Before we went out to Denver for the annual CEDIA Expo, my wife presented me with an article she came across talking about Zagat's rankings of the best burgers of 2014 in selected cities across America. She pointed out the "Shroom's Luva's" burger with foie gras at the Highland Tap and Burger in Denver was named the best burger in that city and one of the top 15 in the nation. It should be - it costs $21 bucks. So on the first day we were in Denver for CEDIA, my colleagues and I made a trip over to Highland Tap and Burger to find out how good the other burgers were that they had on the menu.
Three partners in a popular Denver nightspot, Spill Lounge - Kevin Eddy, Kris Slocum and Brad Beale - looked for an business opportunity in the Highlands neighborhood of Denver. They asked their friend Juan Padro to come out from Massachusetts to talk about possibly doing an upscale burger place. Padro had experience in the restaurant business and he made the trek out to Denver to meet up with his friends.
They all ended up at the bar at a Mexican place in the Highlands called Aztec Sol and began to talk to the owner about possibly buying her out. Padro ended up going back to Massachusetts to discuss the possible investment in the new place and an inevitable move out to Colorado. His wife, Katie O'Shea, had a degree from Harvard and - after a stint as a financial analyst - she was teaching math to juveniles with behavioral problems (as in assaults, drugs and weapon possession). She was getting burned out on the teaching experience when Juan came back with the news of possibly moving to Denver to invest in the new restaurant venture with his friends. She was up for a change in scenery.
The group didn't hear anything from the owner at Aztec Sol for a couple three months and they thought the proposal was dead. However, in early 2010 the group got the call and the deal was on. Katie followed Juan out to Denver and became part of the investment and management group of the new venture.
Not only did the group buy out Aztec Sol, they also were able to take over a spot next door to their new restaurant effectively giving them double the space they thought they would have. They began work on the place in March of 2010, hired their chef Elijah Odell soon thereafter, and began to formulate ideas for food and worked with local Colorado breweries to come up with an eclectic list of beers for their customers to choose from. In September 2010, Highland Tap and Burger opened their doors with Juan and Katie running the day-to-day operations. (Juan and Katie are also major investors in Old Major, a restaurant not far from Highland Burger and Tap.)
It was less than a 10 minute drive from our downtown hotel over to Highland Burger and Tap. (see map) There is an outdoor patio in front of the place and it was full of diners. Inside the main entrance is the hostess stand and beyond that is the main bar area of the Highland Burger and Tap. The place was full - it was a Monday night and football was on TV. We were told that it would be a 15 to 20 minute wait to get a table for 12 of us.
The bar area was packed so it was difficult to get the attention of the bartenders to grab a beer before we were seated. Most of my colleagues milled about outside since it was a nice evening while I stood up toward the hostess stand waiting on the table for us. The hostess informed me that we would be seated in a couple minutes so I waved for my colleagues to join me. But the person who informed me that it would be a couple minutes must not have had a good grasp of time because it was still another 10 minutes before our table was ready. My colleagues were hungry, thirsty and a little testy when we finally got to the long table in the side dining room.
The first thing I did was to take a look through the Highland Tap's impressive beer menu. The beers on tap were overwhelmingly Colorado centric - nearly all the beers came from Colorado. (I'm sort of ambivalent when it comes to many Colorado microbrews.) And the list of beers in cans and bottles also was skewed toward more Colorado beers, but they also had an impressive list of imports and microbrews from places like Alaskan, Lagunitas and Boulevard brewing companies. I started off with a bottle of the Stone India Pale Ale.
Looking through the menu, there's more than just burgers on the menu. Highland Tap also features a pulled pork sandwich, as well as a barbecued pulled chicken sandwich. They also had beer-battered fish with chips, a black angus flat iron steak, and a Dunkel-poached German sausage plate. But we were there for the burgers.
They had a handful of signature burgers on the menu in addition to their award winning "Shroom's Luva" with the foie gras including the LoHi Luau burger that featured a Korean-style marinated burger patty with bacon, lettuce, tomato and Sriracha mayo. There was also a green-chili burger that was topped with Highland Tap's housemade green chili - a Colorado staple. And they also had a bison burger, a lamb burger and veggie burger for the health conscious.
Service was woefully slow for us - I don't know if it was a function of a large group or a waitress who was just in low gear. By the time we were ready to order food, our waitress was nowhere in sight. We finally got the attention of another server who found our waitress.
I started off by ordering a cup of the green chili. It was all right compared to other green chili's I've had around Denver over the years. It had a nice smokey flavor, but other than that it was pretty non-descript.
My colleague Todd - who grew up on Prince Edward Island in Canada - ordered the P.E.I. mussels that were steamed in White Rascal beer, a Belgian-style wheat beer from the Avery Brewing Company up the road in Boulder. Todd - who is a noted mussel snob - said that they were just, once again, all right.
I did a "Build-Your-Own" burger instead of stepping up to get the "Shroom's Luva" with the foie gras. You had your choice of a beef patty as well as a veggie, lamb or bison patty for an upcharge. Then you had a choice of a soft white or a wheat bun with an onion bun or a gluten-free bun available for an upcharge. Free toppings included five different types of cheese, onions, lettuce or tomato. And you could get toppings that included items such as Maytag Blue Cheese, Denver Bacon Company peach wood smoked bacon, or a fried egg for an upcharge.
I went with the regular burger with an onion bun, sweet red onions, pepper jack cheese and the Denver Bacon Co. bacon. The presentation looked promising with a thick burger patty. The burger was ordered medium and I would have to say that it was about as perfect to medium that you can get - a slight bit of pink in the middle. But there was somewhat of that "pizazz" that I was expecting missing from the burger. The bacon was thick and had a nice smoked taste to it, the pepper jack cheese was pretty timid and the onion bun was just all right. While it was a good burger, I guess I was expecting something more for the amount they charged for the burger.
My colleague Simon went with the tap burger that featured root-beer braised pulled pork on top of a burger patty with American and cheddar cheese with beer-battered onion rings. Simon told me that there were a lot of flavors going on with the burger and he said that it was pretty good.
Now, I have to say the highlight of the meal were the beer-battered onion rings - the batter was infused with pilsner beer. We ended up ordering about three more baskets for the table because they were so damned good.
My colleague Chris eschewed the burger route and went with the Kalbi grilled ahi tuna steak. The tuna was marinated in a Korean soy sauce (ganjang) and grilled lightly. It was topped with tempura crispy's and served with heirloom tomatoes and a Sriracha mayo dipping sauce. He said it was interesting - and good.
We had all finished and my boss was looking to pick up the tab that evening. We waited and waited and waited for our waitress to come back with the bill. Finally, I had to get up and go look for her. She was back toward the kitchen folding napkins and silverware. I told her that we needed our bill. It was another five minutes before she showed up at the table. There's no excuse for poor service like that at any restaurant.
While I had high hopes for the burger at Highland Tap and Burger, I have to say that I was disappointed for the quality versus the price. While it was a good burger, it was woefully overpriced for what I experienced. Everyone else in our party were equally unimpressed with the value of the food and we all left with a bad taste in our mouths with the level of service that was exhibited by the Highland Tap staff. While the food was above average, Highland Tap and Burger was not that good of a value compared to other burger places of equal standing that I've been to.