At the end of last year, we published our list of the ten best restaurants that had opened in 2011 -- as we saw them at the time. Over the next few months, though, as we prepared for the Best of Denver 2012, we had a chance to really digest what the 300 new restaurants had brought to the city, and our ranking of contenders for the Best New Restaurant award shifted.
Now that the issue has hit the streets, we're updating our short list. Here, in no particular order, is our definitive list of the best new restaurants of 2011.
Thai Street Food Restaurant, 11650 Montview Boulevard, Aurora Several street-food operators went stationary this year, including Utumporn Killoran, the woman who's had a Thai cart on the 16th Street Mall for more than five years. Most days, Killoran uses this spot in Aurora as a commissary kitchen, prepping to feed the masses downtown. But on Saturday, she opens it up as a proper eatery, Thai Street Food Restaurant, serving specialties from the Issan region of Thailand -- and some of the best curries and noodle dishes in town. And for her efforts, she landed our Best Thai Restaurant award this year.
Maria Empanada, 5209 West Mississippi Avenue, Lakewood The first time we stopped by Maria Empanada, which scored our Best Central/South American Restaurant award, we wanted to weep tears of joy. Lorena Cantarovici opened this spot last year after her catering business expanded and necessitated a bigger kitchen. The place is tiny (she only has two tables), but Cantarovici still manages to turn out big flavor: authentic Argentine empanadas, tartas and tortillas Españolas, as well as excellent alfajores made with dulce de leche. Stop in and you'll also be treated to a conversation with Cantarovici herself, who is tiny, sassy and joyful.
Tao Tao Noodle Bar, 10400 East Sixth Avenue, Aurora Every time we eat at Tao Tao Noodle Bar, a Chinese restaurant on the edge of Lowry, we suffer intense food envy: We can stuff ourselves to the point of bursting and still want to order whatever it is that we see on the next table. The giant menu at this opulent joint spans American Chinese and Chinese Chinese, with many specialties from Shanghai and Taiwan tucked into the mix. We especially love the juicy pork dumplings -- in fact, they won our Best Xiao Long Bao award -- and we're eternally appreciative of the staff, which is one of the most gracious in town. We're glad that David Lee and May Sung opened this place after their last restaurant, the beloved Chopsticks China Bistro, went dark.
Pizzeria Locale, 1738 Pearl Street, Boulder Seven years ago, Bobby Stuckey and chef Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson opened Frasca Food & Wine, a game-changing restaurant that raised the bar for every fine-dining concept that's entered the market since. It took them half a decade to figure out what to do next, but they ultimately settled on a true Napolitano pizzeria. To pull it off, they exported a chef for a few months and imported an oven, zeroing in on making pies exactly as they're made in Italy. And today Pizzeria Locale is turning out some of the best pizza in the state -- it nabbed our Best Pizza award -- alongside charcuterie, stunning desserts and the partners' Scarpetta wine, which pours on tap.
Cafe|Bar, 295 South Pennsylvania Street After they'd landed this spot on Alameda northwest of Washington Park, Cafe|Bar owner Dane Huguley and chef Eric Rivera examined the neighborhood to determine what kind of restaurant would best fit the area. The result was a reimagined neighborhood joint, a spot that could lure nearby residents for any occasion, be it a dinner date, a nightcap or a working lunch. With a sexy design and sourcing that focuses on local, sustainably grown ingredients, the pair put together a menu of American fare that does just what they set out to do: draw a community of regulars. As a result, it was our pick for Best Neighborhood Restaurant.
Linger, 2030 West 30th Avenue From the moment it opened, crowds crammed through the doors of Linger, the kitschy morgue-themed restaurant that Justin Cucci put in the old Olinger's mortuary. That's because with this restaurant, Cucci filled a niche that Denver didn't even know was empty. The sexy spot features a board of innovative global street food created by Cucci and chef Daniel Asher, which is perfect for nibbling with offerings from the killer beverage list, including a martini that landed our Best Martini award. The bars feature sweeping views of the skyline; the rooftop deck was our Best Restaurant Patio With a View.
TAG|RAW BAR, 1430 Larimer Street Troy Guard's TAG was already entrenched in Larimer Square, so when he picked up the basement spot that houses TAG RAW|BAR a few doors down the street, it was to provide an extension to his existing efforts. But this space stands on its own. Because it doesn't really have a kitchen, Guard uses it to turn out tartare, sashimi and ceviche variations, raw dishes that are some of the most inventive in town. And his staff turns it out in a bright, hip spot that -- luckily -- has expanded into the space next door.
Axios Estiatorio, 3901 Tennyson Street Axios Estiatorio scooped up our Best Greek Restaurant award this year, and in a city that doesn't have a lot of great Greek food, it was a welcome addition to the dining scene at large. Owner Telly Topakas has had more classic Greek restaurants in Colorado Springs for years, but with Axios, he went more upscale. He also brought on Royce Oliveira, a Greek-cuisine novice, to run the kitchen. It was a good move -- Oliveira isn't a slave to authenticity, and he created a menu that captures the fresh flavors of Greece while elevating them into something special, too. The breezy room and attentive staff make the place a good choice for both a casual night out and a special occasion.
The Wooden Table, 2500 East Orchard Road, Littleton When Frank Bonanno alum Brett Shaheen struck out on his own, he didn't nab an address in one of central Denver's hottest restaurant neighborhoods. Instead he went south, establishing the Wooden Table in Greenwood Village and quickly finding favor with the area's discriminating diners, who flock to his Italian restaurant noon and night. His lunch menu -- Italian sandwiches, salads and housemade pastas -- do the trick when you're craving something beyond grab-and-go; his thoughtful, seasonal dinner menu is a delightful compilation of impeccably prepared dishes that showcase flawless technique and careful attention to detail -- and his pork tenderloin with bread pudding and green split peas nabbed a spot on our 100 Favorite Dishes list.
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1. Pinche Taqueria, 1514 York Street Every restaurant on this list was a special addition to the Denver dining scene, but none more so than the one that took the Best New Restaurant prize: Pinche Taqueria, the tiny restaurant that Kevin Morrison built on Colfax and York. The place serves up a simple board of gringified street tacos that the owner first perfected at his truck, in addition to a few appetizers and the best churros we've ever had. The list pairs to a cheeky tequila- and whiskey-focused cocktail list, which happens to also include our Best House Margarita. But what really makes this place so great is the fact that it's more than a sum of its parts: It appeals not just to our bellies, but to our souls -- and it's a top-notch representation of what's great about eating out in Denver.
A fast footnote: RIP Wild Catch, where I ate a great meal right before it closed. And an honorable mention goes to Ambria, which would have made this list under chef Jeremy Kittelson; it's too early to include Gabe Balenzuela's version, since he just took over the kitchen this month, but we're hopeful he'll just add to what's already been started there.