Each year, a few Best of Denver food finalists are culled from the herd for the simple but crucial reason that the restaurants close before the issue comes out. And this year was no different: Several eateries that had distinguished themselves since last year's awards shut their doors before they could be lauded. One that barely made the cut was Santino's (1939 Blake Street), which served the town's Best Lunch Buffet, a whopping Italian feast, through last Friday, the day after the Best of Denver hit the streets -- and the day that Santino's moved pasta point of no return. Santino's space has been taken over by Bella Ristorante, which sold its home at 1920 Market Street earlier this year; Bella plans to reopen in LoDo, serving its same menu, perhaps as early as the first week in August. (Look for B-52 Billiards, which bought Bella's original home, to debut sometime in September.) A second Bella's, which had been located inside Park Meadows, just moved into the former home of Lamonica's Steak and Chop House, at 8770 East Arapahoe Road in Englewood; that Bella's should be open for business in late July. (Lamonica's, too, is rumored to be switching to another spot, although since no one answered the phone there last week, it's unclear what the steakhouse's plans are. If Lamonica's is resurrected, let's hope those excellent blue-cheese dinner rolls -- a Best Of winner in 1999 -- also rise again.)
Just two blocks away from Santino's, Wazoo's (1819 Wazee Street) plans to change its overall concept -- although I have it on good authority that the place won't drop its winning Best Thursday-Night Special of buck tacos and $2.50 margs, at least not before fall. But there's no saving Pony Expresso (501 West 12th Avenue), which suffered through a year's worth of construction in the Golden Triangle, holding on until just a few weeks ago. I miss Pony Expresso's fabulous chicken-walnut salad, but I'm glad to hear that Diane's Good-to-Go may open a third outlet in the space. (The other Diane's are at 7537 South University Boulevard in Littleton and 2900 East Sixth Avenue.)
At the moment, I'm still going with Yan-Kee Noodle, 77 West Alameda Avenue, as the Best Dinner Under $5 -- even if Billy Lam is no longer preparing the noodle bowls I raved about in my June 22 review, "Noodling Around." Seems that Lam got an offer he couldn't refuse on the small, Alameda-facing eatery from a couple who wanted to maintain the status quo. So for now, at least, Lam's back manning the woks at his Chef's Noodle House (10400 East Sixth Avenue, Aurora). But don't count on getting the Best Chips and Salsa at La Fabula (2637 West 26th Avenue). Best salsas, yes -- the restaurant still brings out a trio of well-melded and -- even better -- complimentary salsas. But to go with the salsas, La Fabula now offers up...cheese bread? What's the deal? Turns out the tri-colored chips I so enjoyed (and used as a color lesson for my kids) were a short-term lunchtime treat, and now that bread is served at all meals. Bad idea. This uneven eatery shows promise ("Say What?" June 15), but needs to improve its food both in concept (cheese bread?) and preparation. Otherwise, let the chips fall where they may.
The metro area also lost two of my Mexican standbys. A funky little space that served great burritos, Danny Joe's (1432 East 22nd Avenue), was pretty much carry-out only, but you had to make space in the trunk of your car in order to take home an El Gato Gordo "super burrito," at $7 a bargain meal for four. The tamales at Las Carretas (3250 Youngfield Street, Wheat Ridge) were so good that I actually held a party just to turn some friends on to them; the eatery, which was located in a former ice cream shop, also served great ice cream. But no one is answering the phone at Las Carretas these days, either. Those in immediate need of tamales can always stop by last year's winners, two spots owned by Paul Sandoval: La Casita, at 4390 West 44th Avenue, and La Casa de Tamales, at 3561 Tejon Street.
Some places didn't close, but they stopped making or doing whatever it was that would have garnered them recognition. Basil Ristorante (846 Broadway), for instance, stopped its free-food Festivus nights, which were the best Wednesday-night specials going; Tosh's Hacienda (3090 Downing Street and 5070 South Syracuse Parkway) discontinued its weekend brunch, which had boasted the best chipotle hollandaise sauce ever on the eggs Benedict. (Although you can still order eggy items at Tosh's on the weekends, none have that killer hollandaise.) And while Sushi Terrace (8162 South Holly Street, Littleton) dropped the 99-cent sushi happy-hour deal it had going for a while, it's still a worthy stop for some superb raw fish.
My toughest decision by far this year involved the best burger, which wound up going to Bang! (3609 West 32nd Avenue), but CityGrille (321 East Colfax Avenue) was a close contender. So close, for that matter, that I had to test both burgers -- again -- back-to-back in a sprint across town two days before deadline. CityGrille's beef on a bun is worth checking out, particularly on Monday nights, when you get a burger, a beer and great fries for $5.95. The burger is a fat, juicy, half-pound rectangle of meat, seasoned and grilled, delivered on a rustic roll from the best bakery in town, Bluepoint (another Best of Denver awardee). While at CityGrille, don't miss the mean gringo green chile, which netted the joint an award this year.
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Other excellent burgers include those served by My Brother's Bar (2376 15th Street), a former burger winner and this year's Best Old Bar; Mel's Bar and Grill (235 Fillmore Street); Pint's Pub (221 West 13th Avenue); the Cherry Cricket (2641 East Second Avenue); Trinity Grille (1801 Broadway); Bistro Adde Brewster (250 Steele Street); and 240 Union (240 Union Street, Lakewood).
Another hotly contested award was for best barbecue. Brother's BBQ (6499 Leetsdale Drive, with -- thank God! -- a second location about to open at 568 Washington Street) came out on top, but not before I gnawed on a lot of bones from We're Smokin' Barbecue (2680 South Havana, Aurora); Blest Bar-B-Q of the Rockies (5654 South Prince Street, Littleton); and M&D BBQ and Fish Palace (2004 East 28th Avenue), all three of which are worthy of awards themselves. And, in fact, M&D's, a Denver institution, has garnered plenty over the years, while both Blest and We're Smokin' made appearances in the 2000 edition.
Much of my Best of Denver research this year involved following up on readers' recommendations. A big thanks, but no thanks, to the fellow who sent me to Gabriel's Hot Wings (616 East 13th Avenue). Although Gabriel's fries up some decent wings, under that excellent Tabasco-ey sauce, the skin was kind of flabby. Much better were the winning wings at Calypso Grill (2334 Welton Street), which took over the former home of Cat Island. Better luck this time.
And finally, apologies to two Best Of winners whose phone numbers may have been wrong, but whose awards were not. To reach Dazzle (930 Lincoln Street), home of the Best Bar Burger, dial 303-839-5100; to reach Piscos (1120 East Sixth Avenue), which fries up the town's Best French Fries, call 303-777-8222.