Jax Fish House
If restaurateur, chef and culinary man-about-town Dave Query has a signature spot that captures the evolution of his empire, it's Jax in LoDo. Here, in a retooling of the original Boulder fish house, Query's vision and his attempts to meld the upscale with the down-home come together most smoothly. From the brick walls sketched with graffiti to the big horseshoe bar, from the seating crammed in every which way on the floor to the butcher's paper on the tables, Jax exudes a feeling of casual fun. The moment you walk through the door, you want to loosen your tie, then eat too much, drink too much and definitely stay too long. The day's specials are listed on the chalkboard, but everything on Jax's menu is a keeper. The oysters are particularly good, and a Bloody Mary or three at Sunday brunch is an excellent way to emerge from your own briny deep.
There are moments when you just know you've eaten one of the best somethings of your life -- the best chili dog, the best foie gras, the best what-have-you. From the first bite of a soft-shell crab at Chez Thuy, we knew it was the best we'd eat in our lives -- until we came back and had an even better one. The soft-shell crabs are deep-fried whole, and the beautiful golden batter, just a little spicy, comes crisp out of the oil. Inside that jacket, the shells are chewy, yielding and full of white meat that tastes like what clouds might taste like if they lived at the bottom of the sea. The accompanying nuoc cham is sharp as crystal, bright with flavors, and so astringent that a sniff of it is dizzying, like a toot of model-airplane glue. The only way to eat these crabs is to tear right into them with your hands and strip the meat right out of their fat little bodies with your teeth. Dignified? No. Delicious? You bet.
Sushi Sasa/Instagram
Wayne Conwell, the chef/owner of Sushi Sasa, is a man obsessed with details. From the precise alignment of a piece of fish on a plate to the shape of a hundred different hand rolls, nothing is too small to warrant his attention. And from his post behind the sushi bar at Sushi Sasa -- his white-on-white-on-white dream of what a great restaurant can be -- no detail escapes him. Conwell sees everyone who comes through the door, sees every plate that passes out of the kitchen, sees the surprised looks on the faces of the happy diners (except those hanging out in the downstairs lounge, of course, which is used as overflow seating when the dining room is full) as they take their first bites of his sushi or his tempura -- the raw and the cooked. This obsession with all the little things makes for a freakish kind of excellence, and also makes Sushi Sasa the new benchmark for sushi restaurants in Denver.
Sushi Den
Forget everything else on the menu at Sushi Den. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but if you're walking into a place that has not just the best sushi in Denver but some of the best sushi outside of Japan, why would you want to eat anything else? What sets Sushi Den apart is simple: It's the fish. But actually, it's not so simple -- the way Sushi Den gets that amazing fish is incredibly complicated and took owner Toshi Kizaki years to work out to his satisfaction. You see, much of the fish served here comes straight from the fish markets of Japan, where Toshi's brother goes every day to buy supplies that then are loaded on a plane, flown to Los Angeles, flown to Denver, picked up by Toshi and put on that night's menu. Which means the fish on your plate were swimming in the ocean less than 36 hours before. That kind of sourcing and shipping is expensive, time-consuming -- and totally worth it when you want the best.
The Zen garden at Domo is the ideal spot to sit and consider how lucky you are to live in Denver. Seriously, here you are, smack in the middle of a city smack in the middle of a nation half a world away from the peace and calm of the region that invented this cuisine, eating teriyaki and tonkatsu and miso soup and flying-fish roe and the best, most authentic expression of Japanese country cooking in maybe a thousand miles. It's not enough that Denver has some of the best sushi restaurants in the country. It's not enough that we have a profusion of Japanese restaurants and Japanese fusion restaurants. No, we also have a place that focuses quite specifically on the family-style food of rural, northern Japan and serves it in a Zen garden attached to a Japanese cultural center that's open to the public six days a week. Lucky? That doesn't begin to describe life in Denver.
Kim Ba
Kim Ba is one of Denver's oldest Vietnamese restaurants, a shirttail relative of more famous spots on South Federal, and has held down this near-invisible space in a ghost-town strip mall for nearly twenty years. In that time, owner Ba Forde has perfected her menu into a cornucopia of ultra-traditional flavors, reflecting in proper ratio the variety of ethnic influences that have nibbled away at the edges of Vietnamese cuisine for centuries. The green-lip mussels come in a Thai coconut curry sauce. The thit heo kho tieu -- pork cooked in a spicy black-pepper sauce -- is reminiscent of any number of Asian pork barbecue sandwiches. Bo xao dam is beef sauteed in a wine-and-vinegar sauce: a little French, a little Chinese. The vit xao xa ot, duck sauteed with lemongrass, is more French than anything, even in the way it's cut. But then, the French are the only cooks who've managed to mix comfortably with Vietnamese tradition, or to have any real effect on the country's cuisine. A delicious effect, as evidenced by Kim Ba's excellent Vietnamese food.
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.

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