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FOOD & DRINK

part 4 of 5
Best Italian Sodas
The Art of Coffee
1836 Blake St.

Coca-Cola may be the real thing, but it isn't the only thing. The Art of Coffee knows that, and instead serves up old-fashioned Italian sodas. Italian syrups such as boysenberry and coconut are combined with carbonated water on the spot, creating the most soul-quenching hot-weather drink going. You can make your own combinations from Art of Coffee's thirty flavors, or try one of theirs--the Creamsicle, with vanilla syrup, orange juice, half-and-half and ice, will make you feel as though you're standing right next to the ice-cream truck.

Best Classic Coffeehouse
Trident Booksellers, Inc.
940 Pearl St., Boulder

The concept of the coffeehouse/bookstore certainly is not a new one, and the Trident is not the first--or the last. But this bustling establishment--recently named one of the top ten coffeehouses in the country by Atlantic Monthly senior editor Corby Kummer (he's also the author of an upcoming book on coffee)--puts it together with deeply caffeinated panache. The espresso bar is always cooking, and there's often a line of the faithful, waiting patiently for lattes coaxed from the Trident's hissing machine. Inside, the talk is as dense as the coffee, smoke is rising, pages are being turned and journals are being kept--it's sort of a bohemian Grand Central Station.

Best Hard-to-Find Coffeehouse
Caffe Mars
1425 Pearl St., Boulder

If you go by the numbers, you might think you've missed Caffe Mars. The entrance to this cozy hangout is actually around the corner on 14th Street--in what looks like a vacant alley off the Pearl Street Mall. Once inside, though, you can't miss the ambience. Mars serves the requisite drinks and delicious pastries, while wiseacre college students provide entertaining banter. Check out the clippings and amusing snippets behind the counter that reference the cafe's namesake planet. It's not quite as remote as Mars, but it's definitely a trip.

Best Transformation of an Old Drugstore
Highland Grounds
3301 Tejon St.

From 1927 until the early Eighties, the building that now houses Highland Grounds was a drugstore and soda fountain. After a brief stint as a Mexican boot store--the building is owned by the Aguirre family, which runs RosaLinda's next door--Jamy Garcia and his wife, Shelly, rented the space. "We wanted to help revitalize the Highland neighborhood," Jamy says. Toward that end, the Garcias brought back the old soda-fountain booths, put in an espresso machine and filled an antique cigar humidor with baked goods. Checkers, books and newspapers round out the coffeehouse atmosphere, and the Garcias are in the process of recovering the old awning hardware to create an outdoor patio.

Best Coffeehouse in a Greenhouse
Center Greenhouse
9051 Harlan, Westminster

Until you've had your first cup of coffee in the morning, you're about as intelligent as the average houseplant. So get smart: While shopping at this huge, all-purpose nursery owned by the Yantorno family, nourish your roots at the in-house espresso bar.

Best Tea in a Coffeehouse
Jitters
1523 18th St.

Jitters, an Alaskan ode with Eskimo art, funky coffeehouse decor and a pair of plush old couches for post-ballgame relaxing, bears little resemblance to a veddy proper teahouse, and it serves all the expected shaky-hands espresso drinks. But for those who prefer their caffeine (or de-caffeine) in a more dilute yet gentrified form, Jitters offers more than a hundred varieties of tea, everything from your straightforward, aromatic blacks to restful herbals to flowery greens to comforting spiced Indian chai. An added plus: If it's an afternoon mocha you're craving, Jitters has eight types of chocolate to choose from.

Best Coffee Not in a Coffeehouse
Pizza Colore Cafe
1512 Larimer St.

They could get away with serving--gasp!--instant, since customers already full of fabulous pizza and pasta probably wouldn't notice. But for those who expect--and appreciate--consistent quality, Pizza Colore serves Italian D'Oro, the Italian gold distributed by Shamrock Foods. This coffee is two steps above regular restaurant fare, and one cup is enough to top off a flawless meal--or make a fine companion to the restaurant's tasty desserts.

Best Excuse for the Denver-Boulder Commute
The Espresso Lane
7790 Federal Blvd., Westminster

Sometimes the thought of this drive-through coffee joint at Federal and Highway 36 is the only thing that keeps us fueled in the mornings. Mocha, espresso, latte--the Espresso Lane has it all. And you don't even have to get out of your car to indulge. Drive, he said.

Best Thai Iced Coffee
Tommy's Oriental Food
3410 E. Colfax Ave.

