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Food: In Vail, a Burger Gets a Lift

As far as burgers go, this generally means a bland patty on a soggy bun for $10.

For decades at Vail Resorts, the hamburgers were once frozen as well. Until last year when company leaders hosted a sort of burger symposium at which top chefs from its six resorts — Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone in Colorado and Heavenly and Northstar-at-Tahoe in California and Nevada — were asked to submit new recipe proposals.

The result is the never-frozen Epic Mountain burger, so named for the discounted Epic season pass that covers all six resorts. Its journey to the Eagle’s Nest on Vail Mountain, for example, begins humbly in a subterranean tunnel and ends gloriously on lunchtime plates at one of the highest altitudes in ski country.

The step-by-step path goes something like this:

1. Certified Angus beef patties stacked on pallets arrive from Denver in refrigerated tractor-trailers. The trucks back down a long, twisting tunnel beneath Vail’s Eagle Bahn gondola where the beef, along with the fixings (lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles), are loaded into a freight elevator that brings the meat up to gondola level.

2. Workers load food bins onto unattached freight gondola cars that, once loaded, are added to the massive pulley system moving passengers and freight cars alike up the 2,230-foot ascent to the Eagle’s Nest. The resort routinely ships 1,200 pounds of food daily up the hill this way to kitchen workers who unload the bins into a walk-in cooler.

3. Cooks on the mountaintop prepare the condiment arrangement ahead of time, and always in this order (which was hotly debated): lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles. Last winter, Vail made its specialty burger with the fixings on top of two patties. After much debate, this winter they are going under the meat.

“It sounds crazy but we had long meetings over the order, like whether it should be lettuce on the bun and then tomato and onion, or lettuce and then onion and then tomato,” said Mike Friery, the resort’s food and beverage director. “We deliberate everything — how thick to slice the onions, whether the pickles should be a slice or a sphere.”

4. As the custom bun delivered from a Denver bakery is toasted, cooks throw the patties on the grill and season them from a bin of mixed spices (onion powder, pepper, salt, garlic powder and thyme).

5. Slices of white Cheddar are then applied to each patty after it has been flipped on the grill. Then the layers of fixings are placed on the bun and both patties are positioned on top.

6. The penultimate step is a squirt from a vial filled with the secret Epic Mountain burger sauce, which Vail Resorts has actually kept secret. But here’s a clue: It has a Thousand Island style to it, perhaps mixed with hints of ranch dressing.

“The most important thing is that we wanted people to have sauce drip onto their fingers when they bit down,” Mr. Friery said.

7. Finally, the Epic Mountain burger is placed in a basket for waiting customers who fork over $12.25.

How does it taste?

The beef is juicy and the bun crisp. Pickle spheres work better than slices. The sauce does indeed drip onto your fingers. Most of all, it is very filling, the kind of warm, fresh fuel that wards off frozen temperatures through an afternoon of skiing or riding.

And lest you think this is just a hamburger: Vail Resorts sells approximately 76,000 Epic Mountain burgers at its six resorts each winter, about 26,000 at Vail Mountain alone, or about 200 on a busy day.

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