Best Of :: Food & Drink
When Delores Tronco and Tony Maciag took a chance on a shipping-container development in the Ballpark/RiNo neighborhood for the home of their new restaurant, the area was trending in the right direction — but its success wasn't yet a fait accompli. Work & Class, with its feel-good combination of craveable eats and drinks, sealed the deal, making the neighborhood one of the hottest in town and a seat on the restaurant's patio or at its concrete communal table even hotter. Putting out spectacular Latin and American food that has since nabbed chef-owner Dana Rodriguez a James Beard nomination for Best Chef Southwest, the packed, noisy place is on a perpetual wait, as people can't get enough of the meats such as cochinita pibil, cabrito (roasted goat) and coriander-roasted lamb served by the quarter, half or full pound. Sides and desserts — think custardy chickpea croquettes, Brussels sprout-apple-bacon hash and deeply caramelized butterscotch pudding — reflect Rodriguez's high-end training and unpretentious approach.
Readers' choice: Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery
Mexican fare isn't difficult to find on Federal Boulevard, especially if you're looking for street tacos, fat tortas or foil-wrapped breakfast burritos oozing with Denver-style green chile. But despite its name, you won't find the gravy-thick pork stew on the menu at Chili Verde, which instead specializes in the lesser-known cuisine of Puebla, Mexico. Pork and chicken come robed in rich, dark mole poblano, complex and zingy mole verde or smoky salsa morita. Chiles en nogada — the picadillo-stuffed poblano peppers topped with creamy walnut sauce and bejeweled with pomegranate seeds — are available year-round rather than just during Mexican Independence Day, as is traditional for the tri-colored dish, which represents the Mexican flag. Apart from the menu, Chili Verde also stands out for stellar service from a gracious and knowledgeable staff who are genuinely enthusiastic when it comes to answering questions about the food and drinks coming from the well-stocked and creative bar.
Readers' choice: New Saigon
The aroma of wood smoke greets you at the door at Gozo and tags along through the course of your meal, grounding the menu of Mediterranean-inspired dishes and blistered pizzas with rustic notes. Whether turning out quick-cooked and succulent clams with chorizo or slow-roasted short ribs, the wood oven that's the showpiece of the chef's counter is also central to the flavors that the kitchen builds. Polenta and risotto are also sure things at Gozo, both handled with care and patience for perfect results. The dining room gives equal opportunity to couples looking for an intimate dinner or boisterous groups out for small plates and drinks. Sit near the front by the open garage doors for an urban experience in full view of Broadway, or pick a table near the back for a quieter night out.
Readers' choice: Beatrice & Woodsley
West 32nd Avenue runs through the heart of Denver's Highland neighborhood, and today holds a string of eateries well-suited to the residential zone it has become to the west. But in 2012, Tommy Lee dropped an umami bomb on the east end of the street in what's become known as LoHi — a hip moniker coined by and for the young and fashionable set who now pack the shoebox noodle house nightly. On a menu stamped with traditional notes as well as modern, international riffs, you'll find actual umami bombs — miso-bacon jam and spicy seven pepper — that can be lobbed into ramen bowls featuring duck in shoyu broth, a Korean-themed shredded-pork-and-kimchi number, and a potent veggie combo with miso broth and chashu tofu. Steamed bao buns packed with everything from pork belly to falafel make for savory finger food for those craving more than soup. Uncle may be small in stature, but it's the big kid in the 'hood when it comes to flavor.
Readers' choice: Highland Tap & Burger
Playfully named for the state of inebriation, as in "three sheets to the wind," To the Wind Bistro sounds like a shoo-in for another category — maybe Best Place to Tie One On. But it's the food at this tiny restaurant on East Colfax, not its beer-centric beverage list, that makes you want to overindulge. In a space no bigger than a home kitchen, chef-owner Royce Oliveira puts out fare that's simultaneously seasonally attuned, comfortable and classy, such as empanadas plump with rabbit or duck, and pork (not chicken) and waffles. The menu reflects Oliveira's training — he spent years at Mizuna before going off on his own — but the vibe is casual, not intimidating. In large part, that's because of the warmth exuded by Oliveira and his wife/pastry chef Leanne Adamson, who run the show from the open kitchen and pour their heart and soul into the place.
Readers' choice: Prohibition
Choosing a favorite restaurant on Havana Street is like picking a favorite child — we love all the diverse ethnic eateries here — but Katsu Ramen is a standout, because the metro area's ramen scene is hotter than sriracha and cooler than mochi ice cream right now. Katsu Ramen threw open its doors in January to crowds eager to sample its five ramen types: shoyu with meat broth, miso with savory broth and vegetables, tonkotsu with pork, tan tan with spicy chicken, and hiyashi chuka, a summery ramen dish with chilled broth. The menu also features popular offerings like pork gyoza dumplings, a seared tuna tataki salad and a refreshing mango-sauced frozen panna cotta. The atmosphere has a certain kitschy charm, with plastic replicas of menu items and a stray Hello Kitty toy or three, but the most important thing here is that the diminutive space can handle volume — and that's exactly what it does every day, with a lunchtime line most restaurants would envy.
Readers' choice: Sam's No. 3