We recently served up our list of the ten best burgers in Denver, with the Ditka burger from Jimmy's Urban Bar & Grill in the top position. The burgers on that list ranged from simple and elegant — like those at Larkburger and Ste. Ellie, where the ground beef is the soloist belting out a meaty tune — to the knife-and-fork burgers that require bib while eating and a post-burger hose-down. The criteria for being one of the best burgers in town are nothing more than flavor, balance and fun — a burger is not serious food, after all. Along the way to coming up with our top ten, we encountered many near-misses and hot messes, several of which were memorable in their own way but fell short of the elite that made the list. Here are a few:
The Pastrami Burger at Spruce Tap House
2401 Blake Street
The Spruce opened last fall in the former home of the Blake Street Tavern (back when it served as the tap room for Denver deserter Flying Dog Brewing), specializing in smoked meats and a smart row of craft beers on tap. We were unable to track down the joint's pastrami burger (which isn't a regular item on the menu) before our 2015 Best of Denver issue hit the streets in late March, but eventually got to wrap our paws around one of the massive constructions. The reason for its rarity is that the Spruce's kitchen makes its own pastrami, a time-consuming process of curing, braising and smoking, so the pastrami burger only shows up for a couple of days every few weeks when the pastrami is ready. And it's good pastrami, too: shaved thin to top the burger with a fatty, salty pile of deli delight. Under the avalanche of cured brisket, a cheese-robed burger peeks out timidly, hoping to be noticed. While this is an excellent sandwich, the pastrami overload makes it less than a perfect burger — next time we'll just order a pastrami burger, hold the burger.
The Spruce Tap House also cooks up another wonderful meat: cowboy bacon. It's just like regular bacon, only the base meat is pork shoulder instead of belly, resulting in a more ham-like texture and flavor. You can get a taste of the shoulder bacon on the kitchen's cowboy BLT — but if you ask nicely, you might be able to finagle a couple of slices as a side (and then sneak them onto a regular cheeseburger).
The French Onion Burger at the Royal
4000 Tennyson Street
Restaurateur Josh Epps has already mastered the art of serving breakfast and brunch to Denverites with his two Jelly eateries; in December 2014, he also entered the burger fray with the Royal. Rather than towering monstrosities, this joint focuses mainly on tidy creations with a few upscale touches — a little fig jam here, a slab of burrata there. The French onion burger takes classic burger ingredients — onions and cheese — and attempts to coax out a little more flavor by cooking those onions low and slow until they're almost a sauce the color of burnished wood. Gruyere cheese is another smart choice, giving the burger an Alpine tang of aged cheese. It's a compact and pretty package that can be easily eaten with bare hands — no elbow gloves or wet wipes required. While it's a decent representation of the genre, the French onion burger lacks the seasoning at beef fat needed to rise to greatness. The subdued and genteel sandwich fits in well on Tennyson Street, though, which may be aspiring to join the ranks of a Denver dining destination neighborhood but is still a pretty sleepy stretch at lunchtime.
Two Freakish Burgers from Pile High Burgers
Pile High Burgers is an aptly named food truck that's been peddling its fried and beefy wares at brewery tap rooms and special events around town for less than a year. The name is dead-on, considering the stacking and packing that turn disparate ingredients into teetering Jenga burgers that threaten to fall apart at first bite. Pile High offers three burger categories — classic, adventurous and regionally inspired — or a build-your-own menu where you get to choose your meat (or vegetarian patty), "rub-down," bun, toppings and sauce. If that's too much to remember, handy sushi-style checklists are available. With so many options, we weren't content with a single selection; the Breakfast of Champions and the grilled cheese burger gave us more than we could handle. The first stacks thick-cut bacon, a fried egg, a whole hash-brown patty and a dollop of cream cheese between two halves of a brioche bun; the beef itself is smashed and griddled so that the edges are crisped and browned, almost blackened. Between the bacon, hash brown and seared beef, the burger has plenty of crunchy texture.
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The grilled cheese burger turns the top and bottom buns — along with two additional slices of white bread — into two fully formed grilled cheese sandwiches. Between those, the burger itself is treated in classic backyard fashion with just lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and mustard...to keep things simple, obviously. Both burgers pack a ton of flavor, but since the beef patties are smashed and seared hard, medium-well is really the only temperature option. And at a quarter-pound the meat comes out a little thin once smashed, and crumbles under the strain of the sandwich. Wacky and fun for sure, falling just short of ridiculous dare-food, the burgers lack the overall character to lift them to the top of the pile — but they're definitely worth seeking out to pair with a few local beers.