Breakfast King
Mark Antonation
Believe it or not, in this age of diet plans and weight-loss drugs, of liposuction and tummy tucks, we still hear from people desperate to know where they can get a good chicken-fried steak. And every time, we tell them to go to the Breakfast King. At any hour of the day or night, the King is ready to whip up an order of the city's best guilty pleasure -- a tough steak, pounded thin, breaded, fried just right, then served hot and slathered in white, peppered country gravy. Potatoes or fries, toast and eggs or mixed vegetables -- none of the stuff on the side matters. What does is that the King's chicken-fried steak stands as a singular example of everything that's great about everything that's bad for you.
The "Hanoi Delights" plate at Sapa is the Vietnamese equivalent of the Chinese pupu platter: a huge sampling of appetizers arranged on one dish and meant for sharing. But like the archetypal pupu platter with its sole pork rib, this plate also features one item destined to inspire bitter rivalries between friends trying to divvy up the bounty. In Sapa's version, this single "fried shrimp" is actually shrimp paste wrapped in a crisp, flaky pastry shell, fried whole like a chimichanga, then cut into pieces. We've seen good friends nearly come to blows over the remaining piece on the plate, and otherwise reasonable people trying to hoard more than their share. The best solution is to order two Hanoi Delights so that everyone can have enough.
Szechuan Chinese
Denver is full of dumplings. And not just Chinese pot stickers, but gyoza and shumai, pierogi and momo and samosas and every other ethnic dumpling derivative you can think of. But the best dumplings in town are hidden away in a Lakewood strip mall at Szechuan Chinese. These dumplings are huge and crisp-skinned, stuffed with excellent, slightly gingery pork paste and served six to an order alongside a salty, spicy soy sauce that perfectly complements the plump packages without overwhelming their surprisingly delicate and complex flavor.
Spicy Basil
Granted, shumai are not technically dumplings -- at least, not by China's definition. But then, Spicy Basil isn't a Chinese restaurant. It's a Thai restaurant that takes a few worldly departures on the menu, one of them leading to the town's best shumai. The kitchen makes these shrimp-and-pork dumplings to order, steaming them off and serving them hot off the line while the skins are still soft and slightly rubbery -- the best way to get them. They're small, no more than a single bite apiece, but these could be the best bites you'll have all year.
Sean Kelly has been frying baby artichokes for a long time. He had them on the menu at Aubergine, his original restaurant. He carried them over to the menu at Clair de Lune, and when Clair closed, the fried artichokes migrated onto the small-plates menu at Somethin' Else, where they're still one of the most popular items. All of this has made Kelly an artichoke expert, and while many houses in town now do the fried-artichoke thing, none do it as well as he does. Served in a small, tumbled pile and topped with a lace of citric aioli, these crispy, nutty, meaty baby 'chokes are the heart of Kelly's menu, and the best expression of his less-is-more philosophy.
The Coral Room is firmly rooted in Asian-urban minimalism -- but it goes over the top with its coconut tempura banana. This dessert is an absolutely deadly fusion of Japanese, Indonesian, French and Caribbean flavors that's so good we had to order a second, just to make sure that our first banana wasn't some kind of freakish mistake. It wasn't. The kitchen takes a banana, dips it in sweetened coconut tempura batter, deep-fries it and then serves it with coconut gelato in a smear of chocolate ganache. The dessert is so damnably habit-forming that it really ought to be classified as a narcotic, and it's certainly the best thing to come out of any restaurant's fryer since that guy who first decided to drop in a Twinkie.
Duo Restaurant
Scott Lentz
An ad on craigslist brought pastry chef Yasmin Lozada-Hissom to Duo's door. After that, everything has been magic -- including the dessert list. This short, sweet board of intelligent choices draws raves from anyone with a sweet tooth (or any teeth at all) and has made loyal fans willing to wait in long lines for a taste of Lozada-Hissom's beautiful apple tart or her oddly subtle and admirably restrained pistachio nougat shot through with bits of candied nuts and wrapped in a sweet cookie tuille. Lozada-Hissom trained among the best patissieres in the business, and came to Denver with a set of double three-star epaulets given by Ruth Reichl at the New York Times. It's not like they sell those things on the street; you gotta earn 'em. And every day at Duo, Lozada-Hissom proves she's worthy.
Old Fashioned Italian Deli
Stephen Cummings
The Old Fashioned has held down this corner of West Littleton Boulevard through two generations, beginning with Tom Panzarella and continuing today with Tom and his boy Dave working the counter side by side. When you step inside, every day of those two decades folds around you like a blanket of history. The place does not hide its years, but that patina of age and hard use comes from long service to the community. The Panzarellas have made a lot of pizzas, a lot of daily specials, but the best thing they offer are honest-to-God, authentic, Buffalo-style Sahlen's hot dogs with shaved onions, Weber mustard and a spicy, relish-spiked, red-pepper hot-dog sauce that Tom cooks himself, one pot at a time, in imitation of the sauce used at Ted's Jumbo Red Hots back home in Buffalo, where he grew up.
Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs
Danielle Lirette
"Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs": That's the sign hanging from the cart, complete with a laughing, bandanna-wrapped skull that gives the name a little outlaw flavor. The cart is a beauty, too: lots of stainless steel and polished aluminum, twin umbrellas and a full grill. Biker Jim (aka Jim Pittenger) works with his radio playing, surrounded by coolers full of soda and cute, fluffy animals all turned into sausage links. He works in the sun and in the cold. He shows up early and stays late. He gives away free samples to passersby who stop, stunned, when they catch a glimpse of his menu of woodland critters. As far as we know, Pittenger is Denver's only purveyor of authentic Alaskan reindeer sausage. And German white-veal brats. And wild-pheasant sausage. And boar. And while several real restaurants in town sling the occasional buffalo sausage, we're certain that no one else is serving that sausage studded with jalapenos and slicked down with Sriracha sauce, as Jim does at his cart.
Bud's Cafe & Bar
Lori Midson
When it comes to burgers, Bud's Bar is the winner and still the chomp. It's not much to look at -- a modest country joint catering to neighbors and weekend bikers down from the big city for a little road time. But its burgers are a sight to behold. That's because back in the kitchen, they've spent decades cooking nothing but hamburgers, cheeseburgers and doubles of each, focusing on them until the process became secondary and the product took on dimensions of greatness reaching far beyond simple mastery. Bud's burgers are tender and juicy, served on plain rolls with a minimum of embellishment, and at their best when covered with nothing but cheese and given nothing but your undivided attention.

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