For generations, the tamal was the humblest expression of Mexican comfort food. But in recent years, with the popularity of all things Mexi-culinary exploding, tamales have been brought out of the cocinas and into the limelight, subjected to all manner of torturous revisions that have done nothing whatsoever to improve on their essential perfection. A bit of meat, a bit of sauce, a corn husk and a masa jacket -- that's all a proper tamal needs. And at Villa Cafe, the tamales -- which are handmade daily -- are just that and nothing more. The masa is soft and flavorful, the tiniest bit sweetly sour, and rolled thin so as not to overwhelm the shredded beef inside, which is braised until tender. The tamal is then topped with its perfect match -- an unusual orange chile that adds tomatoes to a Colorado-style green. This is one kitchen that doesn't feel the need to improve on what's already the best.
Although Frank Bonanno is still tinkering with many things at Milagro, the tortilla soup is already perfect -- a silky puree of fried tortillas and chicken stock, garlic, onions, a hint of tomato so light it barely changes the soup's lovely nut-brown color, and a lace of huitlacoche (Mexico's answer to truffles, which are Bonanno's answer to everything) that gives every other ingredient a solid base to stand on. All told, there are six ingredients, each of them absolutely necessary and working in pure harmony. This soup bowls us over.
Qdoba Mexican Grill
It's always a pleasant surprise to find a chain restaurant doing something well -- particularly when it's a local chain like Qdoba, which has long been overshadowed by the success of Chipotle. Using its basic fixings, Qdoba recently added a tortilla soup to its takeout repertoire that's flat-out delicious -- a thick, hearty soup that's essentially a deconstructed taco soaked in a spicy broth. And once the soup has been tailored to your taste, you get to take it home and eat it while sitting on your own couch, in the privacy of your own living room.
It should come as no surprise that Sabor Latino makes the best chips and salsa in town. After all, tortilla chips are the french fries, the bar peanuts, the potato chips of the Southwestern world, and Sabor Latino is Denver's best bulk purveyor of all things Central and South American. This comfortable, quaint neighborhood restaurant does excellent arepas, it does wonderful fish ceviche, it does commendable burritos and tamales and Caribbean platters that you won't find anywhere else. But when we settle into one of the intimate booths, the first thing we look for is the great plate of fresh chips served with a thin, dark, spicy salsa that's more like tomato water and black-bean puree than a standard salsa, but also incredibly addictive.
With excellent, fresh, crispy chips and three fantastic salsas: That's how every meal at Chama begins, and it's how your meal can end, as well, if you politely ask the house to pack a little extra to go. The trio of salsas are perfect in their own right, covering the full spectrum of heat and flavor. There's a cool, green tomatillo that's thin and watery and almost sweet; a thick and blazing-hot habanero that delivers a lot of flavor before the punishing spiciness hits you; and right in the middle, a sweet-hot smoked-chipotle salsa shot with honey that says volumes about the expert control of flavors in the kitchen. And it's all free -- which just goes to show that sometimes the best things in life really are.
Luca
Scott Lentz
The amuse-bouche, though overdone in some places and simply ridiculous in others, is always a sight to behold at Luca d'Italia. Here, Frank Bonanno and his crew use flavors that will no doubt repeat in the coming meal to construct a one-bite masterpiece perfect for putting guests in the proper frame of mind to appreciate the brilliant, complicated simplicity of Luca's wonderful Italian cuisine. Truffled egg salad, slips of marinated octopus -- each one is a tiny jewel-box presentation meant for calibrating the tastebuds and offering a free preview of how Luca works.
We're not sure who concocted the first margarita -- there are various accounts, none conclusive -- but we know that person was a genius. Combine fresh lime juice with a good, 100 percent agave tequila and triple sec, and eureka! Sadly, over the years that original formula has been bastardized, with sweet-and-sour replacing lime juice, and peaches, strawberries and even mangoes getting spun into Slurpee versions. But Chama takes the margarita back to basics, using fresh lime juice (squeezed every day, never frozen), prime tequila and high-quality triple sec that makes for the best house marg we've found in Colorado. And for a few extra coins, the Chama Silver Coin is heaven in a glass.
The classic martini is a thing of beauty, an expression of elegance distilled into a glass bucket of gin and two olives. At the Avenue Grill, the bartenders know exactly what a proper martini is about, and they pour them untainted by modernity or nouvelle gimmicks. Gin, gin, gin and olives is the right formula, with just a kiss of dry vermouth for complexity, poured over ice into a shaker, then stirred or gently swirled (never shaken) before being doled out into an iced martini glass. These days, when it seems that every restaurant in the world is involved in a massive conspiracy to drown the flawlessness of the classic martini in a flood of flavored vodkas, chocolate, fruit juice and Tang, we take comfort in the fact that some bars and bartenders understand that perfection is fucked with only at the peril of the fuckee.
Parallel Seventeen
Because there will always be those who can't leave well enough alone, there will always be one place that does wrong better than anyone else. This year, that place is Parallel Seventeen, with its wrongheaded but very right-tasting Vietnamese Coffee Martini. Made of chilled Vietnamese coffee, vanilla Stoli, Kahla and a single dot of sweetened condensed milk lurking in the hollow where stem meets glass, this amazing concoction has become our preferred non-traditional drink for all occasions, both social and professional -- although frankly, after two of these, any occasion becomes social, and after three, it might as well be a slumber party.
Brown Palace Hotel Tea Room
There are few experiences more genteel than enjoying cocktails in the Brown Palace Atrium: The space is casual, yet has a well-heeled charm augmented by the tinkling piano, super-comfy seating and a fabulous ceiling eight stories above, complete with skylights and chandeliers. And then the martini cart, covered with elite liqueurs and elegant silver shakers, drifts tableside to mix up a little something for you. The Brown offers cart service during the cocktail hour nightly except on Sunday, with later hours on Fridays and Saturdays, and it's a swell way to start off an evening on the town -- in every sense of the word "swell."

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