Sometimes you really want ricotta pancakes at three in the morning. Sometimes you need a panini-pressed breakfast burrito and a strong cup of coffee. And sometimes all that's required is a plate of cocktail wieners and a Rice Krispies treat. No matter what you're hungering for, there's a good chance that owners Monique Costello and Amy Rosewater will have exactly that -- or something even better -- at Monkey Bean. While the 4 a.m. breakfast is generally the province of the all-night diner or the dismal greasy spoon, Monkey Bean offers quality culinary options for putting a cap on a good night -- or for keeping a bad one from getting worse.
Zengo
Give and take, back and forth, yin and yang -- Zengo's menu, concept and even its design are structured around the idea of taking something good and pairing it, topping it or mashing it together with something even better. Technically, Zengo bills itself as a Latino-Asian fusion restaurant -- which is strange enough -- but what it really does is take the entire fusion gestalt and push it to its logical conclusion. There's sushi on this menu, but the sushi is a fusion of classical Japanese and nouvelle styles. There are chiles and mother sauces, sesame seeds and hoisin. And each category on the menu -- from the tiraditos, antojitos and dim sum to the noodles, mains and desserts -- is meant for sharing over drinks and good conversation. At its best, Zengo's notion of fusion infuses everything from food to service to seating arrangements. In a crowded field, Zengo is great because it never saw any reason to stop at being just good enough.
Carmine's on Penn
Mark Antonation
A "family-style" restaurant is almost always synonymous with a very, very bad restaurant. Not so with Carmine's on Penn, where gigantic plates and pastas served by the pound receive all the care and attention normally seen only at very fussy, regular-size-plate restaurants. Here, tables groan under deep bowls of linguine with white clam sauce and gigantic platters of pasta Montana with chicken and asparagus drenched in gallons of cream sauce. Carmine's is so popular that there's usually a line and service can suffer, but if you come with a big appetite and are willing to wait, dinner here can be a very fulfilling experience.
In adopting -- and adapting -- the theme of drunken, lazy, artistic Spanish dining, the 9th Door has deliberately painted itself into a very good culinary corner, forcing the kitchen to stay true to the influences of Spanish cuisine and the bar to the ideal of fully tanked Spanish drinking habits. The menu was designed by consulting chef Michel Wahaltere, but after he left last summer, the crew took his concept and ran with it, offering real tapas in a city already awash in small plates. The menu is broken in half -- cold plates on one side, hot ones on the other -- and includes such wonders as cold Spanish potato salad with asparagus and egg; roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese, rosemary and Serrano ham; albondigas in tomato gravy; pork brochettes and grilled shrimp marinated in olive oil, garlic and chile piquin. For small plates, these are the tapas the town.
Sushi Sasa
Linnea Covington
Omakase. That's the magic word at Sushi Sasa: Cook for me. When you say this at the sushi bar, you free chef Wayne Conwell or a member of his talented crew to assemble a unique, adventurous, individual feast (priced at $60, $80 or $120, depending on the number of courses). And once the food arrives, there's no doubt that you're in the hands of a master displaying both classical chops and a wild flood of creativity. Dinner one night could be a pyramid of inside-out and right-side-in maki accented by delicate slips of chile, the best noodle soup you will ever taste, a fan of seared Kobe beef and dried mushroom, fried shrimp heads exploding like a flower from the center of the plate, or one perfect uni hand roll like a sea-urchin ice cream cone. And the next night, the offerings will be completely different -- but just as astounding.
Nine75 -- the original Nine75, soon to be joined by at least two sibling restaurants -- has had some ups and downs since it opened in the former home of Moda. There was a period when the house was struggling to find its niche, a longer period where it was trying to get found by the kind of customers who'd be charmed by chef Troy Guard's smart, freaky, arrogant, sideways Asian-American-European menu of jumped-up comfort foods and straight-genius small plates. And then the customers started coming. Lunches were added, and people grew accustomed to the tragically backward arrangement of the space. And now, finally, Nine75 is in an upswing, with Guard having suddenly crossed from struggling artist to certified success story. With a triumphant James Beard dinner behind him and a lineup of new openings on the horizon, he's taken his rightful place as one of the smartest and most innovative chefs in the city. The only question now is, what comes next?
Viva Burrito Company
Viva Burrito Company has zero decor, zero ambience (unless you're really turned on by cement) and is basically just a little red box with a kitchen, but the food coming out of that kitchen is fantastic. Not white-tablecloth fantastic; plastic-silverware-and-paper-napkin fantastic, with a serious "Gimme twenty bucks and I'll show you the real Mexico" vibe. The show starts with Viva's excellent breakfast burrito, which the joint starts serving very early on weekend mornings, when the line at the drive-thru starts winding out into the street and the crowds spill into the parking lot. It's breakfast-burrito pandemonium, a friggin' Benetton ad for Denver's booziest middle demographic. You want fast? There are plenty of Taco Bells open until the wee hours. You want the best? Get in line at Viva.
No wi-fi, no cappuccino, no dress code and no service past 2:30 in the afternoon. That's what makes the 20th Street Cafe our favorite breakfast bar. But the prices -- which top out under the ten-dollar mark -- also make it the best place in Denver for breakfast on the cheap. The venerable cafe isn't fancy, and it doesn't have the most convenient parking in the world, but it does have a good chicken-fried steak, huge omelets, good diner-style coffee with fast refills and a menu that mixes up the best of classic Americana with an interesting take on the Colorado immigrant experience, including fried rice and noodle bowls that call to mind the Japanese war brides who once settled in the area.
Strong coffee, excellent corned beef hash, unrivaled cherry crepes and fresh-squeezed orange juice like neon rocket fuel: At seven o'clock in the morning, it doesn't get better than this. The Original Pancake House uses nothing but the best ingredients and the best products, and employs line cooks who know how to work fast and clean and how to execute a complicated and worldly menu with just the right notes of comfort and consolation. The space isn't much to look at, and service is brisk, to say the least -- but at breakfast, none of that matters as much as frequent refills and grub by the yard. The icing on the coffee cake? The Dutch Baby -- a gigantic baked pancake topped with butter, powdered sugar and lemon juice.
Come on, give us one good reason why some cheapjack McBreakfast thing bought from a creepy clown is your favorite way to start the day. Done? Good. Now ditch the drive-thru and get yourself down to Emogene for the breakfast sandwich -- a perfect blend of three scrambled eggs, muenster cheese, frisee and fleur de sel on brioche, all for just $4.25. It's a little more (but totally worth it) to add thick-cut smoked bacon and a cup of cafe au lait to your order, but trust us: One bite of this sandwich and you'll never talk to that stupid clown again.

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