Best Of :: Food & Drink
Arcana's menu is long on showstoppers; it reimagines familiar foods with unusual ingredients and innovative flavor combinations. But chef Kyle Mendenhall also knows that in order to truly wow a diner, every bite must sing, from appetizer through dessert, from the meal's focus to the lowly sides. And so his kitchen pays careful attention to things like fries, which accompany a handful of sandwiches on the lunch menu but get no special billing. And these spuds deserve acclaim. Arcana starts with skin-on russet potatoes and cuts them pencil-thin before frying them at two different temperatures — at lower heat to cook them, and at higher heat to crisp them up — and then dusting them with salt. This process, Mendenhall says, ensures that the fries retain a creamy center within a crunchy casing. They're served golden, crispy, salty and hot, and are so good you're likely to power through them and then consider a re-up before you've finished your meal. Give in to the temptation: Arcana sells a side of fries, though it's not listed on the menu.
Readers' Choice: Steuben's
With Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery, chef/owner Clint Wangsnes and co-owner Christian Anderson gave residents of Park Hill and Montclair exactly what they needed: a casual hangout for lunch and dinner where families could feel comfortable and order from a menu that doesn't stoop to the usual fast-casual tricks but still keeps prices low. Sure, you can grab a burger, a salad or a sandwich here, but those sandwiches are stacked with housemade meats like smoked chicken pastrami and slow-roasted sirloin shaved paper-thin. And thanks to Wangsnes's penchant for sous-vide cooking, favorites like the 48-hour short rib and 72-hour onion soup benefit from long cooking times without adding to customer waits. Peppered with flavors from Thailand, China, Japan and the Mediterranean, Chop Shop's menu captures the international spirit of Colfax Avenue.
Readers' Choice: Solera
With so much great Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai and Mexican cooking happening up and down Federal Boulevard's busy blocks, a simple American grill can get lost amid the steamy clouds rising from pots of pho and the pungent smoke of roasting chiles. But when the Federal Bar & Grill opened in the former home of Mickey Manor in 2013, it quickly became a standout not just for nailing the basics with great burgers, fries and wings, but for its attention to detail, from picnic-worthy deviled eggs to a beckoning roster of uncommon craft ales to genuinely friendly and snappy service. The Fed, as it's known to regulars, fills a need for a neighborhood hangout in fast-changing Jefferson Park — something that no amount of tacos, pho or banh mi can replace.
Readers' Choice: Tarasco's New Latino Cuisine
The Chowder Room is a little slice of small-town coastal life right on one of Denver's busiest thoroughfares. The service is warm and gracious, the decor is homey while still displaying a seafaring theme requisite of seafood shops, and the menu from chef/co-owner Matt Stein is affordable and sensible, though not without a few fun surprises (ask about daily and weekly off-menu specials). For a few sparkling oysters, a butter-dripping fillet or a solidly constructed sandwich stuffed with cod, salmon or seasonal treats like lobster or softshell crab, there's no better stop for the price. And don't forget the namesake chowder: Classic New England-style leads the way, but the kitchen offers many variations depending on seasonal availability and the chef's whim. In a sea of glitzier fish houses around town, the Chowder Room is a safe harbor.
Readers' Choice: Beatrice & Woodsley
Everyone who works in the kitchen at Spuntino has muscular forearms from making pasta on the hand-cranked roller in the basement. That kind of effort goes into every dish and every glass at this intimate Italian eatery, all overseen by Cindhura Reddy and Elliot Strathmann, the husband-and-wife duo who took over Spuntino in 2014. Reddy is the chef; her experience working on rustic farms in Italy inspired dishes that combine rural sensibility with worldly sophistication. You'll find slow-cooked Colorado goat on one homey plate while marveling at octopus "carpaccio" on another; you'll wonder how Reddy gets those paper-thin shavings of tentacle to hold together in one postcard-sized slice. Strathmann selects the wines with the eye of a curio collector, presenting vintners and varietals that are hard to find even in Italy. The two keep things grounded in Colorado, though, with local, seasonal ingredients — some of which can be found in Strathmann's housemade amaros, perfect alongside a tempting dessert.
Readers' Choice: Fire on the Mountain
Havana Street is the most diverse conduit in the metro area, at least for culinary adventurers. But even amid Ethiopian, Somali, Mexican, Japanese and Vietnamese restaurants (and that's just a sampling), Yong Gung stands out. The menu at this bright and tidy eatery reflects Korean cuisine as it evolved during decades of Chinese immigration; the newcomers brought their recipes with them while learning to cook with new ingredients. The result is a canon of noodle dishes, soups and stir-fries, from jajangmyeon noodles in jet-black fermented-bean sauce to aggressively spicy jjampong soup swimming with shrimp, mussels, mushrooms and long noodles. Some dishes are reminiscent of sweet-and-salty American-Chinese combos, while others — like chilled naengmyeon — share a kindred spirit with Japanese cold ramen. Just don't skip the Korean fried chicken, coated in a spicy, sticky sauce so good you'll forget there was ever a KFC.
Readers' Choice: Sam's No. 3