There are very few things that would lure me into a fast food restaurant, outside of a zombie apocalypse.
So I was surprised to find myself venturing into Colorado's very own Larkburger, a chain that sprang forth from the decidedly upscale Larkspur restaurant in Vail. I was even more surprised by what I found once I crossed the threshold.
The interior of Larkburger is open and airy. The menu is short and straightforward, carefully considered to provide variety on the usual burgers-and-fries theme. The food is fresh and tasty, and the menu and website boast that the fries are hand cut and all sauces and dressings are made in-house. The ingredients are impeccably fresh, and the vegetarians in the crowd won't be disappointed, either. Order at the counter, and your order will be delivered to your table in short order.
The restaurant is paneled in light, reclaimed wood and furnished in white and silver. The look is modern, clean and spare, although a little too cool for me. My eyes kept searching the room for a splash of color, a spark of something vivid or original.
There's a paradox at play here. The menu items I heard the most about were the ones I liked the least, while lesser known items were much better.
Case in point: The Larkburger ($5.95). This is a one-third pound burger topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and the house lemon-Dijon sauce. The burger was cooked to order, the sauce added a pleasant tang and the toppings were incredibly fresh. There's also an option for gluten-free buns with all the sandwiches. It was better than most fast-food burgers, but was due mostly to the toppings and not the burger itself.
But there are items on the menu that really shine. The Amy Burger ($6.50) would hold its own against any competitor. A big, juicy, roasted portabella mushroom is topped with lettuce, tomato, griddled onions and the house sauce. The mushroom is perfectly cooked, meaty and still firm.
The chicken burger ($6.50) is also a cut above the other burgers. You get a lot of adobo grilled chicken breast piled on the sandwich, along with the usual fresh veggies plus crispy fried jalapenos, chipotle sauce and fresh cilantro. This sandwich delivers bright flavor without too much heat.
The truffle & Parmesan fries ($3) cost a buck more than the regular version. I love truffle fries, but in this version, all I could taste was salt and cheese. The deep, earthy, mushroom-reminiscent flavor of truffle oil was absent, and most of the Parmesan fell to the bottom of the box, as if too much time had elapsed between the potatoes coming out of the fryer and the seasoning being added.
The Black Angus red chili ($5.75) was a very pleasant surprise. Black beans, red beans and hominy is nestled in a thick, red chili, which is deftly seasoned with garlic, onions and cumin. The heat level isn't high, but the flavor level is. The bowl comes with a few (not enough!) chewy masa chips tucked around the side of the dish, and a topping of fresh cilantro and chopped onion.
The Five Dollar Shake ($5 for 20 ounces) left me cold (pun intended). Flavors include vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, and you can also have two flavors combined in one shake. If your sweet tooth takes up your entire mouth, you'll probably enjoy the shake. It tastes like a combination of ice cream and milk. There's no oomph from chocolate syrup or fresh strawberries; nothing to give the shake depth of flavor.
Larkburger's best kept secret, though, is the salads. Skip the Caesar ($5.95), which is essentially romaine and some croutons. Yes, it's topped with a tangy yet balanced Caesar dressing, but it's still six bucks for a bowl of lettuce. Instead, get the baby kale salad ($5.95), which ranks as one of the best salads I've had in any kind of restaurant. A ton of baby kale is tossed with ribbons of carrot, thin and crunchy wheels of cucumber and radish and slivers of red onion. This is topped with a lively and surprising tamari-ginger vinaigrette.
The bibb & quinoa salad ($5.95) is another winner. Tender bibb lettuce is combined with cooked quinoa, carrot, cucumber, radish and red onions. It gets an additional protein and texture boost from chickpeas. This is served with the house vinaigrette, which is competent and not too heavy on the vinegar, but next time, I'd ask for the tamari-ginger instead.
Larkburger makes a big deal about environmental sustainability. When you deposit your trash, the container instructs you to separate it into recyclables and compostables. All the utensils are biodegradable, the utensils are made from corn and potato starch, and the canola oil in the kitchen is recycled as fuel. Do they really compost everything? Yes, through Colorado Springs Waste Management, which has an Organics Recycling program available to all area businesses.
But I wonder if there isn't a larger paradox here as well. With all the emphasis on fresh food and recycling-composting, the Larkburger website states they purchase their Angus beef from National Beef Packaging Co. in Kansas City. As such, it's grain-fed, feedlot processed beef, both of which are aspects of the beef industry with enormous environmental impacts.
Restaurant character: Airy, casual and friendly, Larkburger is nicer version of a fastfood restaurant. The menu isn't all encompassing, but there are plenty of good choices for carnivores and vegetarians, as well as every permutation in between. The emphasis is on freshness, and there are some excellent healthy choices you won't find anywhere else.
Rating total: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Food: 4 out of 5 stars
Ambiance: 3 out of 5 stars
Service: 4 out of 5 stars
Value for the money: 3 out of 5 stars
Address: 1904 Southgate Road
Contact: 466-6111, larkburger.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily
Credit cards: Yes
Vegetarian options: The Amy Burger, which is a portobello mushroom, $6.50
What's online as of July 30:
- 88 percent of 45 voters "liked it" on Urban Spoon
- 3.5 out of 5 stars based on 19 reviews on Yelp
- On Facebook; search "Larkburger"
- No violations were noted during a May, 2013 inspection by the El Paso County Health Department