BEST NOUVELLE VIETNAMESE RESTAURANT 2006 | Parallel Seventeen | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword
Using as her inspiration the imperial cuisine of Hue and the family dinners that her mother still cooks on weekends, Mary Nguyen opened Parallel Seventeen just in time to prove that the small-plates fad did not begin and end with the Spanish. Here she's arranged a menu that offers the best of Vietnamese cuisine, designed with a modernist's touch. The banh mi sandwich served whole at lunch is deconstructed at dinner into a dreamy charcuterie plate of pork pate and mousse and smoky char siu. The pho is powerful and fiercely traditional, while the gaufrettes showcase French influences. The space this food is served in displays Nguyen's contemporary sensibilities: It's comfortable, casual, traditional and nouvelle all at the same time, just like her cooking.
Traditional cuisines are often damaged by the profusion of assimilated knockoffs that surround them. It's sometimes easier for an ethnic restaurant to just go with the flow, dumb down its food and reap the inevitable rewards as timid diners flock in for the sweet curries, the bland rice and the gummy sesame-everything. But give credit to Pim Fitt, owner of Yummy Yummy Tasty Thai, for avoiding that route and instead sticking with Thai cuisine that's as authentic as you can get without a plane ticket and a passport. From deep-fried spinach leaves, unusual soups and blazing hot Thai curries to the gentler pleasures of rice cakes, coconut ice cream and icy bottles of Singha beer, Fitt serves nothing in her tiny, cozy dining room that isn't exactly the way she knows it should be after half a life spent in Thailand -- and the other half spent teaching the rest of us what the first half tasted like.
On Saturday and Sunday mornings, King's Land really shines. During the crush of service for weekend dim sum, this gigantic space that can easily seat 300 people sometimes packs in 400. And all the while, the carts never stop moving, the people never stop pointing, and the food never stops coming until you surrender and beg for the check. For the uninitiated, a meal here can be an overpowering experience -- but be brave and you'll quickly get into the swing of things. (Or just order off the regular menu, which offers commendable versions of classic Chinese dishes.) Dim sum offerings range from the simplest pork buns to more complicated congee porridges to authentic meat and seafood dishes from parts of animals not often eaten outside of truly ethnic restaurants. But your courage will be rewarded with a restaurant experience unlike any other in town -- and we bet you'll be back the next weekend for more.
JJ Chinese isn't much to look at, but all the scenery you need is right on your plate. This little storefront cooks mostly for the Chinese immigrant community looking for a taste of what it considers comfort food, but it also offers ample pleasures for the daring gastronaut willing to sample chicken feet and sea cucumbers right alongside the regulars. Service can be quick and friendly or achingly slow, depending on how crowded the place is -- but the food is always worth the wait. The seafood dishes are particularly good, prepared and presented with a pride that's rare in even the most authentic of Chinese restaurants.
If you're going to Americanize a cuisine, you might as well go all the way. At P.F. Chang's, the portions are American-huge, the flavors American-intense, the drinks American-expensive and the business model American-kinked to put maximum butts into maximum seats and turn the dining room as quickly as possible. And yet a meal here can be very good -- and it will be just as good the next time you make the same order, because P.F. Chang's prides itself on consistency. Although the food is no more authentic than the faux-Asian architecture in the giant dining rooms, no one who craves Americanized Chinese food is looking for authenticity anyhow.
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.
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.

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