Best Of :: Food & Drink
You don't expect to find decent Mexican fare, much less great Mexican, at a busy Littleton strip mall. But at El Lucero, a small but buzzing joint where the specials of the day are illegible on the dry-erase board and few of the employees speak English, the food needs no translation. In any language, your best bet is the tacos al carbón, three soft tacos filled with beef so soft and salty it's like eating buttery popcorn. Fresh pico de gallo comes with the tacos, and its sharp jalapeo bite is just right to play off the meat. For some added oomph, order a side of the green chile, and ladle on spoonfuls of this bright-orange fiery mix packed with big pieces of pork.
Since September 11, we Americans have been self-medicating our depression with foods that remind us of hearth and home, warmer, fuzzier times, and the good old days when you could get on a plane without getting felt up. Mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, roast chicken and Oreos are being consumed in record numbers as we seek out restaurants that comfort the heart as well as the stomach. And you won't find a more comforting place in town than the lunch-only Tom's Home Cookin', which does a fine job with all of our homey favorites (okay, not Oreos, but Coca-Cola chocolate cake is a mighty good substitute). Owners Tom Unterwagner and Steve Jankousky know how to nurture through nature's most soothing comforts: pot roast and cheesy potato casserole, warm cornbread and peach cobbler. Maybe if bin Laden had tried the daily bargain, "meat and two" for $6.45, he'd have had a better outlook on life.
You're a grownup now, and it's time to put the neon orange mac 'n' cheese mix behind you, not inside you. In keeping with its name, Dazzle goes for something above and beyond, serving up a macaroni and cheese that's positively dizzying. Elbow macaroni and four cheeses -- parmesan, Fontina, mozzarella and gouda -- are mixed in just the right proportions so that the noodles are all melty and soft but not too wet or dry; a large bowl of this goodness is evenly covered with buttery breadcrumbs and tossed under the broiler until the top begins to sizzle, then finished off with a smattering of diced tomatoes and fresh basil. So very adult, so very dazzling.
Since chef Goose Sorenson -- formerly of Mel's Restaurant and Bar and Starfish -- took over the kitchen at this difficult address that last year was Ambrosia, things have been looking up. For Solera, the dining area has been reworked to seem more intimate and inviting, and the menu is filled with Sorenson's eclectic inventions, including foie gras on a ginger-snap crust. The standout offering, though, would have to be the mashed potatoes, done two different ways: The roasted-garlic spuds, sweet and toasty, come with the succulent braised lamb and nicely grilled salmon entrees; and the rich, oniony mascarpone mashers accompany the crunchy-skinned Chilean sea bass. Both versions feature such smooth, feathery textures and rich, buttery undertones that we're tempted to head into the kitchen with our spoons.
When the world's going to hell in a handbasket, you'll find us at Bang!, drowning our sorrows in the tangy, beef-rich homemade gravy that comes slathered over Bang!'s juicy meatloaf, a your-mama-never-made-it-like-this gourmet version with plenty of intense seasonings and none of the gristle often found in ground beef. The mashed potatoes (more gravy, please!) and sautéed spinach that come with the hefty slice add to the plate's comforting capabilities. For a warm-and-fuzzy finale, take on a large square of the heavenly gingerbread topped with whipped cream. Bang! -- this restaurant got us again.
Step into Lincoln's Road House, and it may seem as though you're back in the '70s-era wood-paneled basement at your friend's house where you used to sneak beers. But don't let the ultra-casual lounge atmosphere fool you: Behind the bar lurks a kitchen that knows what it's doing, especially when it comes to meatloaf. This loaf is meaty, all right, studded with big pieces of onion for flavor, and it comes sliced an inch thick and slapped on a thin but substantial bun that's been buttered on the inside and grilled. Lettuce, tomato and mayo give extra moisture to the already juicy sandwich; a side of well-seasoned, skin-on fries and a small bowl of homemade macaroni salad round out the meal. Down a few Buds and play something on the jukebox -- which offers King Missile's undeniable classic "Detachable Penis" -- and you'll really feel like you're back in the basement.
