Cafe Society

Beyond the Five Napkin Burger: Tarbell's rises to the occasion

When I was growing up in the southern suburbs, Southglenn was the only mall within several miles, and I'd frequently stroll through it with a preteen friend, one unfastened strap of my overalls dangling jauntily behind me like some weird denim tail. I'd buy a pair of cheap plastic earrings at Claire's or maybe a poster at It's Your Move, and then every trip would end with me spending the last of my allowance on an Orange Julius or a Cinnabon, the best dining options available, and consuming it while I sat at a plastic table, waiting for my mother to load us into her minivan and take us home.

I was a fickle fan, though, and I quickly abandoned Southglenn when Park Meadows, with all its slick stores, ski-resort feel and sunny, spacious food court, opened just a few miles away. Even as a self-absorbed teenager, I knew it was only a matter of time before the old mall, anchored by a shabby Sears, would have its date with the bulldozer.

That inevitable date came, wiping the Southglenn mall off the map. And like a strategically designed phoenix meant to lure consumers with its ostentatious beauty and grace, last August the Streets at SouthGlenn rose resplendently from the ashes.

The vast swatch of property that backs up to University Boulevard between Arapahoe and Dry Creek now boasts a carefully constructed outdoor village, a mix of luxury rentals, artisan shops and restaurants. Where fast-food chains once dominated, there are handcrafted-pizza places, Middle Eastern falafel joints, even a pho shop. The development is a testament to the expansion of dining culture in Denver and the urbanizing of the suburbs.

It was here, in the upscaled outskirts of the Mile High City, that former Iron Chef America winner Mark Tarbell chose to put the latest in his expanding group of restaurants. Tarbell already had a successful fine-dining restaurant in Phoenix when he opened his first Colorado restaurant in another new suburban development, Lakewood's Belmar. The Oven Pizza e Vino was a quick hit there, and a few years later, he opened another eatery, Mark & Isabella's. But that kitschy Italian concept never found its rhythm, and it lasted just eleven months before closing abruptly in November 2009.

The same month that Mark & Isabella's shut down, Tarbell opened a second outpost of the Oven in SouthGlenn. And just a month later, he opened Home, his second attempt at finer dining, a meditation on American cuisine in both traditional and modern form. The airy, high-ceilinged space looked great, filled with dark, modern furniture, one wall adorned with cross-sections of dozens of tree trunks. But the name was a problem.

Diners thought the place was a housewares vendor, and another Denver restaurant that had the word "home" in its name didn't like what it saw as brand infringement. So in February, Home became Tarbell's, taking the name — if not the menu — of the Phoenix flagship. And now, with the distraction of Mark & Isabella's and the drama of the name change over, Tarbell's has truly made itself at home. Tarbell and his executive chef, Matthew Fenton, who is responsible for the day-to-day kitchen management and much of the menu development, are doing one hell of a job.

The menu is split between vintage and modern, with the latter a nod toward haute-American food, drawing influence from both the East and West. The fish tacos — white cod in a grainy crust of fried cornmeal topped with cilantro and chipotle crème — were smart and well-executed. The ahi tuna, cool-centered and medium rare, came on a bed of edamame-studded wasabi mashed potatoes that had a pleasant kick but didn't detract from the rest of the savory flavors on the plate. And the omega-3 hand-cut fettuccine was nicely al dente and much lighter than I expected, the flat noodles glistening in parmesan broth, all richness derived from the earthiness of the highlighted wild mushrooms.

The vintage dishes, elevated versions of classics, were even better. The macaroni and cheese was a standout, with Manchego, fontina, white American and white cheddar cheeses mixing in a tangy, sharp roux over a bed of elbow macaroni. The fried chicken was precisely what fried chicken should be: moist white and dark pieces of the bird in a light, crispy, golden-brown batter, served with a moderately dressed tart coleslaw that cut the heaviness of the dish — and prevented fried-food-related guilt (if I eat 100 grams of fat with a vegetable, it doesn't count, right?). The open-faced soft-shell crab sandwich was exquisite, a stack of challah toast, lightly battered soft-shelled crab, and a fried egg whose yolk lent soft richness to the hard bite of the other two components.

Like so many dishes at Tarbell's, the crab sandwich spoke of a chef who considers not just flavor, but also mouthfeel when constructing food. I saw that consideration again in a side of slick sautéed mustard greens garnished with a crunch of wispy fried onions. And again in minuscule brioche croutons, which brought balance to a salad made of field greens and blanched seasonal vegetables, including beets and carrots, and drizzled with carrot-juice vinaigrette.

Then came the moment when Tarbell's really won me over, the moment that sent me into a reverie ruled by pure biology, rendering me unable to think about anything other than my animalistic need to consume what was in front of me, communicating pleasure in grunts. It was the moment when my first American Classic Five Napkin Burger arrived.

Not one, but two hefty beef patties oozed velvety meat juice across the pristine white plate. (I later begged Tarbell to tell me the source of that meat, but he would only divulge that he gets it from Wichita.) Those patties were coated in melted American cheese and topped with crunchy pickles; cool, pulpy tomatoes; crisp, icy lettuce and a tangy Special Sauce. And then everything was sandwiched between two halves of a toasty challah bun, which lent sweetness without obstructing flavor, and support without vastly increasing total density.

It's quite possible this was the best burger I'd ever tasted, simultaneously familiar and new, a perfect execution of an American favorite. I took each bite feverishly, as if I were having passionate sex in the car in the driveway because the moment was so charged that sloppily traipsing the extra 25 steps to the house was impossible. There was nothing for me to do but bury my face in that burger, embracing it fully with my eyes closed, moaning. It was carnal. It was unforgettable. (Tarbell says he eats the burger four times a week and it haunts him.) It was also impossible to eat without using the entire twine-tied bundle of five napkins that came with it, along with a side of pencil-thin shoestring fries.

There were some things I didn't love at Tarbell's. A side of broccoli was bathed in a chili-garlic sauce that reminded me of cheap, store-bought teriyaki. The wedge of watermelon drizzled with cool mint yogurt was refreshing, but since a full quarter of the fruit was presented on its curved side, it was hard to eat, with cut chunks slipping from the rind and sliding across the table like stray air-hockey pucks.

The service was inconsistent, too. Much of the front-of-the-house staff was excellent: backwaiters who kept water glasses full, managers who actively engaged with guests to ensure that everyone was having a good time, a bartender who not only mixed drinks well and quickly, but also outshone the servers with his deep knowledge of the menu and well-balanced wine list. (If it was his decision to keep reds stored at their proper temperature, slightly chilled, I applaud him for that, as well.) And one host, Jessica, had presence, grace and an ability to quickly adapt to the needs of each patron walking through the door; she could be one of the city's top hostesses. But I also experienced painfully slow service one night, and nothing makes a worse first impression than waiting ten minutes too long to order a drink; nothing makes a worse last impression than waiting ten minutes too long to receive a check. Except, perhaps, for a bad shot of espresso, its mediocre pull leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth after an otherwise exemplary meal.

Still, what's happening at the Streets at SouthGlenn makes me excited for where we're headed as a city, and for what great chefs can do when they learn from their mistakes and evolve. Because just like SouthGlenn, Tarbell has regrouped, rebuilt — and risen, triumphantly.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk