Hitting the Road: Bison and Elk Burgers in Estes Park, Colorado
Last week we hit the road in Cheyenne, Wyoming to check out the state’s annual Frontier Days celebration. After a brief (but busy) stay in Cheyenne, I packed up my bags and headed south towards Colorado’s beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park. Having already toured Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, and Waterton (CA) National Parks at one point or another during my life, I have to admit that I didn’t think I’d be blown away by the natural beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park. As usual though, nature, in all her wonders, pleasantly surprised me.
As much as I’d love to bore you with some transcendental sonnet on the ability of the Park’s natural beauty to uplift my traveling soul or some such, this is a food blog and I did do some eating once in Estes Park, a quaint yet touristy town adjacent to the National Park. While I sampled the best Estes has to offer in coffee, ice cream, and Italian food, I did make sure that I took full advantage of the cornucopia of ground Buffalo and Elk offerings available. Now, loyal GrubGrade readers will remember that I’m no stranger when it comes to Buffalo and Elk Burgers. I’ve sampled Elk at a popular Utah burger joint featured on “Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives,” while I’ve had Bison/Buffalo Burgers from dozens of locations in both the interior west and mid-Atlantic (actually, one of my favorites can be found at Clyde’s of Columbia in Maryland.) So it goes without saying that this was no “touristy” impulse on my part, and instead should be viewed as calculated critique of both the quality of the meat used and the cooking process employed. Before we get to the reviews, however, an obligatory shot of the Hotel I stayed in, the infamous Stanley of The Shining fame:
The Wild Rose (Elk Burger): This restaurant is located in downtown Estes Park and has an “old world” European feel to it, despite the fact that they do offer a host of what we’d think of as distinctly Western and American dishes. The dining room itself was somewhat tacky, while the service was, well, trying. My family and I ended up waiting around between everything…the seat, the drinks, the ordering, the meal, the check…basically, it was a lot of waiting around as literally one frantic waiter (backed up by one or two bus boys) dealt with both us and the other, somewhat more noticeably annoyed, patrons. Turns out that that waiter also serves as the host and – get this- the chef! For as understaffed as he seemed to be, I give chef Hubert “Hubi” Felden credit. Knowing that we probably we’re annoyed with the service, he kindly offered us a basket of fresh sourdough bread, and allowed us to help ourselves to the salad bar at no extra charge. I ended up ordering the Wild Rose’s Elk Burger, which is described as a “grilled 1/3 pound lean ground elk patty served with bacon on a sesame seed bun with lettuce, tomato and onion slices.”
I opted out of the bacon choice, but have to say that this burger was spot on and well cooked. While he didn’t ask how I wanted my burger, chef Felden cooked it just right to a medium temperature, although considering that I didn’t see any grill marks I presume it was “grilled” over a flat top. The burger was incredibly moist and juicy, and seemed to be anything but “lean.” That was more than OK with me though, as the Elk displayed a subtle sweetness that tasted somewhat reminiscent of ground sirloin, except without the dryness that sirloin is often plagued with. It wasn’t gamy at all, and having experienced ground Elk at the famous “Burger Bar” outside of Ogden, Utah, I could tell that this was considerably better meat. I thought it well seasoned, and well sized for its advertised 1/3-lb description. My only complaint was that is was greasier than I would have liked, but me being a typically “lean meat” eater this particular point is open to interpretation.
Lonigan’s Bar (Buffalo Burger): I stopped by Lonigan’s on my last night in Estes thanks to a tip from the girl at the coffee shop earlier that day. She said she thought they had the best Buffalo Burger in town, and despite being a small, live music bar, she still suggested that I check them out for dinner. I already had reservations at a fancy Italian place with my family for that night, but I took one for the team (so to speak) and swung by Lonigan’s for a little pre-game eating. The great thing about Lonigan’s is that the burgers are actually char-grilled, as opposed to being cooked on a flat-top, like many restaurants do. This kind of cooking takes some finesse with Buffalo meat, as it is leaner than regular ground beef and needs to be treated like ground sirloin.
Described as a “1/3-lb burger made local and fresh,” the burger came with a side of crappy chips. Being a chip aficionado I barely got through 2 or 3 of the soggy, tasteless spuds before going right to the burger, which was seared with great grill marks and cooked exactly to my medium-well specifications. The meat itself was a bit bland, but I could tell that it was of fairly good quality and appreciated the minimalist approach. However, I felt like the burger was under-seasoned, which is something of a wonder because all a Buffalo burger needs to be seasoned with is salt and pepper. The burger was clearly not as juicy as the Elk burger, yet I had ordered it to a separate temperature so that was to be expected. I did feel that there was some value imparted through the char-grill, yet I found this burger undersized compared to its Elk counterpart.
Likewise, the onion, tomato, and lettuce offering was weak and not as substantial as the Wild Rose’s. Overall, I enjoyed the subtle char-grill nature of this burger and its simplicity, but I found myself leaning towards the fattier (aka juicier) Elk Burger I had the night before.
Final Thoughts: So which was the better burger? Considering each burger was cooked in a different way and was, in fact, of a completely different animal species, it’s tough to say. I think at the time I enjoyed the Elk Burger more, as it was certainly juicier and fattier, but looking back on Lonigan’s Buffalo burger I felt like the quality of the meat was top notch and that any lack of juiciness in the burger came from my mistake of ordering it medium-well. In either case, the one thing that became apparent for me was that the ‘exotic’ nature of an Elk or Bison burger no longer seems so exotic to me, as both animals remain remarkably comparable in taste ground beef sirloin. That being said, both remain outstanding in terms of their ability to mimic the distinctly “red meat” flavor of beef, while the quality of the meat used at each location was top-of-the-line. Char-Grilled or Griddled, Elk or Buffalo, my dining experience in Estes National Park was both enjoyable and well worth it.
Next up in my journey, you ask? A return to the East Coast, and some experimentation with ‘local’ Buffalo products!