Colorado residents love Colorado things: beers, bowls (of the skiable and smokeable variety), burgers. So when a favorite fast-food chain with a local pedigree gets bought out by a global corporation, folks around here take exception. And when a restaurant pulls a favorite burger from the menu — well, customers kind of flip out.
That's what happened last year, when Jollibee Foods Corp., a fast-food operator based in the Philippines, locked in full control of Smashburger after several years of slowly acquiring the company. Regional specials had been a big part of Smashburger's success since Tom Ryan and Rick Schaden launched the first location on South Colorado Boulevard in 2007, but those were on the chopping block. Sourcing ingredients in each city or state with a specialty burger adds to costs, and if Smashburger was looking to streamline, that kind of customer-focused perk is the first thing to go if it's not performing well.
At one time, you could stop by Smashburger in Las Vegas and get the Sin City Burger, overloaded with bacon, crispy onions and a fried egg. The NoLa Burger in New Orleans came with Creole mustard, Swiss cheese and a fried green tomato. Here in Denver, the Colorado Burger had a spicy edge, with a nest of "garlic fried" green chile, pepper Jack cheese and a chipotle bun.
"The biggest mistake you guys made was getting rid of a bunch of your signature burgers," lamented one fan on Smashburger's Facebook page. "Bring back the Colorado burger!" shouted another.
Despite Jollibee's ownership, Smashburger maintains its headquarters in Denver, and Ryan is still a major presence. The founder recognized that Smashburger fans were not only disappointed by the disappearance of the Colorado Burger, but had problems with the burgers that remained, complaining (among other things) that they'd shrunk. And Ryan took action.
"The much requested Colorado Smashburger returns by popular demand to all Colorado Smashburger menus," Ryan told us in an email sent earlier this month from the Philippines, where he was in the midst of meetings with JFC bigwigs. "This return is part of our 'Bigger, Bolder Menu,' which not only includes the return of the Colorado Smashburger, but also upsized burgers, a bigger, bolder Crispy Chicken sandwich and a return of a turkey burger option."
So sometimes the squeaky wheel does get the burger grease. "Since May, we have been contacted by countless customers in Colorado wanting the great taste of the Colorado Smashburger back on the menu," Ryan continued. "Coloradans' love of all things green chili can’t be denied."
Our curiosity was piqued (and our love of all things green chile is indeed boundless, even if we spell it a little differently than Ryan), so we were among the first in line at the Englewood Smashburger (at 3299 South Broadway) on October 15, when the Colorado Burger made its debut. About ten minutes after we placed our order, our reward was a sack of Colorado Burgers in various configurations: as a single burger (made with certified Angus beef), a fried-chicken sandwich and a vegetarian black bean burger. (We skipped the turkey burger on this run.)
Inspection of each sandwich revealed orange-tinted buns flecked with dark spots (which were surely bits of smoky chipotle peppers and not just burger remnants from the grill). Beneath the bun, julienned green chiles resembled something more akin to fajita veggies than typical roasted and peeled Hatch or Pueblo chiles. Cheddar and pepper Jack glued everything together, and a big dollop of mayo threatened to overwhelm the entire burger.
The burger patty itself was thoroughly cooked through to a uniform gray; blame modern health codes more than the cooks. But a nice mahogany crust, the selling point of a smashed burger, had formed during cooking, adding additional flavor. (Then-Westword critic Jason Sheehan named it "meat candy" soon after Smashburger debuted, and the name stuck around...and, in fact, is even printed on the takeout bags.) This crust was so dark that one of our taste-testers couldn't tell the difference between the standard beef patty and the black bean burger at first glance.
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The chipotle bun (despite its slightly clothy texture), the grilled chiles, the two cheeses and the other accoutrements (lettuce, tomatoes and mayo) came together nicely, with just enough heat to let you know that the recipe was conceived by someone living in the American West. Among our group who sampled the burgers, one said there was too much mayo, while another professed that you can never have too much mayo. The lone vegetarian among us was delighted by the black bean burger, noting that the bold seasoning and good texture held up well against the mound of toppings. He was also thrilled that Smashburger had opted to go with a housemade meatless patty instead of the dubious fake-meat burgers that other fast-food joints have recently embraced.
The Crispy Chicken was a pleasant surprise as well; while the white meat was a little on the dry side, the crunchy, flavorful coating made up for that shortcoming. And perhaps the prodigious application of mayonnaise also helped save the chicken.
At $5.99 for the single Colorado Burger (you can also get it as a double) and $7.99 for the Crispy Chicken, Smashburger's prices seem in line with the competition, which includes other fast-casual restaurants that offer something slightly above the true fast-food giants. You're never going to get a juicy, pink burger cooked to order at Smashburger; for that you'll need to stop in at your local tavern or a trendy burger bar and throw down two or three more dollars.
Ryan's influence on the "Bigger, Bolder" menu is evident: He holds a Ph.D. in flavor and fragrance chemistry, and has long been known for his secret-recipe spice blends and sauces. So while Smashburger is no longer a Colorado company, at least there's someone at the top looking out for Colorado tastes.