Out in Denver for a trade show last fall, I was talking with a dealer from the area about good burger places. If you're a regular reader of Road Tips, you'll know that my all-time favorite burger place - anywhere - is the Cherry Cricket in Denver. (Click here to read a Road Tips entry on the Cherry Cricket. Unfortunately, the Cherry Cricket suffered a kitchen fire toward the end of November last year and has since been shut down for remodeling.) The dealer told me, "Yeah, the Cricket is good, but for my money the best burger in Denver right now is TAG Burger Bar." I made a mental note of that and the next evening I ended up going to TAG Burger Bar to see if the burger was as good as he said it was.
TAG is an acronym of the owner's initials - Troy A. Guard. Guard was born in Hawaii and raised there and in San Diego where he loved to cook and barbecue with his father. While in college, he got his first restaurant job at the famous La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, CA. After college, Guard went to Hawaii to work for famed Hawaiian/Pacific Rim-fusion chef Roy Yamaguchi. Under Yamaguchi, Guard learned to make dishes with fresh fish and locally grown ingredients, all the while working with and learning from guest chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Bradley Ogden and Michael Mina who would stop by to visit Yamaguchi at his famous Roy's restaurant in Honolulu.
Within four years, Guard was Yamaguchi's right-hand man helping open and overseeing a handful of Yamaguchi's restaurants in Asia. After working for Yamaguchi for eight years, Guard decided to spread his culinary wings and seek other challenges. Guard moved to New York City to become the executive chef at the highly acclaimed Tao Asian restaurant.
Pictured right - Troy Guard. Photo courtesy Zagat.
The frenetic pace in the kitchen at Tao allowed Guard to learn how to work with a large staff and that enabled him to eventually move to Singapore to become the chef de cuisine at the internationally famous (and now closed) Doc Cheng's. While at Doc Cheng's, Guard met Richard Sandoval, the famed Mexican-fusion restaurateur who was in the midst of opening new restaurant concepts in the United States. Sandoval convinced Guard to move back to the U.S. and Denver to help him open a Latin-Asian fusion restaurant Zengo.
After getting Zengo up and running, Guard left there to work at other restaurants in Denver, most notably Ocean and the now-closed nine75. Guard wanted to control his own restaurant destiny and in 2009 he opened his first restaurant - TAG - along with his wife of five years Leigh Sullivan. The two opened a second restaurant - TAG Raw Bar (later called Bubu) - in 2011. (Later in 2011, Guard split from Sullivan who divested herself from the TAG restaurants as part of their divorce.)
From there, Guard has been a busy man over the past few years. In addition to the TAG restaurants, he opened Los Chingones, a Mexican-inspired restaurant; Sugarmill, a dessert bar for people with a sweet tooth day and night; Guard and Grace, a steakhouse named after one of his two daughters; and in 2014 he opened TAG Burger Bar in the former Madison Street Grill that Guard ran in Denver's Congress Park neighborhood. (A second TAG Burger Bar opened in the Highlands neighborhood of Denver in early 2016, but it closed down about six months later with Guard vowing to reopen a second location at a more desirable location in 2017.) In all, Guard now runs 13 restaurants in the greater Denver area.
On a Saturday night after the show ended for the day, a large group of us were relaxing having some drinks at our hotel in the Tech Center area of Denver discussing dinner plans. I didn't want to go out with such a large group - 15 of us in total - because our sales manager always wants us to sit together. It's pointless to try to participate with conversations all over a large table, especially in a large group, and I always argue that we should break up into smaller groups of four as service usually suffers with a large group at a table, as well. Well, nope, I got out-voted on that idea - again. Finally, I just said, "Screw it. I'm going to go find TAG Burger Bar and get a burger." I invited anyone who wanted to go with me to fall in. No one did. I was perfectly fine with that. I eat by myself on the road all the time. (It turned out that they went to a steakhouse near the hotel and they didn't get their food served until after 10 p.m. when most of the patrons had left the restaurant. "You were right, man," one of my colleagues who went with the large group texted me later that evening. "Service sucks here. I should have gone with you.")
