Cafe Society

Denver's five best homegrown, fast-casual chains -- from Noodles to Chipotle

Fast-casual restaurants are taking over the world, one burrito, burger and bowl of pasta at a time, offering customers the convenience of quick-service joints and some of the atmosphere and ingredient quality of sit-down places. And given Colorado's casual lifestyle and entrepreneurial spirit, it's not surprising that this state has been the birthplace of some of the country's most popular -- and lucrative -- fast-casual concepts.

Here's our list of Colorado's top five homegrown chains -- and what customers love about them. The eateries may be fast-casual, but their fans' devotion is very, very serious.

See also: - Larkburger lands in Northglenn...with a new BLT sandwich - Smashburger offers many opportunities for delicious deviation - New summer salads at Noodles & Company: two outta three ain't bad

5. Noodles & Company This fast-casual pasta spot opened its first restaurant in Cherry Creek in the mid-1990s, offering noodle bowls in all colors and flavors of the savory rainbow. Today menu items range from mac and cheese with mushrooms and truffle oil to some really good sour cream, beefy Stroganoff to mildly spicy pad Thai. Noodles & Company is still privately held and has expanded to more than 250 locations nationwide, nabbing a fair share of consumer awards and attention along the way.

What customers love about Noodles & Company: Sure, people can boil pasta at home, but good sauces and toppings take some time -- an investment that, for a hungry person who just got done with work/yoga/book club/chasing their kids around a park, seems like a lifetime of waiting. Noodles is easy on the purse, the portion sizes are generous and the menu staple beef Stroganoff just as good as what you can make at home -- with zero percent of the time and effort.

4. Larkburger It all started with a burger and a world-class restaurant in Vail, sayeth Larkburger. Co-founder and chef Thomas Salamunovich has been involved in a formidable roster of Colorado fine-dining facilities, including Larkspur, where he invented the Larkburger. This damned delicious burger was so incredibly sought-after that Salamunovich built a sleek, innovative fast-casual restaurant around it. Today Larkburger is a chain that proves to people that a truffle burger with a side of Parmesan truffle fries isn't too much truffle at all.

What customers love about Larkburger: They adore the truffle-scented burger and they lust after the truffle fries. The seared tuna burger is as healthy as it is scrumptious. Larkburger also offers edamame as a side, and gives kids whole apples with every kid's meal -- guilt-free dining at its finest.

3. Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill Alon Mor had a vision of bringing quality, Mediterranean-style food to the U.S. in a fast-casual environment -- and he made this happen with fast growth, and some of the best babaghanoush in Colorado. Piping hot pitas are made from scratch and baked on site throughout the day in full view of customers; cool salads and sauces are made from fresh, whole vegetables and prepared each morning; there are no transfat oils in sight. Started in 2007, Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill currently has locations throughout the Denver metro area, as well as Colorado Springs, Boulder and Fort Collins areas, and is expanding quickly across the state -- and outside of it -- with more franchise stores in the works.

What customers love about Garbanzo: Lean, well-prepared proteins and a surfeit of seasoned, grilled vegetables -- some on skewers -- make customers feel like they are getting some serious quality grub for reasonable prices, with no muss, fuss, dirty dishes in their own sink. Garbanzo's fresh mint lemonade would take forever to make at home, and only a second to grab here. And watching the oven drop fresh pitas into a waiting basket is at least five minutes' worth of entertainment at no additional charge.

2. Smashburger Smashburger was founded in 2007 by Tom Ryan, a veteran of such fast-food chains as Pizza Hut, Long John Silver's and McDonald's. This fast-food wizard invented the McGriddle and the McFlurry, and since he started investing his genius in Smashburger, the chain has taken off fast. As of 2011 there were 100 locations nationwide, with current plans to double that number,. And in 2012, the first international Smash opened in Canada -- with more on the way. Why so popular? The actual smashed burgers, of course.

Smashburger was originally named IconBurger until the founders realized it would be better to have the name explain the process of how its burgers are cooked: They are smashed onto the grill. Or maybe Ryan just realized the first name sucked out loud. Either way, Smashburgers are huge, topped with fresh veggies and even green chiles, and there is a salted caramel shake on the dessert menu that puts the McFlurry right to shame.

What customers love about Smashburger: This place is full of pleasant surprises, and the company goes out of its way to provide regional specialties that cater to the tastes of the masses everywhere it's located. The Colorado Smashburger, for example, is loaded with grilled, fresh mild green chiles, melted cheddar cheese, pepper jack cheese, lettuce, tomato and mayo on a spicy chipotle bun.

1. Chipotle Mexican Grill Founded by Steve Ells when he opened his Chipotle on East Evans in 1993, this mega, meta, freshly-made burrito chain now has more than 1,000 locations across North America with a few in Europe -- and the rapid growth and massive popularity of Chipotle doesn't appear to be slowing down any time soon. Ells has been called the Steve Jobs of the fast-casual world, and Chipotle has become an industry model -- not just for its efficiency, but also for its emphasis on quality ingredients selected with a conscience. And its really, really good guacamole.

What customers love about Chipotle: The big, piping hot, foil-wrapped burritos filled with fresh veggies and braised carnitas or barbacoa, adobo-marinated and grilled chicken or steak, are just what folks would make at home if they had the time -- and lucky for them, Chipotle has all the time in the world.

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Jenn Wohletz
Contact: Jenn Wohletz