Most restaurants hide the grilled cheese sandwich on the kids' menu, but the beloved Rocky Mountain Diner proudly puts it right beside the rest of its down-home comfort-food fare designed with adults in mind. And that's where this sandwich belongs. Two thick pieces of Texas-style toast are liberally buttered and grilled, then filled with so many slices of yellow American cheese that after another grilling, the insides wind up spreading halfway across the plate. Your obvious choice of sides is a large pile of thick-cut French fries. Pass the ketchup -- and say cheese.
When you're dining, nothing is as soothing as a big pot of cheese -- hot, molten goo ready-made for melting away the cares of the day. The aptly named Swiss Haven is so warm and welcoming a restaurant that by the time you're seated, you feel like you're sitting in the middle of a big tub of custard, while charming servers prepare your personal, authentic Swiss fondue experience. Each pot of kirschwasser-kissed cheese (choose from four possible combinations, all based on Gruyère) comes with a basket of bread cubes, and the pot stays on the tabletop burner until the last little bit of la religieuse -- the crispy, browned crust that forms in the center of the fondue pan -- is scraped off and scarfed down. If you're not yet fond of fondue, Swiss Haven will melt away any objections.
The Buckhorn Exchange is in its 109th year, and unlike the hundreds of animals whose heads (and other parts) grace the walls, it's still alive and kickin'. And this restaurant really jumps at lunchtime, when the hungry hordes pile into its Old West-style dining room and dive into the pot-roast sandwich, the Buckhorn's best-selling comfort food. Good luck getting this monster into your mouth: The thick-cut black pumpernickel bread can barely hold in the fat chunks of falling-apart-tender beef brisket, which are soaked through with a dark, salty, beef pan gravy. That gravy eventually soaks through the bread, too, at which point you might as well surrender and eat the whole mess with a fork, alternating dips into the side of chunky mashed potatoes, also smothered in that good gravy.
All aboard for the ultimate in comfort food: the Great Northern Tavern's chicken pot pie. At this train-themed brewpub, the pot pie arrives as a huge crock filled with soft chicken chunks and fork-tender root vegetables suspended in a chicken-rich, lightly peppered country gravy that's just beginning to ooze out of a golden topper of rich, flaky pastry. The second your fork pierces the lid, steam wafts up and permeates the air with a smell reminiscent of fresh-baked pies and dew-kissed mornings on the farm. A frosty mug of the tavern's hoppy Western Star Wheat is just the thing to wash down this entree pie; after that, it might be time to find a sleeper car.
The most comforting thing about comfort food is how satisfied your tummy feels after it's full. And it's not going to get any fuller than at Kathy and Bill's Diner, a place that clearly knows the meaning of "super-size." Every meal at this divey diner comes super-sized, but the breakfasts, which are served all day, are particularly big. The pancakes look like steering wheels; a pita the size of a toddler's head overflows with scrambled eggs and feta cheese; six strips of bacon sit next to a four-egg omelette. Our favorite eye-opener is the Havana muffin, which makes the McDonald's version look like a snack. The kitchen takes a regular-sized muffin and tops it with a flap of ham the size of a compact disc, four slices of melted American cheese and two eggs, then puts three or four potatoes' worth of crispy-edged home fries on the side. Uncle!
Pasta is always comforting, but at midday, we need it most. For comfortable carbo-loading, head over to the soothing Bruno's, where nothing is rushed and the servers never fail to sport a smile. Start your meal with a bowl of that day's zuppa, maybe a creamy wild mushroom or a warming minestrone. Then follow up with penne Alfredo, with its gentle, creamy cheese sauce tossed with artichoke hearts and oven-dried tomatoes; or perhaps the chicken Sienese, a breast grilled with honey and balsamic and topped with a portobello, all nestled in a bed of capellini slick with garlic and olive oil. The truly needy should head straight to the brodo del giorno, or broth of the day, which Bruno's makes from scratch, simmering bones and vegetables into a stock and then adding fresh meats and veggies for a satisfying, healthy brew sure to help you forget that the boss just asked for that project that was due yesterday. On second thought, make that a double.