So many flippin’ burgers!

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Rustin Gudim/Aspen Times WeeklyThe J-Bar burger, long an Aspen favorite, has been joined by upscale burger creations and humble versions of the patty up and down the valley.

ASPEN – To the list of those who have made a dramatic impact on Aspen – Wheeler and Hyman, Paepckes and Benedicts – we now add the name of Danny Meyer.Meyer is a regular participant in the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen; a grandson of Joan and the late Irving Harris, whose name graces the Aspen Music Festival’s splendid concert hall; and a founder of the Big Aspen Barbecue Block Party that made its debut this past summer.None of which merits Meyer’s inclusion on the list of Aspen’s greats. But in 2004, Meyer, a noted New York restaurateur, added a burger stand, the Shake Shack, to his eatery empire. The old-fashioned, American burger experience – including fries and a shake – created a frenzy in New York and beyond. And now the ripple effect of Meyer’s core concept – the extraordinary power of the commonplace burger – has washed over the Roaring Fork Valley.Anyone with eyes – and an appetite – can see that burgers are having their moment.You can now get a burger in Aspen at a French bistro (Rustique) and at a French brasserie (Brexi). At La Cantina, you can bypass the enchiladas and carnitas and order a burger. This past summer, at Louis Swiss Pastry, a grill was set up outside the bakery on Fridays for the sole purpose of flipping burgers.The best fine-dining restaurant in town (Montagna at the Little Nell) has a burger on its lunch menu, and in the evening, on their bar menu. (And they don’t try to bury the existence of their burger under fancier dishes: When I called recently, the woman who answered cheerily informed me that theirs was the best burger in town – the same claim made by virtually every Aspen burger-maker.) Ajax Tavern, Montagna’s cousin restaurant, truly makes no bones about its burger; its double cheeseburger is their signature item.Syzygy does not offer a burger – but its sister restaurant, Ute City Bar and Grill, just upstairs from the upper-end Syzygy, has one on its bar menu.Mountain Naturals, a health-food store, recently added an all-organic burger to its offerings. Countering Mountain Naturals is Johnny McGuire’s, a sub shop famed for its “Health Food Sucks” slogan, which recently added burgers, in several varieties, presumably not organic, to its menu.The caf Peaches arrived earlier this year with a burger (available only on Thursdays) made of rib meat. The recently opened Silver Queen boasts a burger that is ground with bone marrow and served on pretzel bread made in-house. The soon-to-open BB’s Kitchen battles for high-end bragging rights; their burger will be stuffed with pork shoulder and served on a homemade English muffin, with aged Wisconsin cheddar.Fueling your ski day with a burger has been a staple of on-mountain dining since the days of wooden skis. But beginning this winter, visitors to the Ullrhof, on Snowmass Mountain, will have the burger-immersion experience, as the restaurant becomes a full-on burger-fries-and-shake joint.Of course, the old standbys haven’t gone anywhere. The J-Bar, Jimmy’s, Woody Creek Tavern, Boogie’s and Bentley’s still do much of their business on the back of the beef patty. Little Annie’s made a stand, both symbolic and substantive, when it lowered the price of its burger – by three bucks! – in response to the recession. Pitkin County Tavern similarly endeared itself to the local crowd when it not only took over the space vacated by the Double Dog Pub, but carried on the mighty popular Wednesday night burger special.The only thing, it seems, that can stand in the way of the ascension of the burger is the wrecking ball. Bad Billy’s is reportedly shutting down, as the building it occupies undergoes reconstruction. The way things are going here in Burgerville, it will be little surprise if “Bad” Billy Rieger himself didn’t set up a grill on the Cooper Avenue sidewalk to defend the restaurant’s Best Burger title, bestowed by readers in an Aspen Times poll earlier this year.••••All of which leaves unmentioned the real meaty news for the valley’s hamburger lovers: the opening of several honest-to-goodness, all-American burger joints, where the burger is the main course. The trend began quietly enough a year ago this month with Fatbelly Burgers, an ultra-modest spot – no tables inside, a menu limited to burgers, dogs, fries and shakes – opened on Main Street in Carbondale.”People said I was crazy,” said Shane Vetter, Fatbelly’s owner. “For the most part, the valley’s restaurants are pretty complicated. Simplicity doesn’t work in Aspen. They said it was too cheap, I couldn’t make money, and no one would come.”They were wrong on all three counts. Coinciding with the recession, a downright cheap option for eating out – a cheeseburger and fries at Fatbelly in Carbondale is around $6 – seemed like a stroke of genius. Though Vetter says he’ll never get rich off Fatbelly, he also says that his burger joint has turned a profit every day it has been operating, and there have been sufficient funds to put in a few outdoor tables.Lines out the door at Fatbelly have been common, and Vetter reports that at the height of the summer, his staff has flipped up to 500 burgers in a day.The burger-joint business has been booming of late. This past summer, 520 Grill replaced a noodle shop in a small, downstairs space in downtown Aspen. Last month it found itself with competition in CP Burger, which has been drawing crowds to a previously forlorn corner of town occupied by the Silver Circle Ice Rink. Two weeks ago, Fatbelly expanded – to a steady stream of curious customers – with Fatbelly Eats, a sit-down spot smack in the middle of Basalt.The success of the original Fatbelly – and of Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack, which has earned huge crowds and a huge reputation – might