Best Central/South American Restaurant (not Mexican)

Maria Empanada

Maria Empanada
Courtesy Maria Empanada

Lorena Cantarovici originally opened her Argentine bakery in a tiny Lakewood shack that didn't have room for much more than a pastry case bursting with savory empanadas and tartas. But a move to bigger digs on South Broadway last year meant that Maria Empanada was able to finally become the Buenos Aires-style cafe that she'd always envisioned, with modern decor, a state-of-the-art espresso machine, and enough space for families to come in and enjoy malbec, beer, and yerba matté served in the traditional way. And, of course, there are still those flavor-packed little pies filled with everything from classic seasoned beef with hard-boiled egg and olives to sweet corn in cheese sauce to a vegan veggie mix doused in chimichurri. Fat wedges of quiche-like tarta or potato-paved Spanish tortillas round out the savory options, while tender alfajores, roll cake oozing with dulce de leche and miniature sweet empanadas are there to satisfy dessert cravings. No matter what your choice, Maria Empanada is the perfect place to let life slow down and pass by the sunny windows while enjoying the warm hospitality of Cantarovici and her staff.

Readers' choice: Cuba Cuba

La Calle Taqueria y Carnitas
Mark Antonation

Finding a Mexican joint that specializes in a certain style of meat or regional specialty is often the best bet when hunting for hidden treasures; the perfect tacos al pastor and the most mouthwatering barbacoa are seldom found in the same place. But at La Calle Taqueria, every choice on the long list of grilled, roasted or stewed options is the right choice. Whether your preferred style is a simple order of carne asada or carnitas, a marinated marvel like succulent cochinita pibil or tender cabeza, or more adventurous offerings like chivo (goat), buche (stomach) or campechana — a rich mixture of shredded pork and thick curls of slow-cooked pork skin — you'll find toothsome textures and deep, complex flavors atop tender tortillas. A burgeoning salsa bar provides all the zip and zing needed from a wide variety of salsas, pickled vegetables, lime wedges and chopped cilantro. La Calle's variety offers enough street-food satisfaction for even the most discerning taco hunters.

Readers' choice: Pinche Taqueria

El Taco Veloz

El Taco Veloz operates two taco joints on Federal Boulevard; both are worth a visit for their salsa bars, but for different reasons. The more southerly hut never has the streams of customers who visit its hermana just north of Interstate 70, which is a detriment when it comes to fresh tacos al pastor but a bonus for a tidy and well-stocked salsa bar. Whether you like a zesty and vegetal salsa verde made creamy with avocado or a tongue-melting, bright-orange salsa with chile de arbol, you won't have to jockey for position or risk scraping the bottom of the pan for any of the salsas they offer in varying degrees of heat and hue. Additional pans of chopped cilantro, onion, pico de gallo, radishes and limes offer every combination of possibilities for the discerning taco addict. At the northern station, a busier dining room means a messier salsa station, but it also means the kitchen can set out a massive stone molcajete brimming with a smokey chipotle-and-tomato salsa studded with cubed avocado that will be gone long before it ever warms up to room temperature.

Readers' choice: Tacos y Salsas

Adelitas Cocina y Cantina
Danielle Lirette

Adelitas Cocina y Cantina, a comfortable neighborhood spot that opened in May 2013 on South Broadway, blew us away last year with its house margarita, and the best got even better this year, when owner Brian Rossi switched out his house tequila. He's now using Cimarron Tequila, a highland-agave tequila that lets the bartender control the sweetness of the drink. In fact, the sweetest thing about this superlative house marg, made with fresh lime juice and a lot of care by friendly bartenders, may well be its price: $5, or $4 during the two daily happy hours, from 3 to 6 p.m. and again from 10 p.m. to close. But the best deal of all is on Margarita Mondays, when these babies are two for one.

Readers' choice: Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant

Work & Class
Linnea Covington

Yes, you know that Work & Class is incredibly hip, with very long lines. Take advantage of the $5 wait drink and you might care a little less about waiting — especially when you know that the town's best vegetarian green chile awaits. All of the traditional ingredients — minus the pork — are featured in this mix, and the masterminds at Work & Class also offer the mouthwatering sauce poured on top of a pile of French fries, then topped with cheese. Say it with us now: green-chile cheese fries. Need we say more?

