Best Of :: Food & Drink
Okay, so maybe not the last place you'd expect to find a great Italian restaurant. That would probably be Antarctica, on the moon or in the men's room of the Greyhound station in Provo, Utah. But still, finding a great Italian restaurant in Larimer Square — once home to the awful Josephina's — and in a basement space at that, is pretty surprising. With Osteria Marco, chef/owner Frank Bonanno has created a cozy little hole in the ground with handcrafted pizzas, tons of little snacks and an unparalleled board of artisanal meats and cheeses that Denver foodies would've murdered for five years ago. Start with a glass of anything from the short, tight wine list of Italian wines, chase it with a plate of prosciutto, coppa and fresh-made burrata, move on to a small, hand-thrown pizza, and finish with a bite of something sweet from the simple dessert menu.
Yes, we understand that few people are going to run out and drop twenty bucks on a sandwich. But the lobster-salad sandwich at the Ship Tavern is well worth the price. Essentially a lobster roll, it loads what must be half a Maine lobster, perfectly cooked, onto a homemade brioche roll, and binds everything together with a thin mayonnaise that tastes handmade. Take your time savoring your sandwich in one of the corner booths at the Ship Tavern, a venerable, if somewhat unseaworthy of late, institution in the Brown Palace. You've paid for the privilege.
The Arada Gebeya, one of the great spice markets of Africa, is located in central Addis Ababa. And now its namesake restaurant, Arada, has brought the true flavors of Ethiopian cuisine to the center of Denver, introducing a flock of customers to its deliciously authentic fare. Although this city has a surprisingly large number of Ethiopian restaurants, Arada is the best of the bunch. In its relatively new digs on Santa Fe, the dining room is small but lovely. But once the food arrives, all of your attention will be on the large platters of white tibs and sambusa, incredible raw-beef kitffo and doro wat in a fiery red-chile sauce. Everything comes family style, complete with injera and exotic sides.
For thirty years, Szechuan Chinese Restaurant has been doing business in one of the worst imaginable locations in all of restaurantdom — but somehow it's managed to build, and keep, a dedicated crowd of regulars. They flock here for the friendly, accommodating service, the huge menu with well over a hundred options, and the low prices and large portions. But really, Szechuan would need to offer just one thing, and we'd keep coming back. This kitchen makes the best dumplings we've found in Colorado. And that alone is reason to hope that Szechuan manages to stick around for another thirty years.
Salt-brined and grilled pork chops in cider-blue cheese sauce with mashed potatoes, a steak topped with bacon, roasted quail with a pecan grit cake and cranberries. Such dishes translate into one thing: a quintessentially American restaurant. At Duo, chef John Broening and his crew have been quietly redefining the standards of American cuisine, incorporating local and regional elements into classic presentations, touching always on those things that American cooks do better than anyone else: simple meats, comforting sides, rough but artistic plating. And in the process, Broening is blazing a trail for other American chefs, showing how American food can be at its absolute best.
Ba Le Sandwich, a small, brightly lit sandwich shop smack in the middle of Denver's best Vietnamese-restaurant neighborhood, is a destination both for Vietnamese immigrants looking for an honest taste of home and adventurous gastronauts looking for a taste of foreign climes on the cheap. Both appreciate the banh mi, the classical collision of French and Vietnamese culinary tradition that resulted in a wonderful spread of sandwiches — most of them some variety of pork — on short baguettes. At Ba Le, you'll find sliced pork and spicy pork, pork pâté and pork cutlets, with topping options of sliced cucumbers, sprouts — whatever you like. No matter what you choose, you'll get out the door for under five bucks, with a lunch that beats any fast-food offering.
Yes, Oceanaire is a seafood restaurant — but our very favorite offering here is a plate of nothing but bacon steaks. No garnish, no vegetable, no starch, no health warning from the surgeon general about the dangers of eating a giant plate of pig at a single sitting. To create this miracle, chef Matt Mine, a former fish butcher who now runs the kitchen at Denver's Oceanaire, simply takes a rasher of bacon, cuts off slabs about an inch thick, fries them up in the pan, then serves them as though a couple of pieces of bacon the size of petit filet mignons were the most reasonable dish in the world. It's the ultimate delicious indulgence.
Although Bud's Bar still makes the area's best burger, the burger at My Brother's Bar comes very close — and it's flavored by decades of tradition, since this address has been a bar longer than any other location in Denver, back to at least 1880. But unlike a Bud's burger, which we can take outside and eat while sitting on the hood of a car with no noticeable diminution in its essential excellence, a burger at My Brother's should be eaten at the bar, where you have handy access to both the plastic condiment carrier (packed with onions, pepperoncini, relish and pickles) and a long, laudable history.
Han Kang seems to give away more food than it charges for — what with all the garnishes, sides, sauces and snacks that come free with every meal at this traditional Korean joint. While English is definitely a second language here, you can easily get yourself fed by just pointing, nodding and doing a little pantomime. And be sure you point to the line on the menu that offers barbecued bacon — as a side dish! You'll get a platter of sliced slabs of pink and fatty pork belly, which you cook on the sizzling hot-top and then dredge through a bowl of salty and potent garlic oil. There are so many elements at play here that you can do yourself serious damage — from arteries clogged with bacon fat to severe genital scarring if you accidentally tip the grill the wrong way in your excitement and spill hot bacon grease in your lap — but really, what's life without a little risk? And what better way to go than from an overdose of bacon?
It has been said, often and loudly, that Denver has no great barbecue restaurants. And while this is true to a point, it's a point beyond which all arguments fall apart. Denver may not have the kind of historic barbecue joints that most folks think of when they think of great barbecue. But what we do have are many places that do one or two things very well, along with one place that does nearly everything better than anyone else — and that place is Big Hoss. At this new joint in northwest Denver, barbecue has been deconstructed to its socio-political roots and rebuilt, like Steve Austin, to be better than it was before. The pork shoulder is excellent, especially when dosed with a little of the vinegar sauce from the barbecued shrimp; the barbecued chicken smells like an Alabama house fire; and the ribs have just the right texture. And while most barbecue joints offer a half-dozen sauces, Big Hoss has only one, a fusion of the best elements of all the other sauces that — true to owner Hoss Orwat's claim — goes perfectly with just about everything on the menu.
Elway's is a beautiful restaurant. The service rides the perfect edge between businesslike decorum and occasionally goofy informality — and so does the menu, which offers both innovative dishes (a handmade spread of s'mores) and more standard steakhouse fare. But there's nothing standard about Elway's massive, 22-ounce, USDA Prime bone-in rib-eye, cut so as to preserve the most fat, the best marble and the bone, which lends both moisture during the cooking process and a sense of seriousness on the plate. This is a gorgeous steak, indescribably tender, juicy and delicious, yet humble — merely sitting in its place on the board among all the other steaks, waiting for those of large appetite and discriminating palate to discover for themselves the best item on Elway's menu.
The Colorado Rockies may have bombed in the World Series last fall, but a block away from Coors Field, Falling Rock Tap House continues to boast a world-class beer list that's simply unbeatable. This casual, comfortable bar has more than sixty beers on tap and many, many more kinds in bottles, from cities across the country and countries around the globe. Take a swing, and you're sure to hit something great.