Cafe Society

Highland Tap serves bar food that tastes much better than bar food

Over the past few years, the booming burger business has included everything from new joints trying to re-create the classic burger to restaurants so redesigning the burger that it's sometimes no longer recognizable, as at Crave Real Burgers.

And then there are the spots that fall somewhere in the middle, rethinking this American icon while still celebrating it. Highland Tap and Burger, which opened in the old Aztec Sol location last September, is one of those. The redesigned space feels like a tavern, thanks to a massive bar outfitted with TVs, high tables in the rest of the dark space, a sprawling and unceremoniously furnished patio, and the casual, seat-yourself attitude of the staffers, who are friendly and prompt but behave more like sports-bar employees than restaurant servers. The drink offerings emphasize Highland's tavern identity, too, with taps that feature an interesting and well-rounded run of mostly Colorado beers (though one line is always reserved for an out-of-state guest selection).

But the partners behind Highland Tap — husband and wife Katie O'Shea and Juan Padro, along with Kevin Eddy, Kris Slocum and Brad Beale, who also own Spill Lounge — recognize the importance of food at their place, too. And so they brought in Eli Odell as their chef and asked him to apply a fine-dining sensibility to a pub-like menu. The result is a board that focuses on burgers and other typical bar-food items — but burgers and bar-food items that taste much better than they do at your typical bar.

When I met up with a group of friends at Highland Tap a few weeks ago, we quickly ordered a round of drinks and the barrel-smoked chicken wings and Modus Hoperandi mac and cheese. The kitchen had smoked the wings, then glazed them with a lightly sweet, caramely sauce; excellent on their own, they were even better after a dunk in the chunky, pungent housemade blue-cheese dressing. The mac and cheese was another atypical take on a traditional dish. Shells had been tossed in a slightly sharp and creamy sauce of Fontina, aged white cheddar and parmesan that was spiked with the Modus Hoperandi IPA; then they were dusted with breadcrumbs and baked. The mix satisfied nostalgic cravings for classic macaroni and cheese while also adding depth and character.

Our burgers arrived before we'd finished the appetizers. In addition to a half-dozen chef creations, Highland Tap lets you create your own — and I'd strongly considered going with the salted foie gras topping, since I suspected the fattened duck liver would melt into the patty, resulting in an instant foodgasm. But common sense had prevailed and I'd instead ordered the chimi burger, which topped a fat, medium-rare patty with white cheddar and garlicky chimichurri. It was good, but a little acid would have propelled it to greatness. I liked my friend's Shroomluva's better, even though I have an aversion to truffle aioli, which was smeared all over the bun; fortunately, it was largely masked by a pile of sautéed mushrooms and slab of Ementhaler cheese, which relegated it to the role of an enhancing seasoning rather than an overriding flavor. Our favorite, though, was the Tap burger, accessorized with a layer of root beer pulled pork in that same smoky, caramely sauce, a crispy onion ring and both cheddar and American cheeses. Although the sauce played well against the savory flavors, next time I'd add an egg for contrast, as the menu suggests.

After we'd polished off every last bite of burger, we continued working our way through a mountain of crispy french fries and irresistible zucchini fries, coated in a feathery batter but still very much a vegetable. They were an ideal complement to the pale ale I was nursing, especially after a dip in the accompanying mustard aioli.

I've got a special place in my heart for a classic hamburger. But if Highland Tap and Burger is the next step in the evolution of this dish, I'm there.