If at first you don't succeed at finding a great Thai restaurant, Thai, Thai again -- until you stumble upon Thai Bistro. This is a humble, unassuming space, located in a strip mall with no fanfare, but what savvy chef/owner Noi Phromthong cooks up deserves to be billboarded around town. Once diners have settled into this this sparsely decorated, yet somehow stylish, eatery, the service is attentive and graceful, and the food comes out looking like art. Phromthong combines curries and coconut milk, chiles and fresh herbs in ways that show his keen insight into the importance of balance and proportion. A rich, sweet pad Thai arrives with each noodle carefully laid across the plate, shrimp delicately placed to one side and garnishes galore; an extra-hot panang curry brings a huge helping of supple chicken wok-tossed with bell peppers and fresh basil held together with a coconut sauce enhanced with fennel and coriander. The curries are sweat-inducing, and the appetizers are the kind of addictive tidbits that really make a Thai meal: crunchy spring rolls, soft, steamed dumplings, and creamy-centered, deep-fried tofu, each with its own distinctive sauce and plethora of attractive -- and edible -- garnishes.

Readers' choice: Tommy's Thai

If at first you don't succeed at finding a great Thai restaurant, Thai, Thai again -- until you stumble upon Thai Bistro. This is a humble, unassuming space, located in a strip mall with no fanfare, but what savvy chef/owner Noi Phromthong cooks up deserves to be billboarded around town. Once diners have settled into this this sparsely decorated, yet somehow stylish, eatery, the service is attentive and graceful, and the food comes out looking like art. Phromthong combines curries and coconut milk, chiles and fresh herbs in ways that show his keen insight into the importance of balance and proportion. A rich, sweet pad Thai arrives with each noodle carefully laid across the plate, shrimp delicately placed to one side and garnishes galore; an extra-hot panang curry brings a huge helping of supple chicken wok-tossed with bell peppers and fresh basil held together with a coconut sauce enhanced with fennel and coriander. The curries are sweat-inducing, and the appetizers are the kind of addictive tidbits that really make a Thai meal: crunchy spring rolls, soft, steamed dumplings, and creamy-centered, deep-fried tofu, each with its own distinctive sauce and plethora of attractive -- and edible -- garnishes.

Readers' choice: Tommy's Thai

New Saigon
Mark Manger
Denver has a number of decent Vietnamese restaurants, but New Saigon outshines them all. Although service remains a crapshoot and the tidy, simply adorned place isn't going to win any awards for innovative decor, the Vietnamese dishes that come out of the kitchen are unsurpassed. Choose from hundreds of entrees --many variations on a theme, with the kind of meat making the difference -- and then expect to get nothing but the best, from the egg and spring rolls to the garlic-kissed frogs' legs and marinated meats so sweet and tender they're almost like flesh candy. The noodle bowls are inexpensive but generous and packed with good ingredients; the garnishes are plentiful and fresh; and the dipping sauces could not be more authentic. New Saigon is an oldie that's still a goodie.

Readers' choice: New Saigon

Denver has a number of decent Vietnamese restaurants, but New Saigon outshines them all. Although service remains a crapshoot and the tidy, simply adorned place isn't going to win any awards for innovative decor, the Vietnamese dishes that come out of the kitchen are unsurpassed. Choose from hundreds of entrees --many variations on a theme, with the kind of meat making the difference -- and then expect to get nothing but the best, from the egg and spring rolls to the garlic-kissed frogs' legs and marinated meats so sweet and tender they're almost like flesh candy. The noodle bowls are inexpensive but generous and packed with good ingredients; the garnishes are plentiful and fresh; and the dipping sauces could not be more authentic. New Saigon is an oldie that's still a goodie.

Readers' choice: New Saigon

What makes an Indian restaurant good isn't just the quality of the spices it uses or the touch of its tandoori -- although those things are very, very important indeed -- but also the way the proprietors welcome diners, treating them as if they were a significant part of the transaction. That attitude is very much in evidence at the simple but elegant Star of India, an amiable Indian eatery in an Aurora strip mall that not only serves beautifully prepared and luscious Indian food, but does so with a friendliness that makes dining there a pleasure. Owners Paul Gill and his parents, mom Kapoor and dad Gurmukh, worked with chef Balwant Singh on the menu, so the recipes are a collaboration that benefits from Singh's culinary background and the family's down-home Indian sensibilities. The resulting dishes pair meats so tender they seem almost unreal with pungent, deeply layered sauces that rely on tranditional Indian spicing methods. The lamb korma and shrimp vindaloo are knockouts, and Star of India's tandoori wings put Buffalo's versions to shame. The restaurant's naan sense is sound, too, because the flatbreads are the best in town, especially the sweet, raisin-studded kabli. All in all, this Star's future looks bright.

Readers' choice: Little India

What makes an Indian restaurant good isn't just the quality of the spices it uses or the touch of its tandoori -- although those things are very, very important indeed -- but also the way the proprietors welcome diners, treating them as if they were a significant part of the transaction. That attitude is very much in evidence at the simple but elegant Star of India, an amiable Indian eatery in an Aurora strip mall that not only serves beautifully prepared and luscious Indian food, but does so with a friendliness that makes dining there a pleasure. Owners Paul Gill and his parents, mom Kapoor and dad Gurmukh, worked with chef Balwant Singh on the menu, so the recipes are a collaboration that benefits from Singh's culinary background and the family's down-home Indian sensibilities. The resulting dishes pair meats so tender they seem almost unreal with pungent, deeply layered sauces that rely on tranditional Indian spicing methods. The lamb korma and shrimp vindaloo are knockouts, and Star of India's tandoori wings put Buffalo's versions to shame. The restaurant's naan sense is sound, too, because the flatbreads are the best in town, especially the sweet, raisin-studded kabli. All in all, this Star's future looks bright.

