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.
L'Atelier
Courtesy L'Atelier Facebook
Sweetbreads -- the thymus and hypothalamus glands taken from the base of a fresh calf's brain -- are an acquired taste. But there's no better place to acquire that taste than at L'Atelier, where chef Radek Cerny nightly works his freakish magic on some of the least appetizing bits of a whole variety of animals. Here the sweetbreads are seared crisp and served along with Cerny's trademark potatoes -- mashed spuds so intensely packed with butter and cream that he might just as well sculpt them into the shape of a hand grenade and have you swallow it whole. They're the best brains in town, but Cerny also pushes the envelope with other brainy, intellectualized dishes, including lobster in potato foam, scallops in frozen oil and other tricks of molecular gastronomy inspired by a trip to Spain to hang out with Ferran Adria last year.
Vesta Dipping Grill -- the brainchild of chef Matt Selby and Josh Wolkon -- has been here almost nine years, and it still feels as fresh as it did the day it debuted in LoDo. Night after night, it fills seats and turns tables as though it were a brand-new hot spot -- but Vesta's never turned down the heat, and the restaurant is as vital and innovative as it ever was. With legs like that, Vesta should have a good, long run as the coolest kid in town.
If only green beans tasted as good as the cactus at Rosa Linda's, kids would never have to be told to clean their plates. The kitchen here uses the nopales in tacos, in burritos, mixed in with lettuce and pico and other such adulterating flavors. But we like to pull the packages apart until we end up with a taco carcass on one side of the plate and a pile of cactus strips on the other, which we then eat with our fingers -- the way we still eat green beans when we can get away with it. But this cactus only tastes like green beans if you can imagine that vegetable as a fruit -- something dimly sweet, a little oily and vaguely astringent. It tastes like water in the desert -- which is what cactuses are, after all -- served in a restaurant that's been a refreshing oasis in northwest Denver for more than two decades now.
Etai's Bakery Cafe
Scott Lentz
Doing excellent bread a mile above sea level is tough; it takes some funny chemistry to make the stuff come out just right. But the bakers at Udi's have the knack, and not just for making bread. Their real contribution was figuring out what to do with the leftovers -- and that's turn it into the best bread pudding we've ever had. Soft, pillowy, honey-sweet but not overwhelmingly so, this single dessert is probably packed with more butter, cream and eggs than any sane person should eat in a week. And yet we'd eat it every night if we could. The cubed bread is soaked in heavy cream, baked until the top goes stiff and golden, then set on a cloud of wonderful creme anglaise. It's so good it should come with a warning label, posted right on the menu alongside this award.

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