Spam is a funny thing. So maligned, so wrongly identified with trailer parks and camping trips gone horribly wrong, this pink and quivering loaf of tinned meat has taken some serious hits over the years. And yet like sweetened condensed milk and processed rice pudding, it's also become inextricably linked with certain cuisines where its existence sometimes made the difference between life and death for those living in places geographically cut off from traditional supply lines. In Hawaii today, Spam is a perfectly integrated element of the food culture -- an indispensable, easily stored source of protein that reaches its peak in musubi: a slab of pan-fried Spam laid over a fist-sized ball of sticky sushi rice and tied in place with an artful ribbon of black nori. And thanks to the recent sprouting of the Palm Tree Grill in Aurora, you, too, can now cram some Spam on this section of the mainland.
Parisi Italian Market & Deli
At Parisi, the trick isn't finding something satisfying for dinner that will cost less than a ten-spot. That's easy: The extensive menu includes several dishes so cheap and so good that we'd gladly pay double if there were, say, only one order of the gnocchi Sorrentina left in the kitchen and someone in line ahead of us. No, eating cheap here is easy; it's sticking to your budget that's tough. So if you're into eating on the cheap, put away that credit card, skip the second pizza and avoid the attached market -- not to mention the prosciutto bar that owners Simone and Christine Parisi have installed in their basement.
Rioja
Scott Lentz
Rioja is not a cheap restaurant, by any means, but it offers two of the best meals in the city for under twenty bucks each. The first is the Rioja picnic. Just $14.50 buys you a big plate filled with everything necessary to make an antipasto freak smile: Spanish chorizo; shaved, dried duck breast; speck; a little goat cheese; a little gorgonzola; olives and nuts; a bit of truffled fennel salad -- as well as really good bread (you can choose from three kinds, and if you ask nicely, the server will let you try them all). That leaves enough cash for the cheapest glass of wine on the menu, a 2004 Louis Latour Chardonnay d'Ardeche, and a well-deserved tip. The second meal is more complicated: Start with a small plate of the bar's garlic- and citrus-marinated olives, then move on to the baked, housemade mozzarella, wrapped in prosciutto and served on toasted bread with oven-dried tomatoes and olive spread. Finally, ask for a half portion of the artichoke tortelloni, one of the best pasta dishes in the city. Now, hope that you have a little change left from parking, because your tab actually comes out to $21 before tax and tip -- and you'll want to be generous there, because a meal this good is worth much, more more.

BEST QUICK DINNER BEFORE
A NIGHT AT THE OPERA

Sam's #3

Sam's No. 3
Danielle Lirette
Last year, Sam's #3 opened in pretty much the same spot where the original Sam's closed almost fifty years before, and ever since, culture vultures have had a surefire option for gulping a fast dinner before taking in a show at the Denver Performing Arts Complex a block away. Even though the menu is incredibly extensive, offering everything from fried chicken and cheeseburgers to catfish and Sam's original chili, the guys in the kitchen know how to turn and burn their way through a rush, how to get you in and out fast. So the next time you've got tickets for Norma and not much time before the lights go down, give Sam's a try. It's quick, it's close, it's cheap, and the portions are big enough that you'll have enough in your belly to keep you in your seat until the fat lady sings. How do you think she got fat in the first place?

BEST DECENT DINNER
WHEN DINING WITH KIDS

Coral Room

The biggest difference between the original Coral Room in the Highland neighborhood and this new, improved model at Stapleton is how it accommodates that one indispensable accessory of the 21st-century nuclear unit: children. Kids can be the fine-dining kiss of death, so it makes sense that a restaurant designed expressly for upwardly mobile thirty-something families would include space for pint-sized patrons. At the Coral Room, it's an entire room -- almost a third of the total real estate -- separated from the main dining floor and bar by a sliding Japanese-style screen and set with grownup tables all facing a padded, carpeted, vaguely piscine-themed play area called (annoyingly) "The Little Reef," filled with savaged books, broken toys, smudgy kid-sized furnishings and, most important, a TV. Everything about the place -- from the kids' room to the movie nights, the Asian-influenced, nouvelle-inspired cuisine to the everything-by-the-glass wine list, fashionable cocktails and Metropolitan Home decor -- guarantees that both junior and the folks will have a good time without driving the restaurant's other, childless patrons out into the night.

