After my disastrous meals at Beaucoup Burrito, I thought it might be helpful to list for its owners, employees and customers six local fast-casual concepts that actually work. They are, in no particular order:
Chipotle: Founder Steve Ells gets credit for inventing the entire fast-casual concept at his now-ubiquitous burrito chain. And while there might be some argument among culinary historians as to whether Ells was actually inventing anything or just codifying a style that had already been in practice forever, there's no argument that he has done it better than anyone else. (That's a Chipotle burrito in the works above, from our Chipotle slide show.)
Tokyo Joe's: Noodle bowls, rice bowls and a little bit of sushi. Fast-casual with an Asian twist, from local boy Larry Leith.
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Pho Fusion: Still just one location (at 8800 East Hampden Avenue), but I've been saying forever that Pho Fusion--with its Vietnamese and Chinese grub and completely authentic kitchen--is going to be the next big fast-casual breakout. One of these years I'm going to be right.
Smashburger: Fast casual burgers. Confusing at first (so many options, so many choices to juggle while standing at the counter), but it grows on you quickly. Also, the burgers are awesome--smashed down on the grill so that the squeezed-out juices caramelize into a bishop's collar of meat candy.
Noodles & Company: Want noodles. Order noodles. Eat noodles. It's as simple as that. I want to hate this outfit, a Denver-based company that now has more than a hundred outlets. I really do. But then I get a craving and just have to have another bowl of that delicious beef stroganoff. Noodles is not the strongest of the bunch, but it works because it manages to free itself from the one-thing/one-culture trap that seems to tie down so many of the other fast-casual operations.
Bones: Fast-casual gone upscale, the Japanese noodle bar gone global. It ain't fast-casual the way Chipotle is, necessarily, but Frank Bonanno's new joint has all the elements: the counter, the fast turnaround, the low price-tag and the line out the door. The only difference is, rather than big burritos or cheeseburgers, Bones is dishing out suckling pig steamed buns, roasted bone marrow, escargot dumplings, soba noodle bowls with prawn and ponzu and soft-serve ice cream. If Denver is the home of the fast-casual concept, then Bones is the wild and high-end fever-dream of its most enthusiastic and crazy supporters.