The first time a plate was set before me at Crave Real Burgers, I nearly choked.
I was sitting at the brightly lit bar that faces the open kitchen, surrounded by the din of a busy dinner service and sucking down a mint chocolate chip milkshake. But when I got a look at my own dinner, I was so surprised that I inhaled a chocolate chip and started sputtering.
My burger, dubbed the Cubano, was comically monstrous, somewhere between six and eight inches in both height and circumference, stacked with slices of fried ham, a splayed sausage that the menu described as chorizo but more closely resembled a hot dog, a slab of battered and fried pork, a gooey egg, a wad of cheese, a flood of chipotle aioli and a couple of slices of avocado and tomato — you know, for good measure. I practically had to unhinge my jaw to take a bite, and as I gnawed at the pile of pork and cheese, smearing my face with grease, the tart-spicy sauce blended with the egg yolk and oozed out the back of the soft, buttery bun. It was a sloppy, delicious mess — but where, exactly, was the burger?
I stopped chewing long enough to do some excavation work, and found the quarter-pound patty buried under all the other accoutrements. This was a burger in which the burger had been relegated to a supporting role.
There are many accounts of how the hamburger evolved in this country, but it most likely got its start with German immigrants, who brought the Hamburg steak — low-quality meat heavily seasoned to hide flaws — across the Atlantic with them. The invention of the meat grinder allowed that beef to be turned into patties. The term "hamburger" appeared as early as 1826, at Delmonico's in New York — though that could have described the Hamburg steak — and ground-beef patties were sold at the World Fair in St. Louis in 1904. The Library of Congress credits a Connecticut joint with serving the first burger, dating it to 1895, although other sources place the origin in Tulsa, New York and Akron, Ohio. Regardless, by the mid-twentieth century, the hamburger was ubiquitous, and since that time, it hasn't changed much — but what tops it certainly has.
More Photos: "Colorado Burger Porn" at Crave Real Burgers.
Jeff Richard, the chef/owner of the Old Stone Church, a New American eatery in Castle Rock, loves old American food, too, and a few years ago, he started putting together plans for a burger joint. While continuing to run the Old Stone Church, he leased a strip-mall spot near the Castle Rock shopping outlets, building out a hip, modern take on the lunch-counter concept, using blond woods, metal and a healthy shot of vibrant orange on the traditional bar and booth elements. This reimagined classic American diner would also feature a reimagined diner staple: the burger, using the traditional ground-beef patty as the foundation of another dish entirely. The Wing, for example, adds all the elements of hot wings, including crispy chicken, to that base. The Dim Sum Daffy is stacked with roasted duck, hoison and wontons. There's so much to crave on some of these combos that you can skip the burger altogether, simply ordering them as sandwiches.
The all-American Crave opened on July 4, 2010, and was such a hit that a second store will open in Colorado Springs this fall. Every time I've stopped by — whether at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night or noon on a Sunday — Crave has been running a wait. After my first dinner at the bar, I returned with friends.We fought the crowd and grabbed a table in the narrow dining room, where the casual, energetic staff had no qualms about yelling to each other over the din, seeming to thrive in the organized chaos. We perused the beer choices, but the best drinks at Crave are the milkshakes; like the burgers, they've been given a makeover and are offered in such variations as peanut butter, bacon and banana, and can be spiked with alcohol. We shouted out our food and drink orders over the pandemonium. Despite the crush, our food came out quickly — saving us from the ice cream headaches we seemed determined to give ourselves.
Because it seemed like the best idea ever when I'd spied it on the menu, I'd coerced one of my friends into ordering the Luther burger, a heart-stopping combination of bacon, egg, cheddar and bacon all served between a couple of glazed LaMar's doughnuts. But the reality didn't live up to my imagination. I'd expected the savory filling to offset the doughnuts, but the sweet pastry overpowered everything — including a bone-dry, overcooked burger. I'd gone with the Slopper, Crave's version of a Pueblo creation that traditionally features an open-faced cheeseburger completely smothered with chile. This one subbed a grilled cheese sandwich for the bun, stacked a cheese-covered patty on top of that, then added onions, tomatoes, more cheese, poblano peppers and a dollop of sour cream before drowning everything in what was allegedly green chile — but tasted like thick gravy with no suggestion of heat.
The Dim Sum Daffy was better, if odder, with ginger-garlic cream cheese playing off the plummy hoisin, and crunchy wonton adding a good texture between strands of roasted duck and the burger itself. But I liked my friend's Plain Jane best of all. A soft challah bun had been topped by a medium-rare patty — proof that the kitchen can grill — draped with a couple of slices of American cheese, then topped with lettuce, tomato and onion, as well as a squirt of Crave's tangy homemade ketchup. Served with a pile of Crave's crisp, perfectly salted fries — or, better yet, the sweet-potato fries — the Plain Jane was a great burger, even if it didn't have the flash of the rest of the menu's offerings.
And I couldn't resist returning to Crave to try another one of those flashy combinations. I grabbed a seat at the bar, ordered another killer milkshake, and waited for the Nutty Professor. It turned out to be my favorite burger so far. The patty — again cooked an ideal medium-rare — had been smeared with salty-sweet peanut butter and then topped with spicy jalapeños and crisp, smoky bacon, all of which enhanced the juicy tang of the meat. Not only did the crazy combination of ingredients work, but it showed that you can improve on a classic. I felt like I'd finally gotten what I'd hoped to find at Crave: a burger truly worth craving.
More Photos: "Colorado Burger Porn" at Crave Real Burgers.