It was about a 15 minute drive from the hotel to TAG Burger Bar located at the corner of Madison and E. 12th Street. (see map) For a Saturday night after 8 p.m., I was sort of surprised that I was able to get in and grab a small booth off to the side of the nifty little bar area in the place. I was given a menu when I sat down.
TAG Burger Bar was a quaint, cozy little place. There was a long community table in front of the bar that took up the bulk of the dining space near the bar. But there were a number of tables and booths in the place for those who didn't want to sit at the long community table. The low ceiling to the place gave it an intimate feeling.
My server for the evening was Marc, an out-going young man who asked me if I had ever been to TAG Burger Bar before. He gave me a short lesson on the drill of ordering burgers - you pick what you want your burger to be (Black Angus beef, bison, turkey, salmon or a veggie burger); then your bun (an artisan bun from the Bluepoint Bakery in Denver, a lettuce wrap, or a gluten-free bun); then the choices escalate.
The "Old School" burger was topped with American cheese, grilled onions, and a house-made sauce; while the "Congress Park" was topped with guacamole and a spicy mayo sauce. The "Lady Gaga" featured toppings such as whipped mozzarella cheese, basil pesto, grilled red onions and balsamic vinegar. The "Truffle Shuffle" had mushrooms, Swiss cheese, a truffle aioli, and parmesan truffle chips on it. And the "Blind in Texas" burger was topped with chile-rubbed onion straws, aged cheddar cheese, applewood smoked bacon, and a smoky chipotle barbecue sauce. But the one that seemed to be the king of the menu was the "Andrew Jackson" - sliced prime rib, topped with pepper jack, fried avocado, grilled onions, a fried egg, applewood smoked bacon, and sautéed mushrooms, and it came with a side of porcini parmesan-dusted fries.
Marc - who was overly helpful and pleasant all evening long (he probably felt sorry for me since I was dining alone on a Saturday night) - then showed me the bottom of the menu where you can build your own burger with choices of eight different types of cheese, and then additional toppings (for a small fee) such as the applewood smoked bacon, a fried egg, sautéed mushrooms, either guacamole or avocado slices, and grilled onions. Even though some of the specialty burgers sounded interesting, I ended up building my own.
I got a Black Angus burger topped with green chiles, sautéed mushrooms, Swiss cheese and the applewood smoked bacon. Marc told me that all their burgers came with tomato and lettuce and I could either get it on the burger or on the side. I opted for the veggies to come on the side. I also got a side of the green chile-cheese fries. ("Excellent choice," Marc said when I ordered the green chile-cheese fries.)
For beer that evening, I ended up getting the Melvin IPA, one of the many interesting beers they had to offer at TAG Burger Bar. I had never had a Melvin beer before whose brewery is located up in Jackson, Wyoming. It was a good beer.
The burger was - well - it was very good. Was it as good as the ones at the Cherry Cricket? I didn't think so, but it certainly gave the Cricket burgers a run for their money. The beef was juicy and flavorful, the sautéed mushrooms and the green chiles were a great topping on the burger, the bacon was a nice touch, but almost overpowering in taste, and the Swiss cheese was thick and oozing off the burger. The bun held together very well with all that was going on with this multiple napkin burger that I was eating.
The green chile-cheese fries were definitely an artery-hardener. But they were absolutely delicious. They were very rich and while I didn't clean the whole plate, I made a significant dent in the pile of fries. I probably ate more than I wanted to.
Denver is a burger town with some very good burger places. I've eaten at most of the places that the locals have told me had good burgers and while I'm still partial the the burgers at Cherry Cricket, I would say the burger I had at TAG Burger Bar was nearly as good as a Cricket burger. I liked everything about TAG Burger Bar - the atmosphere was cozy and laid-back, Marc's service was wonderful making me feel comfortable and welcome as a lone diner on a Saturday night (I probably undertipped him for as good of service that he provided that evening), and the burgers were top-notch. While the Cricket is shut down for renovations after their fire, I'd have to say that TAG Burger Bar could be the best burger in Denver for the moment.