you ask for it otherwise, the meat becoming just another stratum of flavor and texture, thereby elevating the importance of the interplay of toppings and folding everything -- bun, burger, gooey cheese, mustard and ketchup, bright onion, sweet tomato, lettuce and vinegar brine of pickles -- into a single, over-arching burger gestalt. Are the cooks thinking in such lofty terms as they stand there, slapping together my double meat and cheese, hold the tommies? I doubt it, but that's fine. They're busy, and a burger -- so long as it is approached with the respect it's due -- can generally take care of itself. Do anything you like to it, and its inherent goodness is unaffected.

Unless, of course, you add shredded lettuce, as Jim's does. Shredded lettuce is never a good idea. The heat turns it stringy, wilts it almost immediately, and the grease turns it slimy. Give me a whole leaf any day or, better yet, just forget it entirely.

Jim's kitchen also does decent, thin-cut fries that always need a little extra salt, battered onion rings, milkshakes far too thin and milky for my taste -- the standards -- as well as hot dogs, sandwiches and a lot of extraneous stuff that I've never heard anyone order. And because all true burger joints seem to require some bizarre, totally discordant, quick-serve, fried-from-frozen impulse item that's advertised on greasy table-tents shoved off next to the salt and pepper shakers (at Griff's, it's jalapeño-cheese-stuffed tater tots), Jim's also offers deep-fried, breaded macaroni-and-cheese wedges. On the table-tent, there's a picture of some wide-eyed kid eating one -- pupils blown out like the thing was stuffed with espresso beans and crack. Although I'm a daring eater, having no problem with calves' brains or squid testicles or what-have-you, I've never been tempted by the mac-n-cheez wedges. Grilled field mice? Bring 'em on. But I'm pretty sure the fried macaroni would kill me stone dead.

From the fried macaroni, it's not far -- not psychically, at least -- to Cheesy Jane's, one of three outposts of the Texas-based mini-chain, and the only one in Colorado. Centennial, to be precise. Cheesy Jane's is only a few years old, but it has a weak '50s theme going with its Johnny Rockets-lite decor, a short counter, a little chrome, some red vinyl and neon. The big space looks unfinished, as if decorating was only an afterthought. And that would be fine (see Jim's), if the burgers were something worth writing home about. Hell, it would be enough if they were simply better than average.