Bested of Denver: I've been involved with the last six Best of Denver issues (there have been sixteen altogether), and the June 24 edition was the toughest yet. Yes, there are more restaurants here than when I started, but that doesn't mean there are more good restaurants--much less consistently good restaurants. In several categories, longtime locals won repeat awards simply because no newcomers had shown themselves to be consistently worthy.
The big exception: Best Pizza. The competition in this category has increased dramatically over the past three years, with many new spots opening to cater to recent residents who still long for the style of pies they could get back home. One of those places, Parisi (4408 Lowell Boulevard), took this year's prize for thick pizza; another relative newcomer, Vigitony's Mama Mia's (3531 South Logan Street in Englewood), snagged thin-pizza honors. Both places earned their honor by churning out top pies every time I stopped in.
The four runners-up simply didn't deliver as reliably. Like caller Julie Anders, I like the pizzas at Abo's (305 South Downing Street), but I've found they often suffer from overcooking and too much flour on the crust. I've also eaten frequently at Basil Doc's (2107 East Virginia Avenue), a favorite of caller Bob Jameson, but Doc's sometimes skimps on the sauce, which makes for a dry pie. At Oblio's (6155 East 22nd Avenue) and at last year's winner, Enzo's End (3424 East Colfax Avenue), the kitchens gave me undercooked pizzas two out of three times. But when all of these pizzas are done right, they're wonderful.
Another category that's grown more competitive is Best Burrito--not because there are so many good ones, but because there are so many local and chain eateries trying to emulate the success of winner Chipotle, now a sixteen-store empire. What they've failed to duplicate is Chipotle owner Steve Ells. He must never sleep, since he's managed to maintain quality control in a business where that's virtually impossible, especially considering the current labor problems. I sampled burritos at, among other places, Tortilla Wraps (1550 South Colorado Boulevard and 8601 West Cross Drive, Littleton), Bocaza Mexican Grill (1740 East 17th Avenue, 1 Broadway Place and 8101 East Belleview Avenue in Greenwood Village) and Z-Teca (thirteen metro locations), but none came close to matching the preparation, taste and value of Chipotle. (In fact, the burritos at Tortilla Wraps were stunningly bland.)
Of the burritos that readers recommended I sample, only a handful gave Chipotle any competition. I'd go back for the fat, flavorful puppies at Bandido's (4550 South Kipling Street)--and that's really the only reason to go back to this hole-in-the-wall (it sure isn't the surly service). I'd also give Las Carretas (3250 Youngfield Street in Lakewood) another try, because its shredded-beef burrito was fantastic. While a lot of people like the potatoes in the burritos at Senor Burrito (12 East First Avenue and 2553 Kipling Street), I thought they soaked up too much of the liquid from the meats. I'd also heard a lot of great things about the burritos at La Fiesta (2340 Champa Street), but they were stingy with the green chile, even after I ordered more on the side. (The thing to order at La Fiesta remains the chiles rellenos.) And speaking of stingy, the last two times I stopped by El Taco de Mexico's original outlet, at 714 Santa Fe Drive, the shredded-beef burritos were full of gristle and chewy fat.
Barbecue is another hotly contested category--in more ways than one. The only negative I've ever encountered with the classic barbecued ribs at M&D's Bar-B-Que and Fish Palace (2004 East 28th Avenue) is that sometimes they're just too damn greasy--and the thought of that grease occasionally dissuades me from stopping by this Denver institution. Instead, I've been hitting Best Barbecued Ribs winner Brothers BBQ (6499 Leetsdale Drive). Since they opened over a year ago, British bros Chris and Nick O'Sullivan have been tweaking their formula to make those delicious bones even better.
I also like We're Smokin' Barbecue (2680 South Havana in Aurora) for its melt-in-your-mouth beef brisket and Kansas City-style sauce; owner Bob Hovenden has been working on his recipe, too, wetting down the baked beans a bit and putting a few more hours on the brisket. (We're Smokin' took several top honors at last month's Denver Blues and Bones event.) Another favorite: Smokey's Bar-B-Que (1961 West 64th Avenue), which looks like just another house in this modest residential area but fires up the fattiest pork ends and most intense beef jerky around. Newer but as good is Brett's Bar-B-Que (3575 South Huron Street in Englewood), which won the Best Barbecued Chicken award but also was a runner-up in the ribs category.
And then, of course, there's the battle for Best Hamburger. The nod this time went to the Punch Bowl (2052 Stout Street), which beat perennial favorite (and Readers' Choice winner) My Brother's Bar (2376 15th Street). This was a tough decision, requiring many burgers--and many beers--from both locations before I could finally call it. In the end, the deciding factor was not so much the meat--both places use 80 percent lean sirloin--as the bun, which at the Punch Bowl was spongier and thus more suitable for juice-soaking. The Punch Bowl also does a great job with the toppings, cramming so much blue cheese or guacamole or what have you on top of the patty that stuff is always falling out into your lap. And I liked the strong char on the Punch Bowl's burger, which gives it that ideal cowtown, just-been-to-the-stock-show taste.
Owner Fritz Voelker had toyed with selling the Punch Bowl this year, then decided to keep it. Denver is better off for that decision; it would be a shame to lose this haphazardly charming joint, the city's second-oldest (continuing) tavern operation. With Voelker's renewed commitment comes a few changes: This week, he's introducing a new menu featuring authentic Mexican cuisine. But he promises that the burger will stay the same.
After all, you can't improve on the Best.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.