USA Today Travel, December 18th, 2014, Larry Olmsted
Larkburger: Building a better burger, Colorado-style
The scene: The national gourmet burger trend shows no sign of slowing: from celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay, Laurent Tourondel and Gordon Ramsay to chains like Shake Shack and Elevation Burger (both profiled in this column), the phenomena has quickly swept the world of fast-casual dining. With 13 locations in small towns and the state’s largest cities, Colorado’s Larkburger is clearly part of this movement, but puts its own unique and decidedly Rocky Mountain spin on the genre.
The original Larkburger, which opened in 2006, is in the Edwards Village Center open-air shopping mall in Edwards, just off I-70 between two major ski resorts, Vail and Beaver Creek. It is a sleek and modern take on the fast-food eatery. Surfaces are all gleaming white, stainless steel and blonde wood, which covers all the walls. There is a large flat-screen digital menu displayed over the counter, on a wood wall with a long rectangular cutout offering a glimpse into the open kitchen, which looks more a restaurant and less like a McDonald’s or Burger King.
This is no coincidence, since many things that normally come out of jars, cans or freezers are made from scratch here, including four different styles of mayonnaise. Diners eat at a mix of regular tables, booths and high-top bar-style tables, all covered with white tops, and modern, curvy wood and steel chairs or stools. The food is served in unmarked brown cardboard containers, the burgers wrapped in brown paper, and salads on heavyweight cardboard plates. The concept somehow marries a classic carhop or drive-in feel with contemporary flair, and everything about Larkburger is very warm and comfortable.
Reason to visit: Burgers, non-beef burgers, fries, shakes, salads
The food: The food at Larkburger is a noticeable step up from similarly positioned and priced competitors like Shake Shack. It is at the forefront of its fast-casual gourmet burger niche, and I expect that it will likely continue to expand, probably beyond Colorado. The formula for success here is close attention to detail from top to bottom, and the interesting result is a burger concept where the burgers do not take center stage. All the sandwiches, sides and alternatives vie for your attention, and in short, Larkburger is more a great restaurant than a great burger joint – though the burgers are excellent.
The entire concept is a spinoff of the beloved burger special at Vail’s Larkspur, one of the nation’s best known ski-town fine-dining eateries. After winning best burger in Vail for the fourth straight year, its owners decided to roll out a simpler and more accessible place to eat them. The chefs are formally trained in the classical French style, and one had a wife who was gluten-intolerant, and they brought all these elements to the burger game. As a result, they use high-quality, healthier ingredients, put a major emphasis on complex flavor profiles, and everything on the menu excluding the standard bun and the chili is gluten-free. No nuts are used in the restaurant at all, and both gluten-free and dairy-free buns are offered, along with a surprisingly popular alternative, burgers wrapped in lettuce instead of bread. If you haven’t tried this, it might be worth checking out, a vaguely Asian and very interesting texture contrast between the warm meat and crunchy lettuce.
All the ingredients are free of preservatives and additives, the generous third-of-a-pound patties are Certified Angus Beef, the fries hand-cut from Idaho russets and fried in canola oil – which is then recycled for use in automobiles. Wherever possible, ingredients are sourced locally, and they have one Colorado farm that grows tomatoes just for them. Even the soybeans used for the edamame side are domestic – they were originally listed as “Heartland Soybeans,” then switched to the better known Japanese name because diners were confused. The food tastes better thanks to these elaborate choices, but it also helps gives locally loved Larkburger a feel-good natural vibe that regulars from ski towns to Boulder appreciate. All the food packaging, from utensils to plastic cups to burger boxes and napkins are 100% biodegradable. Even the walls are made from reclaimed cypress wood.
But food is the main event. Most fast-food burgers emphasize not beef, but rather sugar, which has become the primary flavor in our take-out nation thanks to sugar-based ketchup, sugar-based “special sauce” and sweet pickles. In contrast, Larkburger returns to its owners’ French roots with sauces based on pepper (think steak au poivre), lemon and homemade mayonnaise, which tastes more like good garlic aioli – unless you opt for the wasabi, chipotle or truffle-flavored versions. Each sandwich is a specialty burger with carefully chosen components that go together, rather than the more typical model of letting diners mix and match ingredients, and are available cooked to four temperature grades, very unusual for fast food. The namesake Larkburger comes with lettuce, tomato, pickles and house sauce, to which cheese and/or bacon can be added. It is a very good burger, big, juicy and messy, but because they toast the bun – another signature “secret” touch borrowed from the love of grilled cheese sandwiches – it holds together well. I despise jarred mayonnaise in general, but the house sauce here is excellent, and as promised, the flavors integrate perfectly. All through the menu you find this mixture of fine dining and fast food, with an attention to detail unrivalled at this price point.
Myriad alternatives to the standard burger include versions made with turkey, portobello mushrooms, tuna from actual ahi steak with a delicious wasabi glaze, chicken which is heads and tails above any other fast-food grilled chicken sandwich I’ve tried, and a burger-less BLT served on the same tasty bun. There are also unique entrée salads you won’t see in other restaurants of this style, such as bibb lettuce and quinoa with chickpeas or baby kale with tamari-ginger vinaigrette. When you add optional tuna to the salads here you get chunks of rare grilled fish, not a sloppy mayo-based blend of canned shredded fish. The beefy chili side unusually adds Southwestern hominy, or dried corn kernels, to the beans, and is accompanied with delicious fluffy fried chips made out of masa (corn) flour rather than tortillas. The edamame side, simple but delicious, is fresh soybean pods tossed in flaky sea salt. The hand-cut fries are excellent, very thin and crispy yet still flexible, not stiff, an odd and nearly impossible combination of all my favorite fry characteristics. There really is not a weak spot on the menu, and with the possible exception of the decadent “Five Dollar Shake,” all of the food is very reasonably priced. Named for the shake in the film Pulp Fiction, it also comes in smaller versions from $3.50 and uses locally popular craft Boulder Ice Cream.
What regulars say: ”Wherever they go when they travel, my parents compare all burgers to Larkburger,” said Sara Lococo, a Colorado native who works for Vail Resorts and has eaten at Larkburger locations across the state.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: No, but one of the best fast-food experience you can try, period.
Rating: Extra-Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)