The iced coffee at Tommy's, a mom-and-pop favorite, resembles nothing more than an old-fashioned milkshake with a nice kick. Thai iced coffee, unlike the Starbucks-ized American froth or the refined Vietnamese variety, is liquid dessert, well-equipped to cool the mouth during and after a tangle with a spicy Thai dish. Tall, icy and premixed with sweetened milk, Tommy's take on the beverage is an unpretentious joy. Thai iced tea is available, too.

 

Best Vietnamese Iced Coffee
New Saigon
630 S. Federal Blvd.

Maybe the iced coffee at New Saigon tastes better just because the food is so uniformly good. But we think it's more than that--much more. First, the coffee--delivered to the table as it should be, in its own, slow-dripping espresso pot--is deep, highly caffeinated and black. And second, there's never too much or too little of the sweetened milk it drips into. Once the coffee and milk are mixed and poured over ice, the brew turns the loveliest tan color. And how does it go down? Thickly, with a trace of rich espresso grit...and hand-in-hand with the chile oil you so recklessly spooned all over your food.

Best Vietnamese Restaurant
New Saigon
630 S. Federal Blvd.

We swear we've tried them all but still haven't found a Vietnamese restaurant that's as consistently fabulous as New Saigon. Get the pho, get one of the hundreds of fish dishes, get the spicy beef--it's all good. The egg rolls are exemplary, the food all freshly cooked and the staff very helpful. The prices are right on, too, and far cheaper than a plane trip to Vietnam--the only way this food could be more authentic.

Readers' choice: New Saigon

Best Thai Restaurant
Taste of Thailand
504 E. Hampden Ave., Englewood

First she was the best cooking instructor in Denver, and now she's the owner of the best Thai restaurant. Arawan "Noy" Farrell came to Denver from rural northern Thailand, and she brought with her a passion for food that translates into potent curries and stir-fries. Farrell's insistence on using what's fresh each day is not a new concept, but it's a welcome one--particularly in light of Thai food's emphasis on vegetables and seafood. Check out the seafood clay pot, a mass of rice noodles black from squid ink and soaked with the essences of shrimp, scallops and lemongrass. We guarantee you'll Thai one on.

Readers' choice: Taste of Thailand

Best Thai Beef Salad
J's Noodles
945-E S. Federal Blvd.

For lovers of Thai food, a well-prepared beef salad--or yum nuer--is the perfect example of what that country's cooking is all about: hot and cool, and at the same time sour, sweet and minty; a mixture of opposing but tongue-delighting flavors. J's version stops just short of burning your mouth, then soothes it with crisp cucumbers and pickled carrot and tantalizes what tastebuds remain with cilantro and mint leaves. The room-temperature beef slices simply give you the strength to go on. Summer days cry out for such a dish--and J's answers the call.

Best Chinese Restaurant
Imperial
431 S. Broadway

Once the grand empress of Chinese dining in Denver, over the last few years Imperial's crown had started to slip: The food was inconsistent and the servers seemed so used to the crowds that they lost interest. But new life was breathed into the old dragon when owner Johnny Hsu made two important moves: Imperial moved physically to a new building a few blocks away with an even larger and more opulent dining room, and Hsu lured back his former manager, people-motivator Vijay Mihra, from a stint at Cliff Young's. The menu is ostensibly the same, but it's flavored with some of the old excitement that Imperial had been missing of late. As always, the spicy foods are the ones to order--and now they're livelier than ever. For such a turnaround, Imperial deserves the royal treatment.

Readers' choice: Imperial

Best Korean Restaurant
Silla
3005 S. Peoria St., Aurora

The accompaniments to a Korean barbecue, the na mool, are often the most important part of the meal--and Silla wins high honors in this department. For example, kimchi, that most recognizable of Korean condiments, is a chutneylike mix of pickled cabbage leaves, garlic and crushed red chiles; the dish is fermented without vinegar, which means salt is usually the preservative of choice. But at Silla the emphasis is on fresh flavor rather than keeping food around for a month, and a light touch with the salt gives Silla's kimchi a fresh quality. That quality carries over through all Silla's food, especially the grilled meats. Don't pass the ketchup.

Best Japanese Restaurant
Mori
2019 Market St.

If there's a better Japanese restaurant in town, we don't know where it's been hiding. Mori has everything: the biggest menu, the brightest, freshest fish, the most interesting clientele and the nicest dining room in an American Legion post of any Japanese place we've been in. The staff is friendly and helpful, especially to the uninitiated, the sushi is astoundingly fresh and the menu descriptions are as explanatory as they can be. Try the "Have a Nice Day" lunch of teriyaki steak, yakitori, tempura shrimp and vegetables with gyoza, rice, pickles and miso soup for $6.95, and just watch your day get better.

