L&L Hawaiian Barbecue is a Big Island phenomenon -- a onetime Honolulu locals-only hangout that hit it big in the late '80s by offering Hawaiian plate lunches and hatching a plan for franchise world domination. Today, with over ninety locations nationwide (but just one in Colorado), L&L caters to the Big Hungry Boy in all of us with its chicken katsu plate -- a portion of panko-fried chicken so large it looks like an entire bird beaten flat, sliced, breaded and fried. Included in the $3.95 price are sides of sweet barbecue sauce, sticky sushi rice and backyard macaroni salad. The menu includes close to twenty more of these giant, picnic-style plate lunches -- all fancy enough for dinner, and none of which crack the seven-dollar mark. Be there. Aloha.


Just about every fast-food joint in the country now has some kind of dollar menu. A buck for some nasty greaseball cheeseburger. A buck for a few French fries of highly questionable provenance. But true gastronauts have always known that for real dining deals, you head to Blank-town -- Chinatown, Koreatown, any of those areas of the city where ethnic immigrants congregate and open restaurants that cater first and foremost to their own communities. In Denver, the best dollar-and-change dinner can be found in Little Russia, just off Leetsdale, where the oddly named California Bakery lays out a spread of traditional piroshkis that cost just $1.19 each. It's essentially an Iron Curtain version of the Hot Pocket: fried dough, about the size and shape of a doughnut-shop Long John, stuffed with whatever the baker has on hand that day. And at the California Bakery, that stuffing always translates to something delicious.

Just about every fast-food joint in the country now has some kind of dollar menu. A buck for some nasty greaseball cheeseburger. A buck for a few French fries of highly questionable provenance. But true gastronauts have always known that for real dining deals, you head to Blank-town -- Chinatown, Koreatown, any of those areas of the city where ethnic immigrants congregate and open restaurants that cater first and foremost to their own communities. In Denver, the best dollar-and-change dinner can be found in Little Russia, just off Leetsdale, where the oddly named California Bakery lays out a spread of traditional piroshkis that cost just $1.19 each. It's essentially an Iron Curtain version of the Hot Pocket: fried dough, about the size and shape of a doughnut-shop Long John, stuffed with whatever the baker has on hand that day. And at the California Bakery, that stuffing always translates to something delicious.


Rioja
Scott Lentz
Chef Jennifer Jasinski has hit the triple bull with her powerhouse new eatery in Larimer Square. One, she's got a great location -- smack in the middle of the hottest restaurant neighborhood in town, which she's made even hotter. Two, the space (some of which was once part of Josephina's, some nonexistent) is a great upscale-casual dining room that's fun to hang out in, no matter how much cash you're dropping. And three, both the menu and the kitchen executing it are top-notch, turning out excellent handmade pastas, innovative Mediterranean-Italian big plates, and a peerless consommé with duck raviolini. On top of all that, chef Jen has managed to keep prices well within hollering distance of cheap, so that a party of two (provided they're not drinking heavily) could easily get in and out of the joint for around fifty bucks. Sure, you could spend more if you wanted to (and odds are you will), but no matter how many dead presidents you're dropping here, one thing's guaranteed: You'll leave knowing it was worth every dime.

Chef Jennifer Jasinski has hit the triple bull with her powerhouse new eatery in Larimer Square. One, she's got a great location -- smack in the middle of the hottest restaurant neighborhood in town, which she's made even hotter. Two, the space (some of which was once part of Josephina's, some nonexistent) is a great upscale-casual dining room that's fun to hang out in, no matter how much cash you're dropping. And three, both the menu and the kitchen executing it are top-notch, turning out excellent handmade pastas, innovative Mediterranean-Italian big plates, and a peerless consommé with duck raviolini. On top of all that, chef Jen has managed to keep prices well within hollering distance of cheap, so that a party of two (provided they're not drinking heavily) could easily get in and out of the joint for around fifty bucks. Sure, you could spend more if you wanted to (and odds are you will), but no matter how many dead presidents you're dropping here, one thing's guaranteed: You'll leave knowing it was worth every dime.


