It should come as no surprise that Sabor Latino makes the best chips and salsa in town. After all, tortilla chips are the french fries, the bar peanuts, the potato chips of the Southwestern world, and Sabor Latino is Denver's best bulk purveyor of all things Central and South American. This comfortable, quaint neighborhood restaurant does excellent arepas, it does wonderful fish ceviche, it does commendable burritos and tamales and Caribbean platters that you won't find anywhere else. But when we settle into one of the intimate booths, the first thing we look for is the great plate of fresh chips served with a thin, dark, spicy salsa that's more like tomato water and black-bean puree than a standard salsa, but also incredibly addictive.
With excellent, fresh, crispy chips and three fantastic salsas: That's how every meal at Chama begins, and it's how your meal can end, as well, if you politely ask the house to pack a little extra to go. The trio of salsas are perfect in their own right, covering the full spectrum of heat and flavor. There's a cool, green tomatillo that's thin and watery and almost sweet; a thick and blazing-hot habanero that delivers a lot of flavor before the punishing spiciness hits you; and right in the middle, a sweet-hot smoked-chipotle salsa shot with honey that says volumes about the expert control of flavors in the kitchen. And it's all free -- which just goes to show that sometimes the best things in life really are.
Luca
Scott Lentz
The amuse-bouche, though overdone in some places and simply ridiculous in others, is always a sight to behold at Luca d'Italia. Here, Frank Bonanno and his crew use flavors that will no doubt repeat in the coming meal to construct a one-bite masterpiece perfect for putting guests in the proper frame of mind to appreciate the brilliant, complicated simplicity of Luca's wonderful Italian cuisine. Truffled egg salad, slips of marinated octopus -- each one is a tiny jewel-box presentation meant for calibrating the tastebuds and offering a free preview of how Luca works.
We're not sure who concocted the first margarita -- there are various accounts, none conclusive -- but we know that person was a genius. Combine fresh lime juice with a good, 100 percent agave tequila and triple sec, and eureka! Sadly, over the years that original formula has been bastardized, with sweet-and-sour replacing lime juice, and peaches, strawberries and even mangoes getting spun into Slurpee versions. But Chama takes the margarita back to basics, using fresh lime juice (squeezed every day, never frozen), prime tequila and high-quality triple sec that makes for the best house marg we've found in Colorado. And for a few extra coins, the Chama Silver Coin is heaven in a glass.
The classic martini is a thing of beauty, an expression of elegance distilled into a glass bucket of gin and two olives. At the Avenue Grill, the bartenders know exactly what a proper martini is about, and they pour them untainted by modernity or nouvelle gimmicks. Gin, gin, gin and olives is the right formula, with just a kiss of dry vermouth for complexity, poured over ice into a shaker, then stirred or gently swirled (never shaken) before being doled out into an iced martini glass. These days, when it seems that every restaurant in the world is involved in a massive conspiracy to drown the flawlessness of the classic martini in a flood of flavored vodkas, chocolate, fruit juice and Tang, we take comfort in the fact that some bars and bartenders understand that perfection is fucked with only at the peril of the fuckee.
Parallel Seventeen
Because there will always be those who can't leave well enough alone, there will always be one place that does wrong better than anyone else. This year, that place is Parallel Seventeen, with its wrongheaded but very right-tasting Vietnamese Coffee Martini. Made of chilled Vietnamese coffee, vanilla Stoli, Kahla and a single dot of sweetened condensed milk lurking in the hollow where stem meets glass, this amazing concoction has become our preferred non-traditional drink for all occasions, both social and professional -- although frankly, after two of these, any occasion becomes social, and after three, it might as well be a slumber party.
Brown Palace Hotel Tea Room
There are few experiences more genteel than enjoying cocktails in the Brown Palace Atrium: The space is casual, yet has a well-heeled charm augmented by the tinkling piano, super-comfy seating and a fabulous ceiling eight stories above, complete with skylights and chandeliers. And then the martini cart, covered with elite liqueurs and elegant silver shakers, drifts tableside to mix up a little something for you. The Brown offers cart service during the cocktail hour nightly except on Sunday, with later hours on Fridays and Saturdays, and it's a swell way to start off an evening on the town -- in every sense of the word "swell."
West End Tavern
Courtesy West End Tavern Facebook
The West End Tavern has that whole notion of backyard-picnic comfort food down. But perhaps its greatest contribution to that laziest of cuisines comes not from the kitchen, but from the bar -- where the tenders will adulterate all your memories of happy summer afternoons by whipping up a killer root beer float using Thomas Kemper small-batch artisan root beer and vanilla ice cream, then hitting it with a long shot of bourbon from off the dozens-deep list. Our favorite? Bulleit, a young, artisan bourbon currently going through something of a renaissance as a craft-brewed liquor. Bulleit carries just enough dirty chocolate flavor to match the spice of Kemper's root beer, and the West End has just the right kind of vibe for kicking back and getting plastered on dessert.
Of all the beer joints in all the towns in all the world, we walked into the Falling Rock Tap House -- and it's a miracle we were ever able to leave. Because this is not just the best beer joint in Denver, but maybe the world. And not just because Falling Rock has at least seventy beers on tap, all "craft brewed, no contract brews or megaswill." And not just because Falling Rock has even more beers in the bottle, ranging from such Colorado brews as Great Divide Wild Raspberry Ale to Belgium's chimay Grand Reserve. No, the reason Falling Rock tops every beer fan's list is because this bar doesn't just care about beer; it cares about the community of beer-lovers, especially in Colorado. And it keeps pouring on the love with special events, including Marty Jones's monthly nights of local music (complete with beer songs). We raise our glasses!
Although Falling Rock can -- and does -- stock beers from around the world, it devotes a good part of its on-tap real estate to Colorado microbrews, showcasing an industry that could be this state's most liquid asset. The lineup changes often and usually includes such noteworthy brews as Avery IPA, Cheshire Cat Arrogant Brit and Left Hand Black Jack Porter. Think globally, drink locally.

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