How could we not love a place that fills an entire parking lot with the smoky scent of its tandoor ovens? When the front doors are open and the wind is just right, you can smell Star of India from an acre away. And inside, it's like being wrapped in a blanket of spice: You settle into one of the booths along the wall and lose yourself in a world of foreign perfumes. But a first bite of the food here could rudely bring you back to your senses, because some dishes are hot. Not everyday Southwestern hot, but seriously, punishingly, brutally hot. The Goan vindaloo, for example, makes us wonder how the British survived their colonial adventures without simply exploding. The secret is to ask for exactly the meal you want, at exactly the level of spice you want. And if you succeed in that, Star of India will provide one of the most transporting culinary experiences you'll ever have in a strip mall.
Masalaa
Sometimes even ardent carnivores need a break, and when the urge for veggies strikes, we head to Masalaa. Here, vegetarian is not the cuisine of denial that it is in so many other places, but rather one that celebrates all the goodness inherent in the vegetable kingdom. Indian food is generally greenery-friendly, but Masalaa raises the bar with its delicious curries, traditional dosa and complicated sauces. Granted, there are some dishes that would be greatly improved by the addition of bacon, but the same can be said for just about any restaurant. Masalaa doesn't just serve vegetarian food, but great food that happens to be made of vegetables. And that makes all the difference.
Our favorite dish at the town's best vegetarian restaurant is the steak and eggs. Always has been, probably always will be -- particularly ordered rare. You know what else is good at Sunflower? The cioppino with Maine lobster and Manilla clams. And you know what else? Every other dish on the menu, meat-free or not, because chef Jon Pell understands that being vegetarian ought to be a choice, not a dictum, and everything he cooks -- for vegetarians and carnivores alike -- is done with the same strict attention to source and seasonality. Pell picks the best ingredients and makes the most of them. Eating vegetarian -- even vegan -- doesn't have to be a chore or a bore. Not if you're at Sunflower.
We dare you to try the Boston cream pie, the chocolate mousse tart in its vegan shell, the wheat-free spelt-flour molasses-and-ginger cookies. Try any of the items cranked out daily by the crew at WaterCourse, and you'll quickly understand why we consider this bakery the best. Using none of the ingredients that any sane baker would consider fundamental to the job -- things like cream or butter or flour or eggs -- WaterCourse makes vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free masterpieces using the recipes and procedures laid down by Deanna Scimio (who now consults on the menu when she's not busy teaching a new generation of bakers at the Culinary School of the Rockies in Boulder). Working in this dusty laboratory, owner Dan Landes's bakers have figured out ways to make baking powder act like egg whites and soy chocolate taste like the real thing. And they won't let anything go out the door of the bakery unless it not only tastes good, but tastes right.
On Friday and Saturday nights, it's hard to get a table at Istanbul Grill. The kitchen sells out of food some nights, and things are 86'd off the menu as early as seven o'clock. And the crowds keep coming, with people bringing their friends, bringing their families. In the small, austere, lemon-yellow dining room, the food never stops arriving. And what food! The gozleme -- Turkish cheese and parsley sandwiched between sheets of phyllo, then baked -- is the perfect way to start your dinner. The doner is delicious, like chunky gyros meat served in a massive pile with quartered pitas on the side. And at the end of any meal, there's Turkish coffee served sweet as love, black as death and strong as hell -- just like it's supposed to be. Denver has needed a proper Turkish restaurant for a long time, and now we have one -- the best one -- with Istanbul Grill.

BEST MIDDLE EASTERN RESTAURANT FOR LUNCH WHEN YOU HAVE NOWHERE ELSE TO BE

Hookah Cafe

Habibi Hookah Cafe
Hookah Cafe is comfortable, casual, eclectic -- which is just a polite way of saying the chairs and tables don't match -- with plastic sheeting covering the tablecloths and minimal decor consisting of Lebanese flags, sponge-painted ceiling and hookahs displayed next to the kitchen. But that's fine, because the smells of pipe smoke and spiced tobacco, of tabouleh and onions and spices from a dozen nations; the buttery sunshine streaming in through the windows; the music and all the other customers give a better sense of the Middle East than would any travel-agency posters of the sunny shores of Lebanon. Hookah is an eatery the community actually comes to -- not a theme restaurant, but the real thing. And though this is not the place we'd stop if we had a plane to catch or an appointment to make (there's a Starbucks around the corner for that), it's exactly the place we like to go when we have no plans other than taking a long lunch, sitting, eating, relaxing -- and maybe even taking a hit off a hookah.