Readers' choice: Illegal Pete's

La Fuente

La Fuente is a little hard to spot during the day, but the neon cacti over the door lead the way at night. For many, breakfast burritos are the main attraction, but bags of corn-husk-wrapped tamales under a heat lamp are a giveaway that the kitchen can do more than just roll flour tortillas. Available with either pork and red chile or chicken and chile verde, La Fuente's tamales strike a perfect balance between dense and fluffy, achieving toothsome results with just the right burn from the tender meat fillings. Enjoy them à la carte in the tiny dining room, smothered with some fiery house green chile, or by the dozen to go for a celebration at home (or a late-night snack by refrigerator light).

Readers' choice: Tamale Kitchen

Chickee's Lil Kitchen
Mark Antonation

Walk up to the window at Chickee's, in the heart of Sunnyside, and ring the bell or holler hello if you don't see owner Harriet Sanchez; she's probably in the back, cooking up something good. Her takeout-only hut specializing in Mexican and Cajun fare and tacked to the side of a barbershop is the unlikely home of Denver's best smothered breakfast burrito. While late-night indulging or morning hangovers might require something grilled and greasy, Chickee's burritos stand out for their freshness and quality of ingredients. Eggs are scrambled to order instead of being made in big batches to sit inside foil-wrapped burritos built long before you walk in the door. And the chorizo is made from scratch by Sanchez's husband, so it's meaty, not oily, and filled with the essence of cumin and red chiles. Smothering it all is a generous ladleful of homemade green chile done Denver-style — thick and smooth, but with the pure and clean heat of chiles grown in Colorado. For a special treat, hit Chickee's on a weekend morning for the only Cajun-Mexican mash-up on the menu: breakfast burritos stuffed with Louisiana-style boudin, also made from scratch.

Readers' choice: Santiago's

Araujo's Restaurant

There's plenty of breakfast-burrito competition in what we've come to regard as the Burrito Triangle of Denver: In the 2500 block of Federal Boulevard, an expanded Santiago's faces off against Jack-n-Grill; both open early and do a big business in breakfast burritos. But right around the corner, Araujo's blows them both away with a $1.50 breakfast burrito, which you can order with mild, hot or half-and-half chile. Your delicious choices don't end there: You can get bean and cheese, bean and potato, or a daily special: meat (bacon on Monday, chorizo on Tuesday, ham on Wednesday, sausage on Thursday and steak on Friday) with eggs, spuds and cheese. No matter which version you go for, Araujo's breakfast burrito is a hefty handful, neatly wrapped in a tight aluminum-foil wrapper so you can eat it on the go with a minimum of spillage. Although Araujo's lacks the convenience of the Santiago's drive-through, it beats that homegrown chain in both price and portion. Rise and shine!

Readers' choice: Santiago's

A selection of loaves from Grateful Bread.

If you've found yourself swept off your feet recently by an extra-crisp baguette or focaccia with just the right amount of oil and rosemary, there's a good chance it was made by Grateful Bread. This family-owned bakery in Golden supplies artisan loaves to a list of metro-area eateries that reads like a who's-who of the restaurant industry, including a disproportionate number of Best of Denver winners. The bakery's operation is primarily wholesale, but it opens its doors to the public several times a year, so you can buy sticky buns and jalapeño-cheddar pretzels to eat now, and levain and ciabatta to pop in the freezer for later. Don't miss the chewy quinoa, which toasts to perfection for a protein-packed start to the day. Check the bakery's website for specifics on upcoming retail days and a list of Denver markets selling a limited selection of baguettes and ciabatta.

Readers' choice: Grateful Bread Company

Azucar Bakery
Claire Duncombe

Azucar Bakery doesn't just build beautiful decorative cakes for special events, it's also possibly the only Peruvian cafe in town, featuring lovely, flaky orejitas ("little ears"), sweet alfajores (shortbread rounds glued together with dulce de leche) and sponge-cake rolls called pionono filled with mocha crème or dulce de leche. Grab a cafe table at the pink-fronted store for a quick coffee and sweet treat or take home a box of your favorites. But great baked goods aren't the only reason Azucar is the best; owner Marjorie Silva's exceptional customer service has also garnered attention. Silva made national news by sticking to her principles while attempting to satisfy a difficult (to say the least) customer. For maintaining her cool while offering a solution to an obvious troublemaker looking for an easy target, Silva has earned the respect of civil-rights advocates, Denver's gay community and sugar lovers everywhere.

Readers' choice: Church of Cupcakes

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