Buns on the Run

Denver is the cheeseburger capital of the nation: Burgertown, USA.

Yes, there are other cities that harbor their own singular burger geniuses, sleepy small towns in which freakish wild talents have set themselves along the path of greatness. There's Solly's Grille in Wisconsin, which serves upwards of three or four hundred butter burgers every day (a butter burger being just what it sounds like -- a burger topped with a dollop of butter). New Haven has Louis' Lunch, where the hamburger -- but not the cheeseburger -- may (or may not) have been invented in 1900. Schaller's in Rochester does one king-hell cheeseburger on a hard roll with a special hot sauce (made of ground beef and jellied fire, near as I can tell) that makes it unique among all hometown iterations on the beef-patty theme. And, of course, there will always be Tommy's Original World Famous in Los Angeles. There will always be In-N-Out and Duke's next to the Whisky A Go-Go, where I once had one of the greatest cheeseburgers of my life -- its ranking unnaturally inflated because I hadn't eaten in three days at the time and had just picked a fight with a guy I thought was Ben Affleck. Granted, it might not actually have been Ben Affleck. Considering the state I was in (into my second month of living in my car and bent in a whole variety of amusing ways), it might have been a parking meter -- a mistake anyone could make.

Regardless, Duke's made me a cheeseburger and an order of chili cheese fries I will remember for all my days, and that joint will still be famous long after that bastard Affleck has been reduced to doing third-rate reality shows and selling blood in North Hollywood to pay the rent on his one-bedroom bungalow in Rancho Cucamonga.

Man, I hate that guy. Even if he was just a parking meter.

Anyway, L.A. has some damn fine burger spots. And while the City of Angels may be the nostalgic front-runner in terms of that car-cult, drive-in, American Graffiti gestalt, Denver wins the burger-king title for sheer volume and dedication to the craft.

We have hundreds of burger places here, dozens of which have moved beyond mere goodness and are aspiring to that charmed high ground of super-cultural greatness, and a couple that have transcended even that plane and joined the ranks of the cheeseburger angels -- heavenly joints where a burger isn't just a burger, but a brief commune with something much larger.

On its best nights, the Cherry Cricket (see review) is right up there, its green-chile cheeseburger topped only by the one found out in the radioactive desert surrounding San Antonio, New Mexico, at the original Owl Bar. If it weren't for my weird obsession with Cold War ghost towns and nuclear zombies and that image of green-chile-scented mushroom clouds towering over the American Southwest, I might be tempted to say that the Cricket's green-chile burger is the Owl's equal. But maybe that's just because Cherry Creek is a whole lot closer to me now.

Denver also has Griff's at 742 South Broadway (and another one out in Arvada), which is my hands-down favorite survivor of the drive-thru burger wars. Unfortunately, when I reviewed Griff's ("Cheeseburgers in Paradise," October 2, 2003) the place caught fire and nearly burned to the ground the very next day. Coincidence? Probably. But now that it's been rebuilt, I'm not taking any chances. Let's just say I love it and leave it at that.

The Mile High City also has its various Burger Havens (Grandpa's, Jim's and Tami's), each keeping alive a piece of American burger history -- Jim's capturing the muscle-car-and-Little-League mystique of days gone by, Grandpa's keeping alive the drive-up, hole-in-the-wall shack concept. I have no idea where Tami's fits into the equation -- or into this burger-centric family -- but I recognize Jim's and Grandpa's as touchstones back to the golden age of the cheeseburger, missing links between the old urban masters and today's highly evolved fast-food excesses.

In Aurora, Johnny's Diner (2323 South Havana Street) covers that same cultural territory, filling its walls with the cast-off finery of the Eisenhower era and offering the cash-only, plastic-cafeteria-tray, counter-service model of fast-casual dining perfected in such places long before "fast-casual" was even a concept, before the term became a neo-capitalist catchphrase and selling point for such business deals as the McDonald's/Chipotle IPO. (Which, by the way, went public last week and saw Chipotle's share price double in just one day's trading.)

For pure, unadulterated cheeseburger asceticism (with just a dash of redneck, bike-trash swagger), there's Bud's Bar in Sedalia, the place I would offer the crown of Best Cheeseburger Anywhere were such a thing mine to give. Bud's is singular in its dedication, serving hamburgers, cheeseburgers, doubles of each and nothing else. For decades, Bud's has been selling cheeseburgers (along with beers and shots) to those who know the best when they stumble across it, and doing the same for people who couldn't care less about the best, serving neighbors and tourists and hunters and bikers and anyone who wanders in with the same brand of gruff pride. The last time I felt like a burger at Bud's, I went with my wife and mother-in-law and got thrown out. The joint was busy, the kitchen slammed, regulars waiting -- and when I made the mistake of requesting something to go, I was curtly dismissed. I was fine with that -- tough love and all -- but Laura has yet to forgive them.

Lest we forget, the cheeseburger was invented here.

Or, if not exactly invented, at least conceived here. And if not conceived, at least patented -- which gives us the right to tell all those other people to fuck the hell off when they start claiming that the notion of slapping some cheese down on a piece of ground cow originated in whatever benighted, half-assed backwater they're from. We've got the paperwork (filed by local drive-in owner Louis Ballast in 1935) and we've got the plaque (at 2776 North Speer, the site of Ballast's old restaurant), so we win.

Denver might not have the best football team this year. We might be mocked by red-staters for being in such close proximity to Boulder and mocked by blue-staters for being a red state, and our chefs and restaurants might not get the kind of love they deserve from people who still think we have to check our coonskin caps at the door and keep cows as pets. But we are Burgertown, USA. No question.

And you gotta be proud of what you got.

Leftovers: When the Tattered Cover leaves Cherry Creek, it will close the book on the Fourth Story, too; the last day of service there should be some time in late May or June. And while I can't in good conscience say that I'm sad to see the restaurant go (too many bad meals, too much drama), its departure will open up one wicked space for a restaurateur with plenty of green.

It will also be a break for manager/executive chef Tim Opiel, who is looking at "officially retiring from the restaurant business" after 26 years in the industry. While the announcement of the Fourth Story's inevitable closure came "a lot quicker than what we'd anticipated," Opiel tells me, the restaurant plans to keep serving until the end. "We'd like to use this as a time to celebrate the ten years Fourth Story has been here," he adds.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan