At the Hilltop Cafe, a charming, bright-yellow New American-style spot in a house on a hill in Golden, chef Ian Kleinman has made soups a specialty. His repertoire includes nearly a hundred concoctions, most of his own design, that he rotates regularly, and there isn't a loser among them. Kleinman does right by the classics -- a cool, creamy vichyssoise with a hint of chive; silky-smooth, basil-flecked tomato; dark, rich French onion topped with a broiled lid of bread and cheese -- but also stirs up some surprising combinations, such as roasted apple and tarragon and curried pumpkin. At Hilltop, the soup's not only on -- it's right on.
Fungi freaks can stop digging: Aix, a wonderful eatery with the air of Provence, makes the most of mushrooms with its wild-mushroom soup. Part chunky, part purée, this magical elixir tastes of nothing but 'shrooms -- from the pungent, heady broth to the butter-soft bits and a crowning touch of white-truffle oil. For true mycophagists -- you know who you are -- Aix marks the spot.


If Deli Tech served nothing but its pastrami sandwich, it would still be serving the best sandwiches in Denver. The pastrami is totally New Yawk-style, with succulent, fat-edged, well-seasoned beef straight from NYC's Carnegie Deli. Get it on rye -- anything else is heresy, really -- and savor the juice-soaked crusts at the end. Once you're ready for a break from pastrami (impossible to imagine), you can try the corned beef, or the roast beef, or the brisket, or the tongue; almost all of the meats are imported from back East. The egg salad is homemade, as is the chopped liver, and even the whitefish salad is a good catch. In fact, all of these sandwiches are deli to die for, and they're even better when paired with cold borscht and sour cream or crispy latkes, then washed down with an authentic egg cream. Still think there could be a better sandwich out there? Fuhgedaboudit!
Sure, sometimes it seems like it might be easier to drive to Philadelphia, home of the cheese-steak, than to negotiate the weird setup at Heritage Hills. But even back in Pennsylvania, you might not find a cheesesteak as good as the one made at Santoro's Brick Oven Pizzeria. This tidy joint, decorated with hand-painted murals and not-too-cutesy Italian knickknacks, makes an honest-to-goodness -- man, is it good! -- cheesesteak. It starts with a half-pound of thinly sliced sirloin, imported from Philly, that's chopped up on the grill with onions and then topped with plenty of provolone; the delicious mess is piled into Santoro's nine-inch, home-baked Italian roll, a thin, spongy loaf that holds the juices and the sandwich together.


CityGrille, a newly remodeled Capitol Hill hot spot, just keeps getting hotter -- and its burger just keeps getting better. To make its take on the American classic, the kitchen grills up 80 percent lean ground sirloin, then slaps it on a yielding, juice-soaking Bluepoint Bakery bun. The burgers are fine plain, but they're also good gussied up; one particularly successful combo sports an inch-thick blanket of melted Swiss, crisp bacon and a great Caesar dressing. Although the bar's a great place for taking your time over a burger and a few beers, the people-watching is prime in the dining room.
Owner Gene Tang has made many changes at 1515 over the years, not the least of which was shaving the restaurant's name down to a number. But he's added on everywhere else, from an expanded wine list that recently earned a coveted "Award of Excellence" from Wine Spectator to a host of dishes created by chef Olav Peterson that roam the world for inspiration. One item remains unchanged, though, and deliciously so: 1515's signature burger, a half a pound of charbroiled ground beef covered with melted Gorgonzola, grill-sautéed mushrooms and smoked bacon. This heart-stopping, palate-pleasing upgrade of an old standby comes with a crispy, creamy mound of potato salad that's been fried, believe it or not. Talk about over the top!


Handy, isn't it, for a restaurant that makes the town's best burger to also make its best French fries? Ronald McDonald, eat your heart out: These strips are the real deal, skinny and salty, with flavor that comes from a quick dip in hot oil rather than a trip to a flavor factory. The fries are delivered to your table so hot that grabbing one (and you will) could singe your fingers, but these crispy critters hold up even after a cooling-off period. This spud's for you, babe.


Olive and learn at Decisions, where the most intriguing appetizer is an order of deep-fried olives. The kitchen starts with black ones, stuffs them with Asiago cheese, covers them in seasoned breadcrumbs, fries them up and then serves them in a martini glass with a housemade ranch dressing on the side. They're weird, wild and wonderful.


At Bastien's, a retro supper club, it sometimes seems like time has stopped -- back in the days when a steak had to be marbled with fat and no one said a discouraging word about cholesterol. And as if a plain old piece of cheesecake weren't a heart attack waiting to happen, Bastien's wraps the thing in a regular-sized tortilla and then deep-fries it so that the cheese gets all soft and smooshy and the tortilla turns golden brown and crispy. A ball of ice cream -- sometimes it's vanilla, sometimes it's caramel pecan -- comes on the side; the ambulance costs extra.
If you're from Wisconsin, cheese curds need no explanation. For those of you who didn't start out in the Dairy State, curds are the form that cheese takes before it's been aged for sale. These baubles look a little like styrofoam packing peanuts and have a texture that makes them squeak when you bite into one. Tony's starts with cheddar-cheese curds, coats them in batter and deep fries them into a snack fit for the gods -- especially when paired with a side of ranch dressing and some of the kitchen's homemade hot sauce. This quintessential joint, run by some true sons of Wisconsin, takes over where the Flying Dog left off, so you'll find good microbrews on tap. But don't let that deter you from trying another specialty, the Friday-night fish and Schlitz combo. Cheeseheads, unite!


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