 

Readers' choice: Sushi Den

Best Tempura
Matoi
11020 W. Alameda Ave., Lakewood

These batter-dipped, deep-fried tidbits often come out like little balls of grease hiding limp, unrecognizable food. Hey, there could be anything in there. But at Matoi--one of Denver's smallest (about twenty seats) and most charming restaurants--we know exactly what's in store for us: crisp-cooked vegetables such as carrots, green peppers and sweet potatoes, or marinated meats like shrimp and pork, all cloaked in a bubbly shell. Slam dunk them into the ginger-sweet soy sauce and say ariga-to.

Best Gyoza
Akebono
1255 19th St.

Go ahead: Be wonton. Entering Akebono, one of Denver's most venerable Japanese restaurants, is like stepping back into the Seventies. But the gyoza here taste absolutely up-to-the-minute: crisply fried but not greasy and served with a piquant sauce that makes this dumpling appetizer most appetizing.

Best Sushi
Sushi Tazu
300 Fillmore St.

At first this newcomer to Cherry Creek North floundered like a fish out of water--the sushi was bland, poorly executed and the staff behind the bar was cold and aloof. But Sushi Tazu seems to have righted itself. Now the sushi is nothing short of perfection--fresh from the sea and clinging to a smoothly sweetened wedge of rice--and the employees are warm and welcoming. And we'd roll over for the California handroll, a tightly wound cone of nori with cucumber, rice, avocado and Tazu's own crab paste packed inside like sardines. It takes raw courage to pass up this spot.

Best Sushi Boat
Genroku Restaurant
2188 S. Colorado Blvd.

In an odd mixture of Viking pageantry and sushi overload, Genroku's massive sushi boat comes served in a wooden tray groaning with California rolls, sashimi, cucumber rolls and whatever other raw-fish largess the chef feels like throwing in that day. But no matter what mood strikes him, at $17.50 per person, this is guaranteed to be the catch of the day.

Best Asian Food in a Doughnut Shop
Daylight Donuts
727 Simms St., Golden

Stop by in the morning and grab a few delicious, just-fried doughnuts from the perpetually cheerful Tatsuo and his wife, Sachiko. Come back at lunch and they're still there, as they have been for ten years, still cheerful. This time pick up a Styrofoam plate of chicken teriyaki for two bucks, or the seven-shrimp tempura with vegetables for five. Each week there's a special; don't miss the calamari sauteed with mustard.

Best Oriental Market
Midopa
10700 E. Iliff Ave.

So what if one of its principals was arrested last year for illegally trafficking in exotic animal parts? Midopa carries a veritable banquet of foods from Korea, Japan and other Asian countries. Most of what Midopa stocks--delicious Korean pears, super-pungent homemade kimchi, Japanese popcorn--simply can't be found at American-style grocery stores. This is the place to get oriented.

Best Italian Restaurant
Pasta's
9126 W. Bowles Ave., Littleton

At Pasta's, everything's al dente in the family. Nat and Lucy Mulei and their kids make everyone--especially the first-time customer--feel like they just stepped into the Muleis' home, which just happens to be decorated in red, white and green. The tables are covered with linen and the walls with photos from Italy, but don't let the formal dressing fool you--this family values comfort and courtesy over convention. Sit down and you'll be treated to an impressive repertoire of straight-from-Genoa southern-Italian dishes and as many of the romano-cheese-topped, garlic-packed bread knots as you can hold. Come back on a Wednesday night, when Sinatra clone Frank Lechuga croons "Volare" and other Italian love songs while you sip Chianti and slurp real red sauce. Now, that's amore.

Best Pasta Restaurant
Pastina
1485 S. Colorado Blvd.

Instead of pretending to be an Italian restaurant, Pastina uses its noodle--and how. The kitchen offers ten different pasta dishes, from marinara and primavera to pesto and Alfredo, each with a choice of five noodle sizes and three types of bread on the side (we're fond of the focaccia). Even better: Despite the high quality of the ingredients and the large portions, nothing costs over $6.50. Eat in or take it home to the family--they'll love you pasta point of reason.

Readers' choice: Bella Ristorante

Best Plate of Spaghetti
Amadeo's
5025 W. 44th Ave.

Sooner or later, the whole porcini-prosciutto-seafood Alfredo-fusilli thing makes us see red--red sauce, that is. What we crave is a simple plate of spaghetti, and that's when we head to Amadeo's for lunch. Between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., this cozy haven serves a garlic-laden tomato sauce teeming with homemade, spicy meatballs and sausage over thick, al dente spaghetti, accompanied by a hunk of garlic bread sprinkled with oregano. There's no place like Rome--but this comes close.

