Best Of :: Food & Drink
The space is small and more than a little ragged. The service runs at a pace somewhere between slow-but-friendly and glacial. And the menu seems oddly foreshortened. But at Ya Hala, all that matters is the food -- and the food is absolutely fabulous. The kitchen must be imbued with some kind of natural magic for the deep-but-narrow cuisine of the Middle East, because it turns out unbelievably good roasted chicken, shawarma and baked goods -- particularly the baklava, a dish we'd simply assumed that, like celery, roasted eggplant or the musical stylings of John Tesh, was just not to our taste. But Ya Hala's baklava is food for the gods, a fitting end to a meal that starts with the best hummus in the city (flavored with sumac powder and olive oil) and just goes up from there. The presentations are straightforward, the flavors blunt and lovely, and each plate is given an attention born of complete love of the cuisine -- no shortcuts, no scrimping.
You might recognize the name "Tacos D.F." It was painted on the side of a great lonchera that once prowled the streets of Denver. Now all the pleaures of that taco truck can be found in the same spot night after night, in a little joint in the middle of a strip mall along Parker Road. The space is warm and comfortable, with one wall covered floor to ceiling with black-marker graffiti scrawled by legions of satisfied customers. Service is exceptionally quick, incredibly friendly and eager to please. There are specials written out longhand on construction paper -- but anything from the regular offerings of pork and asada tacos, tacos cabeza, sopes de bistec and a short list of tortas is bound to be good. It helps to speak a little Spanish here, but you can usually get by with some phonetics, a little mime and a lot of pointing at the menu hung above the window where orders are taken, paid for and delivered.
Tonti's is an enigma. It's a tiny strip-mall joint, almost always empty except for a couple of employees hanging disconsolately around the counter. And while about half the time what we get off the short, predictable menu (pizzas, calzones, stromboli, meatball sandwiches) is completely forgettable, the other half it's
fantastic beyond any rational explanation. At its best, Tonti's makes the kind of stromboli you just can't stop eating, the kind of New York-style pizzas that wake you up in the middle of the night -- calling you from inside the refrigerator, demanding that you eat a leftover slice cold, standing there in your socks and boxers. So, yes, sometimes Tonti's makes the best strip-mall Italian food in the city and sometimes it doesn't. Just ask yourself one question before you go in: Do you feel lucky?
If you wanted to give people a true taste of Denver, where would you send them? For us, Elway's -- Big John's eponymous temple of meat -- comes out on top every time. For the scene, the service, the staff and the sly humor implicit in the menu's design, Elway's is that single restaurant that defines what it is to eat in Denver today. There's money here, but there are also plenty of people in blue jeans. Although the restaurant is in Cherry Creek, it could be picked up whole and successfully transplanted to almost any other neighborhood in the city (as proven by the recently announced expansion into the new downtown Ritz-Carlton). And while chef Tyler Wiard and everyone in Elway's kitchen certainly know how to handle a piece of meat, the little flourishes and big hospitality are what set this place apart. Oh, yes, and then there's that connection to a certain quarterback...
Legislators and local union leaders, cowboys and cooks. You never know who'll end up at Brewery Bar II on any given day, because everyone who knows and loves Denver for its less cosmopolitan charms passes through here eventually, looking for cold beer, hot chile, gloriously sloppy Meximerican grub of no discernible geographical provenance and that certain dim-lit and rough-edged temper that's the solid base from which all of Denver's uptown glitz and glamour have grown. Though Brew II has recently spawned a passel of polished suburban offspring, they're bastards born of opportunism and sprawl psychology. You want the real thing? Head down to the blue-collar part of town, grab a seat at the bar and order a Tiny.
Cafe Star isn't a French restaurant -- though some of the preparations (like the duck confit) are certainly Continental in origin -- and given the worldliness of its cuisine, it isn't a completely American restaurant. It isn't a fine-dining restaurant -- it's too fun for that -- but neither is it just a neighborhood restaurant, because there are nights when even the neighbors can't get a seat. No, on this food frontier, Cafe Star is blazing its own trail, building on the failures of California cuisine, the innovations of immigrant cooks and the decades of dining dominance enjoyed by the big cities on the coasts. This is a New West restaurant through and through, and a great star on the local scene.