have something to do with the explosion. But perhaps no place in recession-gripped America was prime for cheaper food options than Aspen, which for decades had seen its restaurant scene soar almost exclusively toward the high-end.”There was definitely a need for a lower-priced meal to be had in Aspen,” said CP Burger’s Samantha Cordts-Pearce, who already owned Brexi, Lulu Wilson and the Wild Fig with her husband, Craig. “We wanted to appeal to everyone in this economy.””I’d been thinking about it a long time,” Anthony Smith, owner of Mountain Naturals, said, “but I didn’t need to do it because everything was going well with the economy. Then everything went to hell and I had to start thinking about everything I was doing in my life.””Times are tough,” Vetter added. “Simple amenities, simple pleasures, that’s what a lot of people are looking for.”Rough economic times are a major cause of the trend. The ground beef typically used to make burgers is cheap. In fact, the hamburger, according to Vetter, was originated during the Depression, when restaurant owners were reluctant to use whole pieces of meat to feed their employees, and were looking for inexpensive meals to offer diners.”It was made of scraps of beef,” said Vetter, who had cooked for years in New York Italian restaurants owned by relatives before opening Fatbelly. “You took the scraps, ground them up, threw it on a flat-top, slap it on a bun, put on a little cheese.” Vetter also notes the economy of time and human resources: a burger can be cooked in a matter of minutes by almost anyone.Economics, though, only partly explains the burger phenomenon, especially in the Roaring Fork Valley. Many local chefs are choosing the high road in their burger-making efforts, which raises their food costs. Fatbelly’s Vetter chose to go with grass-fed beef from a small, local supplier, as did the Ullrhof (along with all of the Aspen Skiing Company-owned on-mountain restaurants). Part of the reason Mountain Naturals added burgers to its menu was to spotlight the existence of organic beef from Delta County that could be made into a good-tasting $6.50 burger.This new batch of burgers, then, can credibly be pitched as healthful food – or at least several notches above fast-food fare.”People are getting comfortable with eating burgers knowing its healthy, it’s not just salt and sugar,” said Samantha Cordts-Pearce, adding that CP Burger uses a Colorado source for its beef. “It’s a comfortable feeling, coming into a fast, casual restaurant and feeling good about it, rather than feeling guilty. You look at this and you see what it is – it’s beef, it’s bread and it’s cheese.”••••There is another aspect of the burger’s public-image makeover, one just as unlikely as turning it into a plausible health food. Chefs have begun to treat the burger as something approaching high cuisine. At Silver Queen, Chef Jami Flatt’s burger, made from trimmings from locally raised steaks as well as bone marrow, is cooked in a cast-iron skillet and served on a pretzel bread made in-house, with caramelized onion-thyme jam. (The trail for such haute preparations seems to lead to Pat LaFrieda, a New York meat purveyor who, a few years ago, began chopping top-end steaks and selling it as burger meat to ambitious chefs.)”Burgers have been taken to a new level. Chefs like Laurent Tourondel [of the BLT chain] and Danny Meyer have a newfound interest,” Samantha Cordts-Pearce said.”Good is good. I don’t think burgers are low-class,” Vetter said. “I know chefs whose biggest guilty pleasure is a corn dog with mustard.”And I know people (myself, for one) who think there’s nothing greater than a cheeseburger and fries. A well-made cheeseburger can be the ultimate taste sensation when the gooeyness of the cheese, the juice of the beef, the sweetness of the ketchup and the texture of the bun come together.”A burger packs a big punch,” said Chef Mark Buley of BB’s Kitchen. “There’s a lot of flavor to it. And there are so many ways to make it unique.”Vetter, however, was wary that too much gussying up takes the authenticity out of the burger experience. He recalls his trips to the famed Brooklyn steakhouse Peter Luger, where he would order the burger off the bar menu – a burger that, though made from the trimmings of world-famous steaks, still sold for $8. “When you take the affordability out of it, you’ve done away with the idea of a hamburger,” he said. Interestingly, many chefs tie the rise of the burger to the move toward increased awareness in how our food is made and consumed. In this view, people are looking to local products and home-grown traditions as a grounding for our food culture. And what can be more American than the burger?”If you look back 10 years ago, you were seeing a lot of French and Italian influences in fine dining,” Buley said. “Now we’re going back and looking at American culture in the way we eat, and what we eat. Chefs are taking their training and applying it to American cuisine – meat loaf, fish ‘n’ chips.”The bottom line on the proliferation of burgers – from burger-joint patties to meticulously thought-out creations with bone marrow and pork shoulder – is that eaters love them. Especially now, in these lean times, burgers make a lot of sense.”We’re Americans. We like burgers and fries. That’s in our blood,” Vetter said. “If you can do a good burger and fries, people are easy to impress. They recognize a good burger.”The question is how long this lasts. Food in America has always run in cycles, and it may not be long before cutting-edge chefs start looking at menus around Aspen and realizing that a burger is not the way to distinguish yourself.”This burger thing has gotten out of control,” said Jim Butchart, the former executive chef at Ajax Tavern, and now the Skico’s executive chef – mountain division. “Maybe it’s just the fashion. Next thing you know, everyone’s going to be doing hot dogs and more hot dogs. Remember when paninis were the thing, and everyone was doing paninis?”