Where Fatburger failed on North Academy Boulevard, Crave Real Burgers has fired up its fryers, and with no shortage of highly strategic wackiness. We're talking about a modern orange space that offers donuts as bun halves; peanut butter as a burger topping; and bacon as a milkshake ingredient. A place where two people can effortlessly, post-tip (yes, there are waiters), spend $40 for a pair of burgers and shakes.
Just the type of place that inspired acerbic food guy Anthony Bourdain to proclaim in Medium Raw, "A good burger can be made more complicated, even more interesting by the addition of other ingredients ... but it will never be made better."
I don't personally bring a puritanism into burgerdom, but I do think flavor has to trump shock and awe.
Owner Jeff Richard opened the first, wildly successful Crave in Castle Rock in mid-2010, using the crew and ingredients of his 20-year-old fine dining outfit, The Old Stone Church, as a creative launch point. A New Orleans-raised, Culinary Institute of America-trained one-time intern of Emeril Lagasse, Richard says Crave's impetus came when he and his kids were driving around one day looking for a good burger and not finding one up to their standards.
"We watch Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Man v. Food and all those shows," Richard says, "and most of the restaurants those guys go to, they have one or two crazy things. ... I said, 'You know what, we could do 14 or 15 crazy things and make them affordable and good and gourmet.'"
Real big pink
True, $7 to $11 is steep as compared to an average fast-food burger, but in this era of often-misguided Kobe and Wagyu obsession, even Red Robin burgers hover in the $10 range.
And as for the flair: "You should taste the burger," says Richard. "You don't want it to be completely covered up ... every time you do a crazy burger, you still want to make sure that it is a hamburger."
Problem is, a couple of Crave's creations are almost unrecognizable. As big as they are, they fall apart after a bite — if you can even manage that before grabbing the provided fork and steak knife. Truly, these are the messiest and most napkin-killing (at least they're made from recycled paper) burgers I've ever seen, each coming with a house sauce that's 90 percent ketchup and 5 percent each mayo and mustard. Gone with moderation is texture.
The Cubano is perhaps the biggest perpetrator. Three separate cook stations are required to assemble a truly absurd, fried jalapeño-capped tower bearing breaded pork, chorizo, ham, hot dog, egg, avocado and other fixings. Squash as I did, I could barely take a bite that incorporated each element, leaving most mouthfuls disappointingly dominated by hot dog.
The Luther, bearer of the LaMar's glazed donut bun, also didn't work, the sugar being more contrarian than complementary. Would you order a bacon, onion, cheddar and egg donut at Krispy Kreme?
At least the peanut butter actually enhances the Nutty Professor, no surprise considering how peanut sauces shine in Asian cooking. At my server's suggestion — service is strong, with good menu guidance — I added extra jalapeños to the bacon, onion and jalapeños, which gifts a more full heat to the rich starchiness, while still allowing you to taste the burger. The Love Stinks, though a wet mess, also works, with a delicious red pepper aioli and garlic cream cheese combo.
Burgers, by the way, can be ordered "pink or no pink," and are house formed from 20-percent-fat ground chuck from Shamrock Foods. With the word "real" in Crave's name, it'd be nice to see grass-fed beef like at Pueblo's Bingo Burger. Richard says he'd have had to buy frozen meat for that, and didn't want to.
From the menu's "sandwich" section, the Colorado also suffered from topping domination, with chipotle mayo, soft avocado and melted pepper jack collaboratively overpowering pulled New Zealand lamb. The hoisin sauce-forward Dim Sum Daffy works better, with a ginger-garlic cream cheese also highlighting hunks of roasted duck.
Both regular (included) and sweet potato fries ($1 more) are crisp and satisfying, though you should eat them first if you opt to smother them in country gravy (not our favorite), red or green chile (best), or Philly cheese steak ($2-$3 more; meat overkill), as they soften quickly. Chip-size, buttermilk-soaked fried pickles ($4) served with a bright chipotle ranch dip are surprisingly wonderful, as is the $7 Amaretto "adult shake" whipped with caramel and praline-pecan ice cream.
Three regular shakes sampled (each $5) were less extraordinary. A vanilla-y Tres Leches Cake offers the odd experience of sucking actual cake bits through a straw. The Velvet Elvis is a banana-peanut butter bomb with bacon bits that somehow tastes more like bacon grease. (Hunka hunka huh?) And an abysmal Shakeyato (coffee ice cream and sauce, chocolate and caramel) tastes only like burnt Hershey's, with no coffee essence.
In short, Crave is a carnival with both good and bad rides. It's refreshingly playful, but doesn't do much to refute Bourdain's argument that the kitchen-sink approach to burgers isn't necessarily better.