 

Readers' choice: The Old Spaghetti Factory

Best Risotto
Mel's Bar and Grill
235 Fillmore St.

Ten years ago, no one outside of Milan ate risotto; now it's on every menu but the one at McDonald's. It shouldn't be, because few restaurants make it right. In fact, it's almost impossible for them to do so. Risotto can't be made ahead, and while it's cooking, someone has to stand over it and baby the rice along by pouring hot stock over it a half-cup at a time. Because of its high starch content, Arborio rice falls apart on the outside and remains rock-hard in the center any time the cooking process is rushed with large amounts of liquid--which means that more often than not, risotto comes out of the kitchen with the texture of BBs in a sea of oatmeal. But to those restaurateurs in Denver who blame the altitude--with its lower boiling point--for ruined risotto, Mel's owner Melvyn Master says, "Baloney." And he and his kitchen walk the talk by shuffling out great steamy mounds of perfectly cooked Arborio rice, delectably creamy but with each grain separate and firm.

Best Polenta
Washington Park Grill
1096 S. Gaylord St.

Polenta is second only to mashed potatoes as a starchy side these days, although most of the time it's dried out, covered with vegetables and tossed as a bone to vegetarians. But the Washington Park Grill knows how to mush--they'll take this sweet cornmeal cake and swim it in a sea of cream sauce populated by pieces of shrimp and crab. Or, if you'd like to meat it halfway, try the polenta grilled with a kick-ass Italian sausage and then covered with marinara.

Best Thin Pizza
Papa's
540 E. Alameda Ave.

Where's Papa? We'd like to thank him for his perfect pizzas. Once again, Papa's takes the prize for its simple yet superb pie--a thin-but-sturdy crust with huge love handles on the side that help hold in excessive amounts of runny mozarella and spicy, oregano-y tomato sauce.

Readers' choice: Pizza Hut

Best Thick Pizza
Pantaleone's
2120 S. Holly St.

This place lays it on thick--and we're convinced. No one knows better than Pantaleone's how to combine a welcome overabundance of crust with all the right toppings. Things like fresh, whole basil leaves, sliced marinated olives and fiery Italian sausage, all topping a French bread-style dough. The end result might be more like an open-face sandwich, but the taste never wears thin.

Readers' choice: Beau Jo's

Best Over-the-Top Pizza
Gino's Pizzeria
85 S. Union Blvd., Lakewood

We foolishly thought we'd seen every pizza topping combination there was--until we were forced to eat humble pie in the face of Gino's Pizza Gino. This wheel is covered with--are you ready?--fresh and sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, artichokes, pistachio nuts, mozzarella cheese and roasted grapes (yes, grapes), all drizzled with olive oil. It's like munching your way through an Italian produce store.

Best Ready-Made Pizza Dough
Basil's Cafe Pizza Dough
Alfalfa's

Basil's has done the work for you: mixed the dough, let it rise, the works. All you have to do is pick up a frozen wad at the closest Alfalfa's, let it defrost, then smush it into a pizza pan and cover it with your favorite goo. At $1.69 a crust, it's cheaper than that cheesy Boboli stuff and tastes 600 percent better. Keep a couple of these in the freezer in case a pizza craving strikes.

Best French Restaurant
The Normandy
1515 Madison St.

Since the Normandy battled its way back to the top of French dining in Denver, executive chef Robert Mancuso has proven that he knows how to parlay French cooking into a winner in any language. The menu is a brilliant balance of old and new, with chateaubriand sharing space with roasted quail in a cherry-pear relish, and the reasonable prices make this more than a special-occasion spot. The dining room recently received a minor but cheering facelift, and Karen Wolfe-Hermann, who runs the Normandy and its bistro, Chez Michelle, is one of the most charming and proficient managers in the business.

Best Mediterranean Restaurant
The Mediterranean Restaurant
1002 Walnut St., Boulder

Boulder residents are so familiar with the joys of the Mediterranean that they call it "the Med" and frequent it in droves. Rather than relying on its name to merely put a froufrou label on Middle Eastern fare, this comfy restaurant takes on the entire region. The tapas bar is out of this world, serving a true sampling of tidbits that whet instead of drench the appetite--pick at toasted almonds, ham-and-cheese panini, miniature shrimp croquettes--and the regular menu overflows with Mediterranean specialties that cover the whole territory. Chef Tim Reynolds charts the waters with such Mediterranean delights as Spanish seafood stew, souvlaki, spaghettini di mare and lamb kabobs. What a culinary tour! Join the club at Med.

