Here in Fort Collins, Colorado, we’ve been experiencing a burger renaissance of sorts. We’ve suddenly got a plethora of tasty burger options, from Smashburger to Culver’s to Five Guys Burgers & Fries to Larkburger. But one thing those rising stars don’t have is the benefit of being a local, independent self-starter, using only fresh and local ingredients, improvising daily to find their way in the market, and becoming an integral part of the Fort Collins community. In that department, Fort Collins can boast only one “locally owned and operated” option, and that’s Big Al’s Burgers and Dogs.
I’ve visited Big Al’s several times over the past year and have been impressed by the laid-back personality of the joint and the staff. I’ve spoken to general manager Brandon Glazier on a couple of those occasions. Last time, he invited me into the kitchen to have a look at the place where the magic is made and just talk about burgers.
We started in the expansive dining area, a long slab of real estate divided by a center restaurant-length bar. To the sides are more traditional tables for four. Immediately catching my eye was the artwork adorning the walls—it’s a brightly lit gallery for local artists. At Big Al’s, they like to “keep it in Colorado.” This philosophy is also evident in the place’s recycled and repurposed décor. Take a close look around you during your visit, and you’ll notice 1953 Sear’s cabinets, table tops repurposed from lumber obtained from Steele’s Market Deconstruction, a check-out counter built from salvaged stair balusters and old fence boards, a menu board fashioned from the metal of a decommissioned railway car, and light fixtures brought in from an old Denver hotel.
And the local flair isn’t just evident in the décor. There’s a homegrown attitude to the menu, as well.
Let’s start with the burgers. Of course, the meat of choice is ground chuck—that 80/20 ideal for great burgers. And this is another area where Big Al’s differs from the competition in town. The burger patties are fresh, and never frozen. “For our seasoning,” Glazier said, “we use a custom blend made right here in Fort Collins.” Dressing the burger is a tangy secret sauce whose origins reach all the way to England.
I’ve enjoyed the burger on multiple occasions, and I can vouch for the quality. It’s a lovingly created burger—something you can’t say about most slapped-together cow concoctions. The ratio of meat to bread is just right, and the seasonings complement the chuck with a sweet tang that lights up the tastebuds. On my next trip, I plan to take in the recommended 60/40 Burger, which boasts a patty made of 60 percent ground chuck and 40 percent ground bacon. I can’t believe I haven’t tried that yet. A friend of mine tried the New Mexico Chile Burger and swears by it. You might also try another favorite—the Bacon Guacamole Burger (or perhaps the Veggie Guacamole Burger, if you’re not into the whole bovine thing).
Big Al’s is also renowned for its hot dogs, which are custom-made for the restaurant in Denver. My kids enjoyed these fresh dogs, and I managed to swipe a bite. What struck me—as with any quality beef dog—was the snap of the casing and the burst of flavor from within. It’s an excellently prepared hot dog, and Big Al’s features upwards of 10 varieties on its menu board, including a chili dog and a guac dog.
And how about the fries? “To get the best fries,” said Glazier, “you have to go with the Kennebec potato. It’s really a gourmet spud. We cut them up by hand, fry them crisp, and sprinkle them with our special seasoning. It’s a perfect hand-cut fry.” For a real treat, try the Truffle Fries, which are coated in truffle oil and sprinkled with parmesan cheese and parsley. It’s the most exquisite example of this kind of concoction that I’ve tried.
So, what’s the future for this local burger upstart? “We’d love to establish a drive-through location,” said Glazier, “but for now, we’ll stick with this great Old Town location. We get some insane crowds in here, especially on the weekend. We’re open till 2am, serving strong. We even have to hire a doorman for Friday nights!”
Big Al’s is a happenin’ joint, and I urge you to get up there and dive in to some burgers before the line gets too long. This place has got the right attitude and smarts to go far in the burger realm. I’ll be dining there regularly.