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You Are Where You Eat

What’s the quintessential Denver restaurant?

What's your favorite Denver restaurant? Not your favorite restaurant in Denver, but that restaurant (or diner, cafe, bistro, drive-thru) that, for whatever reason, speaks to you about the city you call home.

I'll give you a minute to think.

Okay, got one? Good. Now tell me why. Not so easy, right?

This question has been on my mind lately. What with our annual Best of Denver issue looming (the readers' poll debuts next week), the third Denver Restaurant Week starting February 24 and my normal obsession with all things edible, I've been thinking a lot about bests and worsts and all the in-betweens. But what really set me off is that I'm not in Denver. I'm writing this from a couple of thousand miles away, tucked comfortably in a booth at the back of a diner a half-hour outside of Philadelphia, trying to figure out what my favorite restaurant in thatcity is. You know, so I don't forget to eat there before I leave.

Philadelphia is where my in-laws live. It's where my wife grew up. It's a city I know pretty well as a result, and I have a lot of options. Is my favorite the Spring Mill Cafe in Conshohocken? It's certainly one of my favorite restaurants in the grand scheme of things, but the little BYOB cafe with the cluttered decor and rough tables where I ate my first serious meal with the people who were soon to become my in-laws doesn't really scream Philly. Civet de lapin and bastilla aren't exactly the working-class, blue-collar cuisine that's such a hallmark of the East Coast. While Le Bec-Fin, longtime grand dame of the dining scene, will always and forever be identified as a landmark in the City of Brotherly Love (even now that the deep fleur-de-lis carpets and brocaded everything have been tossed aside in favor of a more sumptuously creamy and modern appearance), it doesn't taste like Philly. Nor do Buddakan or Vetri(though of the two, Vetri comes closer). And though I'd love to say that Morimotowas my Philadelphia restaurant, I wasn't able to get reservations.

As for those classic cheesesteak places, Pat's and Geno's, those are just tour-guide tastes of Philly. I never have to drive more than a mile in any direction for a good cheesesteak, and I can get passable soft pretzels at any Wawa.

No, to me (and to Laura), the best, most important taste of Philadelphia is the taste of a chrome-diner chicken croquette, perfectly done, fresh out of the oil and still steaming, served over mashed potatoes and smothered in chicken gravy. We're diner kids, both of us. And the chicken croquette -- more than coffee, more than pie, more than corned beef hash and two eggs over easy -- is the highest pinnacle of East Coast diner achievement. It's the dish that Laura and I talk about on the plane flying in, the dish we discuss when planning our days.

And though we haven't yet found a truly great one (sadly, it seems that making a decent chicken croquette is a skill that's passing into the dimness of history), we never stop looking. The Gateway Diner, the Limerick Diner, all those weird little forty-seaters down in the rough neighborhoods -- we try them all. The chicken croquette is our grail, and what matters to us is the looking, not necessarily the finding.

What's the Denver equivalent of a chicken croquette? Of a great chrome diner? Is it the Breakfast King? No. Even though the King is one of my favorites, it's a place I go to remind myself of my favorite places back where I grew up -- and that has nothing at all to do with Denver.

Sushi Sasa? The Palace Arms? Restaurant Kevin Taylor? No, no and no. All great, all notable Denver landmarks, both new and old. But not one of them has that subtle taste of Denver that I'm looking for -- a kind of green-chile-and-steak-sauce vibe, a blue-jean-wearing, Spanish-speaking, better-than-expected mix of excellence and nonchalance with bull testicles and strong drinks and foie gras and cheeseburgers. When I have friends coming to town, where will I take them to give them a real taste of Denver? Or say I fly off to some island in the Lesser Antilles, spend a year cavorting among the palms, getting smashed on rum-heavy fruit drinks and hanging out with renegade dope pilots, smugglers, prostitutes, mob lawyers on the lam and other disreputable characters, then come home one day aboard an unregistered Lear jet painted in black-out camo and landing at DIA in the dead of night. Where will I want to celebrate my return to my adopted home? Not the Palm, that's for damn sure. Not the Fort. Not Tamayo.

The Buckhorn Exchange? That's one of the better spots in town to get a mouthful of balls. Or how about Chipotle? Colorado-born and Colorado-raised, home of the big-ass burrito. Racine's is a contender, if only for the fact that everyone in Denver passes through its doors eventually. And for me, so are places like Venice (the first restaurant I reviewed in town), Pho 79 (where I go for my breakfast when I'm not working) and Los Carboncitos (lunch) and Mezcal (dinners). What restaurant really captures this city? I haven't made my final choice yet; in the meantime, I'm interested in your ideas.

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