Where: 1605 East Evans Avenue
When: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily beginning August 20
For more info: Visit nextlevelburger.com
What we saw: A former Starbucks near the University of Denver, just a block away from the first Chipotle location, has been transformed into the new flagship location of the 100 percent vegan burger concept Next Level Burger.
The bones of the building haven’t changed much — except for a retractable window that can open onto the patio on warm days. But inside, all traces of the coffee giant are gone. Instead, the bright, modern space with orange accents is filled with straightforward messaging: “All American vegan,” reads the all-caps lettering above the counter where orders are placed, while a circular sign on one wall boasts “Mile High vegan.”
The brand from the husband-and-wife team of Matt and Cierra de Gruyter technically got its start in Oregon in 2014, but its roots are in Denver, where the de Gruyters met while attending Metropolitan State University of Denver. “It was kind of circular to come back to Denver,” says Matt, who had planned to attend law school at the University of Denver before finding out that Cierra was expecting their son “about ten years ahead of schedule,” he jokes.
So instead, the two moved to Cierra’s home state of Oregon, where their vegan burger concept came to life, rooted in the idea that eating a plant-based diet helps combat climate change and, ultimately, helps support a healthier planet. Next Level Burger now has nine locations in six states, including the Denver outpost set to open on August 20. “I love all our restaurants, but this one is the most impressive and most beautiful, and to be able to bring that to the hometown is something special,” Matt says.
And this is only the start of what Matt hopes will become a much larger footprint in the area. “We’d like to build somewhere between three and five in the market,” he says.
What surprised us: The number of options. The digital board at the ordering counter is so packed with choices, it’s a bit overwhelming. There are four categories of burgers: classics, chicken, artisan and pub-style burgers. Then there are loaded fries, tater tots and sweet-potato fries along with brats, salads, baskets, shakes (made with a choice of coconut or soy milk), snacks like tenders, nuggets and chili, and a four-item kids’ menu. You can even find fish(less) fillets, and every single thing is plant-based.
Prices for burgers and chicken sandwiches range from $8.95 to $14.95, and all are served à la carte, with fries ranging from $3.95 for a small classic crinkle cut to $8.95-$9.95 for the “stylin'” options, which are loaded with extra toppings.
“Our goal from the beginning was not to build a vegan concept,” Matt explains. “It happens to be plant-based, but we didn’t want to just preach to the choir. As much as we love feeding vegans, at the end of the day, we wanted to drive impact by reaching people that weren’t vegan.”
As a non-vegan, traditional burger lover, I was relatively pleased with the two burgers I tried. First up, the Signature, with the brand’s own quinoa-and-mushroom patty topped with lettuce, tomato and avocado and a choice of vegan cheese (American, provolone or pepperjack). While the sprouted seven-grain bun it came on was a bit dry and the sandwich could have used more of the roasted garlic thyme mayo, the patty itself is a savory and satisfying veggie burger option.
On future visits, I’d sub that on some of the items that typically come with a Beyond patty, like the Ghost Pepper Popper Burger. It’s one of the pub-style options, which are served on a pretzel bun that’s much softer and more flavorful than its healthier counterpart. It also gets a boost from toppings like pickled jalapeños and Next Level’s ghost pepper ranch, which has a zippy kick (though nothing that’ll leave you sweating).
Having recently tried Meati, the new vegetarian option at Birdcall, which has a location right next door to Next Level Burger, I skipped testing the “chik’n” options. I did, however, sample both a cookies and cream shake (with a mix of coconut and soy milk, as recommended by the staff member who rang me up) and the Special Style crinkle fries with large pieces of grilled onions, cheddar and special sauce, a play on In-N-Out’s animal-style fries. Both hit the right fast-food indulgence notes, and I’d take these crispy fries over the soggy ones at In-N-Out any day.
If you’re a meat lover craving a burger, plant-based replacements will never quite hit in the exact same way, but Next Level Burger comes damn close. Will it become the next Chipotle? If the DU neighborhood embraces it, it’s certainly got a shot.