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.
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.

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