240 Union Restaurant
Courtesy of 240 Union
The kitchen at 240 Union depends heavily on the smarts of its cooks and its mesquite grills -- grills that were a symbol of the California Cuisine "revolution" of the mid-'80s -- and that's appropriate, because a lot of 240 Union's menu reflects both a fierce, sometimes funny intelligence and the slow, natural tempering of the Californian ideals of seasonality, center-plate proteins and locals-only bravado. So on the one hand, you have Colorado lamb chops glazed in apricot mustard, an excellent cioppino, farfalle with bacon and sundried tomatoes, and, occasionally, the world's greatest corndog made out of lobster chunks. And on the other hand, you'll find the most amazing piece of French toast ever, which serves as the base for 240's seared duck breast in peppercorn sauce and sour-cherry jus. It's a simple thing, just a long spear of battered and grilled bread stuffed with goat cheese so that the sweetness and the sourness combine with the sauces to make a flavor so much greater than the sum of their parts. But it's fabulous. French toast: It's not just for breakfast anymore.
Bistro Vendome
Bistro Vendome
How frite it is: At Bistro Vendome, chef Eric Roeder offers three kinds of steak frites -- a classique, an au poivre and a Roquefort. His galley bangs out dozens of orders every night, cutting the spuds, blanching the frites, leaving the thin strips to rest, then dropping them into oil for a fast fry that gives them the ideal hot, crisp exterior. After that, it's just salt and a little dusting of greenery, then straight to the plate for the best frites in town.
Le Central
There's nothing more soothing than a huge bowl of fresh mussels, perfectly cooked, surrounded by hedgerows of frites fresh from the fryer. Moules et frites is comfort food for the terminally overserved, for those who eat more meals out than they do at home and can appreciate both the vigorous innovation of today's young chefs and the beautiful classicism of certain dishes. In Denver, there's no better place to get a serving of this calming, consoling French masterpiece than at Le Central. Here the moules come in a dozen varieties -- from the simplest beurre blanc to more worldly curry- and saffron-scented styles -- in huge, heaping portions, and accompanied by an endless supply of crispy frites for dunking in the puddle of broth that's left after you've devoured the shellfish.
The small plates at the 9th Door have a lot of big tastes -- and the biggest may be the fried cheese. While we like a nice plate of white-trash mozzarella and canned marinara as much as the next guy, the 9th Door offers a much classier take: deep-fried balls of goat cheese topped with a drizzle of spiced honey. The sweetness of the honey, the earthy funk of the goat, the fact that the cheese has been turned into white lava by its dip in the Fryolator -- it all makes for some damn fine eating. And during happy hour, a plate of the town's best fried cheese runs only two bucks.
Duo Restaurant
Scott Lentz
We're consistently amazed by the lengths to which some restaurants will go to find the weirdest, funkiest, most hyper-regional cheeses to fill out their boards. There have been cheeses produced only in one tiny region of Italy or France, at one monastery, or by a blind, six-toed virgin who takes her cheese-making directions directly from God. But Duo brings the cheese plate back to basics, relying on six small pieces of perfectly preserved and presented cheeses that never forgo taste for adventurous culinary one-upmanship. The cheeses are balanced like a color wheel, going from mildest to most powerful, and have some common strains that make the arrangement sensible rather than haphazard. On one night a washed cow's-milk cheese will be followed by a goat's-milk of the same variety; on another, three goat cheeses from different producing areas offer three very different goatish flavors. Duo's cheese plate is a perfect end to a perfect meal.
Castle Cafe
Courtesy Castle Cafe Facebook
Real pan-fried chicken is a rarity. Making it is labor-intensive, time-consuming, messy and ties up a godawful amount of stove-top real estate in a busy galley. Good pan-fried chicken is even rarer, because there just isn't that much call for it in this part of the country -- and unless you were raised way down south or in Kansas City, you probably don't know good from bad from mediocre, anyway. But take our word for it: The pan-fried chicken served at Castle Cafe is a damn fine version of the classic, skillet-cooked masterpieces that have kept country folk and city slickers with country-fried tastes fat and happy for generations. Castle Cafe serves its bird on the bone, deconstructed into breasts, legs and thighs, on huge platters alongside good mashed potatoes, gravy, corn and bread (but not cornbread). The crust is crackly and peppery, soaked with grease (in a good way) and absolutely delicious in that way that only something done right can be.
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.

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