Zengo
Conventional wisdom says that fifty dollars is about the max Colorado diners are willing to spend on a non-destination dinner for two. Birthdays, anniversaries, Flag Day -- at those times, people are willing to part with a little more green, and there are a lot of restaurants willing to take that cash. But say you've got a really special occasion on your hands, something deserving of an unparalleled blowout -- like beating the rap on that corporate embezzlement charge, or being elected executor of your family's offshore trust. Where to go then? Zengo, without a doubt, where it's so easy to drop a couple hundred bucks on dinner, it's dangerous. What with the antojitos, tiraditos (both fancy words for appetizers), ceviches, Latino-Asian sushi, big plates, little plates, killer desserts and family-style service -- which means that every plate is going to be placed in the center of the table and fought over by all in attendance -- the temptation to order big, and then to keep ordering, is nearly irresistible. We suggest you go with your instincts and burn through that gold card. If you've got the money to spend, there's no place better to spend it than Zengo.

Conventional wisdom says that fifty dollars is about the max Colorado diners are willing to spend on a non-destination dinner for two. Birthdays, anniversaries, Flag Day -- at those times, people are willing to part with a little more green, and there are a lot of restaurants willing to take that cash. But say you've got a really special occasion on your hands, something deserving of an unparalleled blowout -- like beating the rap on that corporate embezzlement charge, or being elected executor of your family's offshore trust. Where to go then? Zengo, without a doubt, where it's so easy to drop a couple hundred bucks on dinner, it's dangerous. What with the antojitos, tiraditos (both fancy words for appetizers), ceviches, Latino-Asian sushi, big plates, little plates, killer desserts and family-style service -- which means that every plate is going to be placed in the center of the table and fought over by all in attendance -- the temptation to order big, and then to keep ordering, is nearly irresistible. We suggest you go with your instincts and burn through that gold card. If you've got the money to spend, there's no place better to spend it than Zengo.


L'Atelier
Courtesy L'Atelier Facebook
L'Atelier chef/owner Radek Cerny is known for a lot of things. He was one of our biggest celebrity chefs in the days before the phrase "celebrity chef" became more of an insult than a tribute. His personal style of cuisine -- the layered sauces, the potato tuilles, the strange juxtapositions of worldly ingredients in predominantly French preparations -- was immediately recognizable to anyone who came within a hundred yards of one of his menus. And when things started going badly for him a couple of years ago, he burned out so brightly that the comet's tail he trailed behind him was unmistakable. But then the man came back last year with L'Atelier and blew everyone out of the water with a board that was like Radek times ten. Every dish, every presentation, is a work of culinary art, and every one arrives on what has now become one of the chef's new trademarks: the huge plate. Single dessert plates can take up half a table; entrees are served in the center of huge white porcelain canvases smeared with infused oils; tartare comes on what looks like a sheet of ice, feet long and inches wide. And while a lot of this is style for style's sake, the food on the plates is as good as it gets.

L'Atelier chef/owner Radek Cerny is known for a lot of things. He was one of our biggest celebrity chefs in the days before the phrase "celebrity chef" became more of an insult than a tribute. His personal style of cuisine -- the layered sauces, the potato tuilles, the strange juxtapositions of worldly ingredients in predominantly French preparations -- was immediately recognizable to anyone who came within a hundred yards of one of his menus. And when things started going badly for him a couple of years ago, he burned out so brightly that the comet's tail he trailed behind him was unmistakable. But then the man came back last year with L'Atelier and blew everyone out of the water with a board that was like Radek times ten. Every dish, every presentation, is a work of culinary art, and every one arrives on what has now become one of the chef's new trademarks: the huge plate. Single dessert plates can take up half a table; entrees are served in the center of huge white porcelain canvases smeared with infused oils; tartare comes on what looks like a sheet of ice, feet long and inches wide. And while a lot of this is style for style's sake, the food on the plates is as good as it gets.

Tapas and other small plates are becoming almost de rigueur, now that the Denver dining scene is catching on to the fact that less is sometimes more. And no one does the small-plate thing quite as well as Sean Kelly's Somethin' Else. Last year, Kelly dumped the fine-dining approach of Clair de Lune in favor of casual small plates, and since the amuses and appetizers were always the best courses at Clair, it's no wonder that Somethin Else's small plates are something special. Kelly and chef de cuisine Seth Black have put a decidedly Mediterranean spin on the original Spanish concept of wine-bar snacking, offering dishes like fried baby artichoke hearts in a thin, cold citric aioli; spicy patatas bravas with a double shot of hot and sweet paprika; and a spread of seafood plates presented so nakedly that every flavor has its chance to shine. These tapas are the tops.

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