BEST DINNER DESTINATION
FOR MAKIN' BABIES

Z Cuisine

Z Cuisine and A Cote Bar a Absinthe
If French is the language of love, then French food is the cuisine of lust -- an entire canon of recipes and preparations that, when done well, can make a lady's panties leap from her body and a gentleman's thoughts turn to committing impure acts of passion in the street. And Z Cuisine does things so very, very well that the menu ought to come with some kind of warning sticker. Even the most socially inept can't help but feel like a man (or woman) of taste and sophistication here. From the chalkboard menu and seriously French wine list to the beautiful, intimate space and wonderfully comforting farmhouse French cuisine done by chef/owner Patrick Dupays, there's no more romantic restaurant in town. Voulez vous couchez avec moi ce soir?

BEST DINNER DESTINATION
FOR IMPRESSING THE FOLKS

The Fort

The Fort Restaurant
Mark Antonation
Dad wants steak. Mom wants chicken. Your little sister is on some kind of freaky, fish-only, zero-tolerance diet. And you just want enough whiskey to get you through a meal without strangling anyone or being forced to have another talk about your impending court date. So head to the hills -- specifically, The Fort. Housed in a replica of the original Bent's Fort and offering an unparalleled view of the mountains and the sky, Sam Arnold's cowboys-and-Indians paean to the culinary life of frontiersmen is guaranteed to satisfy everyone's needs. For Dad, there's more meat than at a butcher's counter, including flesh from a variety of unusual animals (or unusual parts of fairly common animals). For Mom, there's a Kit Carson-authentic bowl of chicken soup. For you, there's the house's home-brew whiskey (made with real gunpowder!), and plenty of conversational topics that have nothing to do with Mexico, the police, or exactly what number of prescription back pills constitutes possession with intent. As for your sister? Tell her that Rocky Mountain oysters are actually a kind of shellfish, then try not to laugh when she takes her first bite of balls.

BEST DINNER DESTINATION
FOR IMPRESSING A DATE

Deluxe

Deluxe
Sex and food are powerful motivators, and no restaurant combines these two things better than Deluxe. There are high-backed banquettes in front, cozy two-tops in the back, leopard-print carpets, dim lights and cool jazz drooling from hidden speakers, all of which combine to showcase chef Dylan Moore's beautiful and overwhelmingly sensuous take on the California Cuisine revolution of the mid-'80s. Presented with a modernist's flair, the menu is arranged by small plates and entrees, with everything meant for sharing, including masa-fried oysters set in individual pho spoons, dabbed with tomato-lime salsa and napped with jalapeno aioli, and spareribs coated in a Chinese five-spice hoisin sauce that will have you licking your fingers -- as well as your date's. And while Deluxe can get crowded, it does take reservations -- which means you and your date can skip the waiting-line chitchat and get down to the serious business of eating. And whatever else comes next.

BEST DINNER DESTINATION
FOR IMPRESSING A BLIND DATE

Buenos Aires Pizzeria

Buenos Aires Pizzeria
Argentine food is sexy. The tastes and smells, the combinations of flavors -- spicy and sweet, salty and savory -- and the esoteric mix of culinary styles that come from centuries of immigration and invasion all work together to weave a tapestry of pure sensualism. Buenos Aires Pizzeria does right by Argentine cuisine, offering dozens of unusual pizzas, empanadas, pastas and sandwiches that create a world of culinary experience. There's just one thing this storefront eatery doesn't have: a good-looking dining room. Even when the space is crowded, it seems somehow austere -- but one taste of the food and you'll know exactly why you made the trip to Buenos Aires.
Mizuna
Joni Schrantz
Mizuna is a restaurant you can love for a lifetime. Ever-changing, impeccably serviced by a thoroughly professional floor staff and as comforting as dinner in your favorite uncle's kitchen, it's a neighborhood place that draws in crowds (and these days, cooks) from across the country, all of them coming to taste the first, best expression of Frank Bonanno's hard work, ingredient obsessiveness and singular talent. Bonanno's crew are less cooks than disciples, banging out brilliant plates with mimeograph precision. From apple beignets like tiny Dolly Madison fruit pies after a semester at charm school, to foie gras, sweetbreads, perfect lamb chops and ungodly rich, buttery and beautiful lobster mac-and-cheese, a meal at Mizuna is always worth the price -- regardless of the final tab.

Best Of Denver®

Best Of