When the pandemic hit, Branz was working at Ultreia (where he is still a managing partner), the Union Station tapas restaurant from the Crafted Concepts restaurant group he'd been with for twelve years. Faced with the challenge of a vacant downtown and the fact that to-go tapas was not a viable concept, Branz scrambled to figure out what to do. "I just got a bit beat down," he remembers, "and I was like, 'I just want to hang out with my friends and eat fried chicken.'"
So then he, along with Jessica Richter, also a managing partner at Ultreia, and David Wright, who previously did all the paella catering for the restaurant, decided to do just that. The trio's first pop-up at Diebolt Brewing in July 2020 was a hit. "The reception was so strong, and the cult following happened almost immediately," Branz recalls. "We had to take it much more seriously than we were."
The idea evolved quickly, as did the menu. Branz, Richter and Wright began serving Nashville hot chicken and another, lesser-known specialty from the South, slugburgers, on the Ultreia patio on Thursdays. Invented in Mississippi in 1917, the slugburger is made with ground beef or pork, plus filler — originally potato flakes and flour and, later, soybean meal. Split Lip makes its slugburgers with premium beef and breadcrumbs.
The inspiration for the Split Lip menu stemmed from the team's roots. Branz is from St. Louis but spent a lot of time in Nashville, and Wright hails from Mississippi. Richter is also a transplant, originally from Florida. "It's a celebration of hyper-regionality in a city where everybody is a transplant," Branz explains of the group's approach to menu-building.
"I'm a huge fan of the word 'craveable,' and especially when you're down, like we all were, craveable dishes just kind of pop back into your mind," Branz explains. Following the pop-up's initial success, the team committed to expanding Split Lip.
Over at Number Thirty Eight, chef Merlin Verrier's Street Feud had been occupying the food stalls since the food and music venue opened in October 2020. But with Verrier planning a move to a new location, there was a vacancy. "We call ourselves a punk-rock pop-up concept," Brantz notes. "We've always been driven by country music, Dolly Parton, bands like the Gorilla Biscuits and some more grungy punk stuff. So this being a music hall, we kind of vibed over that theme."
The move to Number Thirty Eight also gave Split Lip the opportunity to expand its menu. "What the three of us are trying to do is tell stories alongside these dishes," Branz says. "That's kind of our rule, that is has to be an American dish and it has to have an interesting story."
The new menu includes snacks like Koolickles (Kool-Aid soaked pickles), boiled peanuts and corn ribs with hot honey butter. Two salads are joining the lineup: the Mama Tried (as in "she tried to serve us healthy salad and didn't succeed," Branz explains), a traditional buffet-style salad loaded with French fries on top; and the Papa Lied, a deceptively healthy take on a Cobb salad.
While the team wants to add bone-in fried chicken to the menu soon, it will launch with a grilled or fried hot chicken (or mushroom for a vegan option) sandwich along with a bologna and cheese and pimento grilled cheese made with green chiles, a nod to Colorado.
The signature slugburger will be sticking around, too, along with a Wisconsin butter burger, Oklahoma fried-onion burger and the Montana nut sack: four loose-meat nut sliders.
"We look at everything through a chef's lens," Branz says, so enhanced touches are added to elevate the traditional recipes. For example, he notes, "while having butter on a burger is good, we wanted it to be a little more complex, so we do a sweet corn compound butter with a little bit of Tabasco for some tangy-ness."
On weekends, brunch items will be available, including barbecue shrimp and grits, Taylor ham roll, a cinnamon roll Dutch baby and fried chicken and funnel cakes.
"It's been really fun," Branz says of coming up with new menu items. "David's got such a good mind for food...it's been a really collaborative effort on the dishes. We start with something simple and ask, 'What are we going to do differently?'"
The Split Lip team is also thinking beyond Number Thirty Eight. "We want multiple locations around Colorado," Branz concludes. "We're all transplants, but we love being here. We want this to be a home base, but we want to take this as far as we can."
Starting September 30, Split Lip will be open from 4 to 11 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Number Thirty Eight, 3560 Chestnut Place. For more information, visit splitlipeatplace.com.