In just over a year, the Ethniche column has covered more than fifty restaurants and the food of a dozen cultures and regional styles, from the starting point in Hawaii sampling fried Spam and tuna poke to this month's tour of the city's Peruvian cuisine. In that time, there have been a few disappointments and some mediocre dishes, but mostly the quality and diversity of Denver's restaurant scene has been the real story. Aurora's Korean eateries are more varied and competitive than ever, with late-night bars and soup specialists vying for customers with established Korean barbecues and delightfully goofy bakeries. Ethiopian spots along Colfax Avenue and Havana Street continue to serve up spice-laden stews and fresh injera bread, while the last year has witnessed a new generation of pit masters raising the level of smokehouse barbecue to respectable heights. Here are the ten best dishes from a year of Ethniche, in alphabetical order.
Catfish King is true to its name.
10) Fried Catfish at Catfish King
12203 East Iliff Avenue, Aurora
There aren't too many soul food joints in the metro area, so standouts like Cora Faye's Cafe and the Welton Street Cafe continue to draw customers, but Aurora newcomer Catfish King has been packing its dining room by offering a variety of expertly fried fish, simply prepared barbecue and rib-sticking sides. The catfish is indeed king here, served in big, meaty slabs coated in a cornmeal crust perked up with black pepper and a dash of other Southern seasonings. The contrast between the flaky, steaming fillet — creamy white and mild — and the noisy crunch of the crust earn this fish Denver's catfish crown. Just don't forget the hushpuppies.
China Tai Pei's pork belly is traditional and delicious.
9) Pork belly with Chinese pickled cabbage at China Taipei
8100 South Quebec Street, Centennial
China Taipei has been serving the south suburbs since before Centennial was an official city, offering both well-made American-Chinese dishes and more traditional Taiwanese fare from a separate menu. The pork belly with pickled cabbage on that second menu comes as a mahogany hill of sliced meat, slow cooked and glazed with a deep brown sauce. A ring of braised pickled greens surrounds the meat, creating a moat of bittersweet from a mixture of the slow-cooked greens and bean-paste-based sauce. The pickled vegetables also had an undercurrent of funky, fermented flavor — not sour like store-bought sauerkraut but earthy like naturally fermented pickles or beets. It's a unique and deeply satisfying dish — one to share with friends and family so you can talk about it for days afterward.
Funny Plus takes fried chicken seriously.
8) Korean Fried Chicken at Funny Plus
2779 South Parker Road, Aurora
Sure, you can find powerful and salty tofu soup concoctions simmering in stone bowls at Tofu House or piles of spice-stained beef ready for the tabletop grill at Silla, but if you want Korean bar food in the form of shattering-shelled chicken perfect with a bottle of soju or Hite lager, you have to head to Funny Plus, the Seoul-style Hof (as beer bars are known in Korea) where you can also order casserole-sized servings of rice cakes in tangy sauce called tteokbokki or American-influenced budae jjigae (also called army-base stew). Order the fried chicken plain, sauced or half-and-half — just skip the Colonel's place in favor of this fun version of KFC — where the K stands for Korean.
7) Dosa at Khazana
9234 Park Meadows Drive, Lone Tree
The lentil flour crepes called dosa come with a number of different fillings at Khazana, from simple but satisfying vegetarian potato and onion to rich goat curry, but the menu doesn't call them "super" for nothing: these dosa are bigger than a manhole cover and embedded with fresh herbs on the soft interior layer. Even if you and a friend start on either side and agree to meet in the middle, you probably won't make it, but each torn-off bite, dipped in the chutneys that come on the side, will take you closer to dosa nirvana.
It's too hard to choose just one favorite at King's Land.
6) Dim Sum at King's Land Seafood Restaurant
2200 West Alameda Avenue
The variety of dim sum available at King's Land means that picking just one favorite is nearly impossible. Translucent-skinned dumplings, crispy fried turnip cakes, glazed short ribs, fluffy buns — both sweet and savory, and glistening steamed greens all jockey for table space as cart pushers offer you more and more. Go big with a little of everything that comes by your table and sit back for a long, relaxing meal — a Hong Kong version of brunch for a weekend day.
5) Kitfo at Megenagna
306 South Ironton Street, Aurora
This little Ethiopian eatery attached to a market in Aurora specializes in tibs (marinated and grill meat) and kitfo (ground and seasoned beef), each served with a blanket of fresh injera, the sourdough flatbread that's the hallmark of Ethiopian cuisine. While Megenagna offers several styles of kitfo (including even a vegetarian version made with finely chopped greens and cardoon), the gurage kitfo offers a taste of two kinds of Ethiopian cheese, slow-cooked mustard greens and finely ground lean beef blended with a fiery spice mix. And although the beef is traditionally served raw, the kitchen will cook it to your preference. The owner of the market and restaurant also runs a bakery nearby, so the accompanying injera is moist, fresh and dark with imported teff flour.
Pupuseria San Salvador
4) Pupusas at Pupuseria San Salvador
4385 South Federal Boulevard, Sheridan
Head to this tiny Salvadorean eatery for some of the city's best hand-made pupusas, petite and tidy in their griddled cornmeal shells. There are only a few seats inside, but squeeze yourself in and enjoy these Latin American street-food treats. Order the revueltas, which come stuffed with beans, stringy white cheese and chicharron (In El Salvador, that's slow-cooked pork, instead of Mexican fried pork rind). Once cool enough to pick up, these are great finger food: tear off bites and top with a forkful of curtido — a mildly tangy cabbage slaw perked up with just the right amount of jalapeño slivers.
Suvipa Thai excels at hand-made curry puffs.
3) Curry Puffs at Suvipa Thai
1015 South Federal Boulevard
Like the pupusas above, Thai curry puffs are hand-made, savory pastries; the ringed pattern comes from a layering of two kinds of dough. At Suvipa, the hole in the wall Thai joint on Federal Boulevard, the puffs come filled with either taro or potato, both seasoned with a spice blend that arrived in Thailand via India over centuries of trade. The contrast of the hearty, warming filling with the delicate, flaky pastry gives the curry puffs a universal appeal. Go early because Suvipa often sells out of these appetizers, but if you miss out, there's still plenty to choose from on a menu that's bold and generous with spices like lime leaf, galangal and tamarind.
2) Vada at Tiffin's
2416 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder
A tiffin is a lunch box with separate compartments, or an afternoon snack carried inside. Tiffin's in Boulder offers a range of more well-known curries and biriyanis, but the standouts are South Indian street-food treats like vada, deep-fried doughuts made from an earthy, savory lentil- and rice-flour blend. Order a trio with two kinds of chutney or get them smothered in sambar, a chunky vegetable stew laced with tamarind. Either way, eat them quickly: the vada are tender and fluffy when hot but tend to become dense when cool. That's not a problem though: They're so good that they won't sit around long.
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SHOW ME HOW
1) Beef Brisket at Wayne's Smoke Shack
406 Center Drive, Superior
Denver has stepped up its barbecue game in recent year's thanks in part to transplants from the country's top meat-smoking regions. Wayne Shelnutt is one of those transplants, a Texan who was raised on Austin-style butcher-counter brisket, pork and hot links. Wayne's follows that butcher-counter model, where meats are weighed and priced by the pound and served on butcher paper with sauce on the side. The brisket is the purest form of Texas 'que, with a coffee-black bark, a deep pink smoke ring and juicy meat that threatens to fall apart with each bite. You get your choice of fat-side or lean-side brisket — so go for a little of both for bites of toothsome beef from the lean end and marbled, smoke-imbued slabs from the fatty end. Trust us - you won't even need the sauce.