BEST CENTRAL/SOUTH AMERICAN RESTAURANT

Sabor Latino

Sabor Latino's feel-good ambience makes this an easy place to love. The dining room is comfortably rustic, and the atmosphere hangs somewhere in that inviting, tender middle ground between aging white-tablecloth class and neighborhood eclecticism. The restaurant does a brisk trade in baked empanadas filled with pino (a Chilean mix of chopped meat, fried onions, raisins and deep, earthy spices), in workaday fajitas, in Mexican moles and tamales that are big and subtly sweet, filled with seasoned pork and steamed in banana leaves rather than corn husks. There's Peruvian lomo saltado on the board, as well as bistec a lo pobre -- poor man's steak -- that's a diner benchmark across the Americas sur de la frontera, draping an eight-ounce rib-eye over rice and french fries, topping it with grilled onions, then topping that with a fried egg. Sabor Latino does so many things well -- and so many things from so many different ethnic traditions -- that it deserves extra honors as the best purveyor of a continent and a half's worth of cuisine.
Joseph's looks a lot like the old roadside soda fountains you can still find in small towns along the blue routes in West Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia. It's small and crowded with stuff -- soda machines, ice cream coolers, bar stools and displays of candy, desserts and glass bottles of Orange Crush. Everything about the place -- from its drive-thru to the hot line and counter crammed into what was once the front parlor of this converted bungalow -- screams Americana. Especially the food. Partners Joe Johnson and Rick Bousman offer a limited menu (no more than a dozen items a day) that serves up the best of the Deep South: grill-fired burgers, catfish sandwiches, root beer floats, fried shrimp, coleslaw, collard greens and cold peach cobbler. And the three-piece fried-chicken dinner with chunky mashed potatoes, mac-and-cheese and a cup of sweet tea on ice will only run you $8.49, plus tax. That's what we consider American, the beautiful.
Black Pearl
The menu at Black Pearl is studded with dishes like an "unassembled" clam "chowdah" (the quotes courtesy of the house), Asian-influenced seared tuna and a truffled mac-and-cheese, all trend-humping examples of the culinary smart-assitude that makes New American food so laughably stupid. And yet that unassembled clam chowder is absolutely delicious. And that seared tuna -- one of the most archetypal workhorses in the entire New American stable -- is so good and so thoughtfully assembled that it instantly makes you forget the hundred other derivations of the exact same plate you've had at a hundred other temples of American haute that never quite rose to the level of Black Pearl. After it opened last summer, Black Pearl quickly proved that it was the best of the New American breed, and as long as New American continues to evolve in strange new directions, Black Pearl will continue to draw a crowd curious to see what's coming next.
Z Cuisine and A Cote Bar a Absinthe
Z Cuisine is a warm little bistro that's like a perfect fantasy of Paris, requiring no passport, no baggage, no feigned appreciation of the films of Jerry Lewis or Gerard Depardieu. We love the old iron gate hanging open by the front door, the fact that there's nothing else on this quiet block save a few old houses and a dark, silent church looming against the dark sky. The crowds come and go all night, laughing, sometimes stumbling, clutching each other close in the shadows, and the food is an ideal expression of farmhouse French done in a thousand spots in Paris, tens of thousands of kitchens in France. The wine, the food, the staff, the company -- everything is in perfect alignment at Z Cuisine. In fact, the only things missing from this idyllic scene are the Gauloises-smoking French, the pall of their yellow cigarette smoke hanging around the high ceiling, and the bells tolling the hour as it grows later and later.

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