Readers' choice: Little India

Since taking over the Phoenicia Grill, a small but cheerful Middle Eastern eatery, earlier this year, owner Jim Kher has done nothing but improve upon what was already a distinctive spot. In the hip, streamlined space, Kher's chef, Mustafa Awada, displays his extensive culinary-school background and extensive experience at Middle Eastern restaurants with some finely prepared fare. For instance, both the hummus and the baba ghanouj are stellar examples; they each display a creamy texture and sharpness of flavor rarely found around here. The crunchy balls of soft-as-bread falafel are homemade, as are the nakanek, small finger sausages cooked with cilantro and red-wine vinegar and garnished with pine nuts. Other traditional dishes also shine: A thick, hearty moussaka comes covered with a tangy, chunky tomato sauce, and the shawarma features strips of meat that have been grilled until just done so the meat stays moist and tender. If you had to pick just one thing that proves Phoenicia's prowess, though, it would be anything involving kabobs -- lean, well-marinated meats cooked on skewers with mixed vegetables. But then you'd be missing some of Phoenicia's real surprises, such as the flu-shot chicken vegetable soup made with Lebanese spices, and the deep-fried kibbeh -- cracked wheat and beef finely chopped with pine nuts, walnuts and onions -- that few Middle Eastern restaurants take the time to prepare.

Readers' choice: Jerusalem

Since taking over the Phoenicia Grill, a small but cheerful Middle Eastern eatery, earlier this year, owner Jim Kher has done nothing but improve upon what was already a distinctive spot. In the hip, streamlined space, Kher's chef, Mustafa Awada, displays his extensive culinary-school background and extensive experience at Middle Eastern restaurants with some finely prepared fare. For instance, both the hummus and the baba ghanouj are stellar examples; they each display a creamy texture and sharpness of flavor rarely found around here. The crunchy balls of soft-as-bread falafel are homemade, as are the nakanek, small finger sausages cooked with cilantro and red-wine vinegar and garnished with pine nuts. Other traditional dishes also shine: A thick, hearty moussaka comes covered with a tangy, chunky tomato sauce, and the shawarma features strips of meat that have been grilled until just done so the meat stays moist and tender. If you had to pick just one thing that proves Phoenicia's prowess, though, it would be anything involving kabobs -- lean, well-marinated meats cooked on skewers with mixed vegetables. But then you'd be missing some of Phoenicia's real surprises, such as the flu-shot chicken vegetable soup made with Lebanese spices, and the deep-fried kibbeh -- cracked wheat and beef finely chopped with pine nuts, walnuts and onions -- that few Middle Eastern restaurants take the time to prepare.

Readers' choice: Jerusalem

Although the sign out front promises "Aegean Dining in the Venus Room," there's nothing about this dark, divey eatery that indicates the dining inside is going to be anything but mediocre. But get ready to take the plunge, because South Central II serves the best gyros, the best avgolemono soup, the best souvlaki and the best moussaka in town. Before you get to eat those treats, though, you'll have to make your way through the smoky bar, with its blaring TV and Bud-downing regulars, to the Venus Room, a dimly lit, foliage-filled space that holds about a half-dozen tables and about as many little Greek statues and tattered-edged posters of the Mediterranean. But one bite of the gyros, with its greasy juice and moist meat, and those sides of fat French fries and a thicker-than-usual tsatsiki sauce, should convince you that you've gone authentically Greek. A few slurps of the avgolemono should seal the deal: This chicken-based, lemon and egg soup with rice is Venus in liquid form, a beautiful yellow elixir that will have you using a piece of pita to sop up the last drops. Every entree comes with that soup and a salad, a Greek assemblage that includes lettuce, tomatoes, olives and feta, all drizzled with a yogurt-based, black-pepper-laced dressing. Finish off your meal with a triangle of honey-drenched baklava, and thank the Greek gods for the Venus Room.

South Central II
Although the sign out front promises "Aegean Dining in the Venus Room," there's nothing about this dark, divey eatery that indicates the dining inside is going to be anything but mediocre. But get ready to take the plunge, because South Central II serves the best gyros, the best avgolemono soup, the best souvlaki and the best moussaka in town. Before you get to eat those treats, though, you'll have to make your way through the smoky bar, with its blaring TV and Bud-downing regulars, to the Venus Room, a dimly lit, foliage-filled space that holds about a half-dozen tables and about as many little Greek statues and tattered-edged posters of the Mediterranean. But one bite of the gyros, with its greasy juice and moist meat, and those sides of fat French fries and a thicker-than-usual tsatsiki sauce, should convince you that you've gone authentically Greek. A few slurps of the avgolemono should seal the deal: This chicken-based, lemon and egg soup with rice is Venus in liquid form, a beautiful yellow elixir that will have you using a piece of pita to sop up the last drops. Every entree comes with that soup and a salad, a Greek assemblage that includes lettuce, tomatoes, olives and feta, all drizzled with a yogurt-based, black-pepper-laced dressing. Finish off your meal with a triangle of honey-drenched baklava, and thank the Greek gods for the Venus Room.

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