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.
The Cherry Cricket
Courtesy of the Cherry Cricket
The Cherry Cricket makes not only the best green-chile cheeseburger in Denver, but one of the best in the country. Granted, that part of the country where people care about great green-chile cheeseburgers -- or who even know what a green chile is -- is fairly small. But the green-chile cheeseburger is big in the pantheon of immigrant America's most wonderful culinary inventions. At the Cricket, the chiles are properly roasted and cut into long strips that are then laid over the top of melted white cheddar, which is already lying on top of a burger that's pretty good just plain. When ordered mid-rare, the burger arrives bloody and warm, the beefy, salty juices working in concert with the cheese and chile to provide a burger experience unparalleled anywhere outside of New Mexico.
Barbecue is complicated. You've got your Southern-style and your coastal, your K.C. classic with its smoky-sweet sauce and your vinegary Carolina tidewater; there's Texas barbecue that's mostly beef, Midwestern chicken and deep-South hot links. Everyone has a favorite style and a favorite place. But you find the very best barbecue -- from rub to sauce to meat and heat -- in the least likely locations. At the newly legal Bugling Bull Trading Post, for example, a hillbilly, white-trash barbecue brought to us by pit man Mike Frislie. He does chicken and hot dogs, he does baby-backs and country ribs with a pepper-heavy rub, smoke all the way to the bone, and a sauce that's sweet-hot, a little spicy and tasty as hell. He does whatever occurs to him to do that day by the side of Highway 67, working with three box smokers and one drum cooker in the dust-and-gravel parking lot, offering his brilliance for prices so low that it almost feels like stealing when you drive away with the best barbecue around.
While there aren't many authentically Cuban dishes at Cuba Libre, the few traditional items made by chef John Daly are dead-on in terms of gut-level flavor and texture. The ropa vieja -- which is also available in a nueva variety -- is made from slow-roasted brisket deeply flavored with smoke, then doused with a thin tomato demi that both mellows and sweetens the brisket, almost like an excellent, watered-down, Deep South 'cue sauce. Because there's no rub, Cuba Libre's barbecue is missing that tanginess and jagged, peppery bass line common to most good American barbecue, but that lack is more than made up for by the standout, peasant quality of the ropa. We're sure that most Cubans have never had lobster ceviche or honey-glazed yucca churros like Daly makes, but one taste of this ropa and they'll feel right at home.

BEST BBQ SAUCE IN THE LAST PLACE YOU'D EXPECT IT

Whole Foods

Whole Foods Tamarac
We didn't go looking for barbecue sauce at the new Whole Foods on East Hampden-- but once we found it at the Paradise Barbecue counter, we were hooked. The sauce is haunting, smoky, spicy and sweet all at the same time, just barely thick enough to cling to the meat being dipped in it but never so watery that it becomes a wash. The brick-red color is lovely, the smell intoxicating and stinging, and it's gotten to the point that we'll beg the person working the counter to give us a few little to-go cups so that we can stock our fridge for when we need a fix.
The big draw at Forbidden City is volume. Volume and easy access. Volume, easy access and seriously cheap booze. The bar sells three-buck glasses of chardonnay, margaritas and -- because the crowds always include a lot of first- and second-generation Russian and Eastern European immigrants -- entire bottles of vodka. But even with the hundreds of square feet of food and all the liquor, we come for the golden buns -- those deep-fried, sugar-crusted doughnuts you find only at Chinese buffets and certain Asian bakeries. Forbidden City's version is fantastic: greasy, sweet and crisp, glittering with plain table sugar on the outside, soft as pillowy buttermilk biscuits on the inside. This bun's for you.

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