BEST BIG-PLATES MENU 2006 | Carmine's on Penn | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword
Molly Martin
A "family-style" restaurant is almost always synonymous with a very, very bad restaurant. Not so with Carmine's on Penn, where gigantic plates and pastas served by the pound receive all the care and attention normally seen only at very fussy, regular-size-plate restaurants. Here, tables groan under deep bowls of linguine with white clam sauce and gigantic platters of pasta Montana with chicken and asparagus drenched in gallons of cream sauce. Carmine's is so popular that there's usually a line and service can suffer, but if you come with a big appetite and are willing to wait, dinner here can be a very fulfilling experience.
In adopting -- and adapting -- the theme of drunken, lazy, artistic Spanish dining, the 9th Door has deliberately painted itself into a very good culinary corner, forcing the kitchen to stay true to the influences of Spanish cuisine and the bar to the ideal of fully tanked Spanish drinking habits. The menu was designed by consulting chef Michel Wahaltere, but after he left last summer, the crew took his concept and ran with it, offering real tapas in a city already awash in small plates. The menu is broken in half -- cold plates on one side, hot ones on the other -- and includes such wonders as cold Spanish potato salad with asparagus and egg; roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese, rosemary and Serrano ham; albondigas in tomato gravy; pork brochettes and grilled shrimp marinated in olive oil, garlic and chile piquin. For small plates, these are the tapas the town.
Sushi Sasa/Instagram
Omakase. That's the magic word at Sushi Sasa: Cook for me. When you say this at the sushi bar, you free chef Wayne Conwell or a member of his talented crew to assemble a unique, adventurous, individual feast (priced at $60, $80 or $120, depending on the number of courses). And once the food arrives, there's no doubt that you're in the hands of a master displaying both classical chops and a wild flood of creativity. Dinner one night could be a pyramid of inside-out and right-side-in maki accented by delicate slips of chile, the best noodle soup you will ever taste, a fan of seared Kobe beef and dried mushroom, fried shrimp heads exploding like a flower from the center of the plate, or one perfect uni hand roll like a sea-urchin ice cream cone. And the next night, the offerings will be completely different -- but just as astounding.
Nine75 -- the original Nine75, soon to be joined by at least two sibling restaurants -- has had some ups and downs since it opened in the former home of Moda. There was a period when the house was struggling to find its niche, a longer period where it was trying to get found by the kind of customers who'd be charmed by chef Troy Guard's smart, freaky, arrogant, sideways Asian-American-European menu of jumped-up comfort foods and straight-genius small plates. And then the customers started coming. Lunches were added, and people grew accustomed to the tragically backward arrangement of the space. And now, finally, Nine75 is in an upswing, with Guard having suddenly crossed from struggling artist to certified success story. With a triumphant James Beard dinner behind him and a lineup of new openings on the horizon, he's taken his rightful place as one of the smartest and most innovative chefs in the city. The only question now is, what comes next?
Viva Burrito Company has zero decor, zero ambience (unless you're really turned on by cement) and is basically just a little red box with a kitchen, but the food coming out of that kitchen is fantastic. Not white-tablecloth fantastic; plastic-silverware-and-paper-napkin fantastic, with a serious "Gimme twenty bucks and I'll show you the real Mexico" vibe. The show starts with Viva's excellent breakfast burrito, which the joint starts serving very early on weekend mornings, when the line at the drive-thru starts winding out into the street and the crowds spill into the parking lot. It's breakfast-burrito pandemonium, a friggin' Benetton ad for Denver's booziest middle demographic. You want fast? There are plenty of Taco Bells open until the wee hours. You want the best? Get in line at Viva.
No wi-fi, no cappuccino, no dress code and no service past 2:30 in the afternoon. That's what makes the 20th Street Cafe our favorite breakfast bar. But the prices -- which top out under the ten-dollar mark -- also make it the best place in Denver for breakfast on the cheap. The venerable cafe isn't fancy, and it doesn't have the most convenient parking in the world, but it does have a good chicken-fried steak, huge omelets, good diner-style coffee with fast refills and a menu that mixes up the best of classic Americana with an interesting take on the Colorado immigrant experience, including fried rice and noodle bowls that call to mind the Japanese war brides who once settled in the area.
Strong coffee, excellent corned beef hash, unrivaled cherry crepes and fresh-squeezed orange juice like neon rocket fuel: At seven o'clock in the morning, it doesn't get better than this. The Original Pancake House uses nothing but the best ingredients and the best products, and employs line cooks who know how to work fast and clean and how to execute a complicated and worldly menu with just the right notes of comfort and consolation. The space isn't much to look at, and service is brisk, to say the least -- but at breakfast, none of that matters as much as frequent refills and grub by the yard. The icing on the coffee cake? The Dutch Baby -- a gigantic baked pancake topped with butter, powdered sugar and lemon juice.
Come on, give us one good reason why some cheapjack McBreakfast thing bought from a creepy clown is your favorite way to start the day. Done? Good. Now ditch the drive-thru and get yourself down to Emogene for the breakfast sandwich -- a perfect blend of three scrambled eggs, muenster cheese, frisee and fleur de sel on brioche, all for just $4.25. It's a little more (but totally worth it) to add thick-cut smoked bacon and a cup of cafe au lait to your order, but trust us: One bite of this sandwich and you'll never talk to that stupid clown again.
Soup is good food -- especially for breakfast -- and there's no better place to start slurping than Pho 79. There are three local links in this short Vietnamese chain, and any of them is an ideal spot for an eye-opening bowl of hot pho and a cool glass of coffee that delivers like a fix of crystal meth. Our favorite outlet, though, is Aurora's Pho 79, which is cramped, bunkerish and full at nearly all hours with neighbors and wanderers, Vietnamese families and solo adventurers. At the start of each day, servers prepare dozens, maybe hundreds of coffee setups on sheet trays that are kept in a service area just off the kitchen, then devote the rest of their energy to making wonderful pho, the only other thing the restaurant serves, in all its variations, from squeaky meatball bo vien to the more esoteric tripe and tendon options.
Courtesy Katherine's French Bakery & Cafe Facebook
Sure, we make fun of the French. We have to, because the French, unlike us Americans, really know how to live. Take breakfast, for example. Here, we're constantly bombarded by ads and doctors telling us to eat our twigs and berries and take our vitamins and make sure to balance our intake of carbs and proteins. Meanwhile, in Paris they just say merde to all that and go ahead and eat cake. Yeah, they call it pastry, but really it's cake. They eat chocolate-dipped croissants and drink tall cafes au lait and smoke their stinking cigarettes, and they laugh at everyone here in the States -- even though we can't hear them as we crunch miserably away on our Grape-Nuts. But at Katherine's, we all can eat like the French, enjoying huge almond croissants dusted with powdered sugar and big spiky things made of meringue, as well as coffee and even real meals -- quiche and omelets and sandwiches and salads. Life is hard and short enough without adding the cruelty of Grape-Nuts.

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