 

Readers' choice: Yanni's

Best Middle Eastern Restaurant
Jerusalem
1890 E. Evans Ave.

We say a prayer of thanks every time we step into Jerusalem. At no other Middle Eastern restaurant are the portions as generous as a sheik, the food as satisfying as water in the desert, the scene as comfortable as a camel's back, and the prices far cheaper than a barrel of oil. Make a pilgrimage and see for yourself.

Readers' choice: Jerusalem

Best Chips and Salsa
Ogden Cafe
1076 Ogden St.

The Ogden is a neighborhood joint that serves not one, not two, but four cuisines from the same kitchen: American, Asian, Italian and Mexican. Although all are done with reasonable success, it's the Mexican fritas that grab our attention. The chips are deep-fried triangles of flour tortillas; the salsa is a thin but not watery blend of tomatoes and jalapenos, with a light touch of the cilantro. Put the two together, and we'll bet you can't eat just one. The large appetizer is almost too much for two, but four will certainly want more. Follow it up with a plate of the Ogden's authentic Alfredo or the sticky Korean-style ribs.

Best Green Chile
Munecas
4500 Washington St.

It's not easy being a green-chile lover in Denver--so many green chiles, so little time. But it only takes a few minutes at Munecas to realize that owner Dolly Kelley has cooked up something special with her verde. Some people like their green chile thin, some like it gravy-thick; some like it sweet, others like it tomatillo-tart; everyone, of course, likes it hot. Kelley tried numerous combinations before settling on a winning, chunky mixture of pork, tomatoes and the New Mexican Hatch chile, a somewhat sweet, medium-hot pepper that's doesn't anesthetize your tongue. Instead, it lets the flavors of all the ingredients shine through. Feel the green power.

Readers' choice: Blue Bonnet

Best Red Chile
The Fort
19192 Hwy 8, Morrison

None of this watered-down stuff using tomatoes to stretch the budget: Fort owner Sam Arnold lavishes the same effort on his red chile that he invests in his more exotic, what's-new-is-Old West dishes. He combs the world looking for the best chiles but ironically finds many close to home in New Mexico. Arnold particularly prizes the Dixon chile, with its mellow but sophisticated flavor. The Fort roasts a whole mess of them, purees them with plenty of garlic and a smidgen of oregano, then ladles the mixture over lean broiled pork chops. Although this chile is to die for, remember: Better red than dead.

Best Chili Con Carne
Denver Buffalo Company
1109 Lincoln St.

With all those red and green chiles burning their way down our gullets, sometimes we forget what the rest of the country considers chili--the con carne model. One bite of the Denver Buffalo Company's chili will remind you of what you've been missing. The carne is key to this stew: Chunks of tender, lean buffalo dominate the mix of beans, sauce and assorted spices, for a taste that bowls you over. You'll never look at a can of Van de Kamp's the same way again.

Readers' choice: Chili's

Best Unconventional Mole
The Roundup Grill
28215 Hwy. 74, Evergreen

People are finally catching on that mole isn't just a chocolate sauce but a mixture of many ingredients that varies depending on who's doing the cooking. Most often it's a blend of onion, garlic, chiles, ground seeds such as pumpkin, and a tiny amount of Mexican chocolate. The Roundup ropes us in with a version that uses almonds in the place of seeds, Anaheim peppers for a mild bite and white chocolate for an incredibly rich, buttery flavor--and then pours it on top of a free-range chicken breast. Mole!

Best Huevos Rancheros
Bamboo Hut
2449 Larimer St.

Where's the fire? Right here. Sometimes you deserve an award merely for hauling yourself out of bed in the morning. Bamboo Hut, the oddly named Mexican restaurant tucked into a corner of Larimer Street, has just the prize. An order of its huevos rancheros comes overflowing with the hottest green chile in town (the owners grow their own chiles), which manages to pack plenty of flavor into the fire. Underneath are two eggs cooked eggzactly as you order them; alongside come spicy rice and excellent frijoles, in which the beans have not been pounded to the consistency of baby food. (Occasionally the eggs come with a side of spaghetti, which makes about as much sense as the restaurant's name. Don't bother trying to figure out why--just enjoy.) If your circumstances are particularly dire--read: hung over--squeeze on extra hot-hot salsa and order a few beers to put out the blaze. At $1.50 per, the Coronas are a real reason to rise and shine.

 

Readers' choice: Gregorio's
end of part 4


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