Like the rest of town, Cherry Creek is in the midst of a growth spurt, as steel supports etch the sky, giving structure to the mid-rises that are changing this part of the skyline. After a multi-year lull in which attention turned elsewhere, restaurateurs are once again moving into the area, with big-name SOL Cocina and Osaka Ramen and even bigger-name Matsuhisa just a few of the projected openings. Against this backdrop of the big, shiny and new, the Cherry Cricket — already a relic — is poised to feel even more like a time capsule, with its dark-green tables and neon beer signs, its dim, subterranean feel, and a menu that’s resisted the decade’s biggest dining trends of local, seasonal and organic.
Not that the Cricket never changes. It does. In its seventy-year-history, it has morphed from smoky bar to burger institution, consuming adjacent storefronts to grow into the warren-like beer-drinkers’, game-watchers’, everyone-is-welcome-here watering hole that it is today. It’s changed owners several times, too, and this past winter, Breckenridge-Wynkoop’s Daniel Ramirez, formerly of Gaetano’s, took the helm as kitchen manager. Was this a sign of a kitchen keeping up with the Joneses, albeit in Cricket fashion? Would price increases and Wagyu beef be next?
I had a taste for a burger, and decided to find out.
Sitting under what looks like an upended hockey rink, with darts flying in the alcove behind me, kids playing pinball and men straight out of wealth-management commercials downing beers next to guys with mussed hair and knit caps, I saw no inkling of the Joneses. Nowhere on the menu did I see shout-outs to local purveyors or mentions of house-ground or dry-aged beef. True, burger prices just went up a quarter and Ramirez has taken the daily specials up a notch, with the likes of garlic-breaded tilapia and a burger of the month. But the servers, apparently too habituated to the old ways of doing things, never mentioned the new stuff on any of my visits. I didn’t learn of them until I was back in my office, chatting on the phone with Kathy Huddleston, the amiable general manager who’s called the Cricket home for the better part of two decades.
Not that I would’ve ordered tilapia anyway. Like most people, I’d gone to the Cricket for a burger, and the one I got that day — eaten plain, since straight-up meat on a bun is the best test of a burger, just as margherita pizza is the truest test of a pie — was the same as ever, a replica of burgers we grew up eating, and therefore, wittingly or not, held up as a standard. More burgers on more nights followed suit, cooked to whatever temperature we’d ordered with dark grill marks, a dominant smoky taste, and a juiciness that hinted at the patties’ makeup of 80/20 ground chuck. Did I miss the brioche buns that have become such popular accents at other places, the dry-aged beef, the patties made with bacon that distinguish the best burgers elsewhere? Yes. But these are oranges and those are apples, and we all know better than to try to compare.
Even loaded with toppings from the list of thirty-plus options, the burgers were never too thick to get our mouths around, never so sloppy that they fell apart and required knives and forks — not even when the ten-year-old at our table put to the test the menu’s claim that the “best burger we make is the one you create!” With boyish gusto, he combined the grossest things he could think of: peanut butter, a fried egg, herbed cream cheese and blackened seasonings. “Do you think he’ll eat it?” we asked the server, who hadn’t missed a beat when scrawling down the order. “Oh, yeah,” he said, with a sideways grin to match his off-kilter driving cap. And he was right, probably because what came through most on that burger — as on all the others, including the green-chile cheeseburger that has nabbed a few Best of Denver awards — was a smokiness that comes from lava rocks under the grill. The beef itself is only seasoned with salt and pepper.
Some nights we chased our burgers with frings, a basket of onion rings and French fries that appeared as though they’d been dredged and fried, given the crispy buildup atop each fry. They’d actually been dusted with seasoned wheat and rice flours before their dip in the fryer, an odd maneuver that left us picking around the spuds to find the last remaining rings. Other nights we opted for the steak fries, wedges of deep-golden spuds cut thick enough that they had plenty of baked-potato flavor in every bite.
But we didn’t stop there. Though I didn’t order that tilapia, I did eat more off the menu than most folks do. I tried the farmer’s salad and the roasted-red-pepper hummus, as if front-loading with healthy stuff would negate the artery-clogging fare to follow. The former had an all-you-can-eat-salad-bar look, with cheese and so many eggs, peppers, olives, carrots, snap peas and tomatoes piled on top that ingredients rolled downhill and toppled off when the salad was delivered. The hummus, however, had too many things we didn’t want, including celery sticks (who eats celery sticks unless you’re on a diet?) and cold garlic cloves embedded in the orange dip, and not enough of the things we did want, such as salt, lemon and the oomph of tahini.
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The housemade green chili, with big hunks of pork, was a more appealing option than the white chili, with a weak chicken-stock base and a few too many shakes of cloves. The turkey-avocado club with thick slices of applewood-smoked bacon proved far better than the server’s highly recommended reuben, with soft, under-toasted bread and far too little Thousand Island and sauerkraut. The combo plate, part of a small section labeled “Hotter!,” was as much a throwback as the burgers, and just as pleasant if you grew up on mild-mannered Tex-Mex fare such as guacamole tostadas and bean-and-cheese burritos.
There’s a reason the Cricket is known for its burgers, a reason it sells up to 8,000 half- and quarter-pounders a week. And it’s the same reason that the Cricket will endure this cycle of growth, just as it’s endured every other cycle to hit Cherry Creek over the past seventy years.
Burgers here may not be the best in town, but they’re certainly not the worst. They taste the way you think they should, and in this changing world, it’s satisfying to find things that are like they used to be. As a bonus at the Cricket, that includes the decor and price point as well as what’s on the bun.
The Cherry Cricket
2641 East Second Avenue
Select menu items at the Cherry Cricket:
Roasted-red-pepper hummus $8
Farmer’s salad $8
Green chili $5/7
White chili $5/7
Steak fries $4
Cricket burger $7.75
Turkey-avocado club $8
Combo plate $9
The Cherry Cricket is open 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily (kitchen closes at midnight). Learn more at cherrycricket.com.