Royal Peacock
For decades, Royal Peacock's Shanti Awatramani has been serving some of the best Indian food in the United States. Before that, he worked in some of the best Indian restaurants, hotels and resorts in Bombay. He grew up in the hotel-and-restaurant business (as did his niece, Laxmi Lalchandani, who often runs the floor at the Peacock these days), and everything he learned he brought with him to Boulder, where he opened the Royal Peacock. The menu has been largely unchanged from the first day -- basic biryani, murgh chaat, samosa and rogan josh -- but there's no reason to change it, because everything is fabulous. There's no gimmickry here, no flash, no bizarre fusions served in sleek dining rooms. Royal Peacock simply offers the most honest, delicious dishes passed down through generations of a restaurant family known halfway around the world for being the best at what they do.
Little India
Westword
At this point, Indian buffets are almost ubiquitous. Which is handy, because that means you never have to go very far in Denver for an inexpensive hit of saag paneer or tandoori chicken. But with the profusion of options, it's also more and more difficult to tell the good from the bad. There's an easy solution for that: Just head for the best midday feast in town, the buffet at the original Little India. Don't let the full parking lot worry you. Or the line at the door. Or the line at the buffet. No matter how long you have to wait, once you've loaded your plate with rich, deeply flavored saag, biryani, chickpea salad and chicken tandoori from the frequently refilled chafing dishes, you'll know you've come to the right place.
Jewel Of India Restaurant
Courtesy Jewel of India Facebook
Anyone can invent some freaky, prawn-and-jackfruit Asian fusion plate with chrysanthemum flowers and pierogi. Some people might even think it inspired. But for us, true talent lies in the ability to cook the favorite plate of your great-great-great-grandfather and make it just the way he liked it more than a century ago. If that ancestor liked Mughlai cuisine -- the food of raiders and interlopers, siege rations brought into India by Muslim invaders -- then he'd appreciate Jewel of India. And so would anyone else ever taken aback -- stunned, stricken momentarily dumb -- by the depth of richness and layered flavor of an Indian entree. The culinary world has the Mughals to thank for that; we're just thankful that Jewel of India keeps the tradition alive.
Masalaa
Creamed spinach can be great, but the best friend that creamed spinach ever had was a steak. Make that the best American friend that creamed spinach ever had was a steak, because there are plenty of ethnic restaurants where vegetarianism is not about the denial of pleasure (read: meat), but the glorification of vegetables. And at Masalaa, you'll be so busy eating creamed spinach with twenty different spices and squeaky cubes of cheese -- better known as saag paneer -- that you won't give a thought to the missing pork chops or porterhouse. There's just too much on this menu to enjoy. The gigantic food-as-art dosa are meals in themselves, the innumerable chickpea creations are excellent, and every creamy, rich and stunningly complex sauce is a masterwork.
D Note
The D Note's menu isn't entirely vegetarian, but the parts that are -- better than half of the offerings, with many of them completely vegan -- are so good that you'll barely notice the lack of pepperoni and hot Italian sausage. And if you do, there's always the other half of the menu on which to slake your carnivorous bloodthirst. Chef Amy Wroblewski and the DeGraff brothers, who own the D Note, have assembled a wild board of custom pizzas with carefully sourced, high-quality ingredients piled so high you'll never leave hungry. For vegetarians, virtue has its own reward: an overloaded monster covered in oil and basil pesto, huge puffs of ricotta cheese, vegan mozzarella, artichoke hearts or anything else your twig- and berry-eating heart desires.
Mercury Cafe
Who is this city's most fierce, forward-forging green advocate? The answer is blowing in the wind. This year, Marilyn Megenity -- who infuses her Mercury Cafe with good, organic food and intelligent entertainment and fuels her own car with vegetable-oil fuel -- took out a loan on her home so she could install two forty-foot-tall Air X turbines on the roof of the Merc's longtime home in downtown Denver. Though Megenity's quixotic installation (which is small in comparison to those that whir out on the prairie) isn't big enough to completely cover the restaurant's energy-consumption needs, the windmills do something else just as important: They set an example for the rest of us.
Gaia Bistro
Mark Manger
Gaia is the goddess of the earth and everything that comes from the earth, including all of the wonderful dishes -- the buttery quiches and buckwheat crepes wrapped around peppered lamb loin with wild mushrooms and fragrant pots of French-pressed, organic Kaladi Brothers coffee -- served by Patrick Mangold-White and Jon Edwards at Gaia, a restaurant tucked into a little clapboard house on South Pearl. But it's in the summer months that the place really comes alive. That's when the focus moves from the charming window seats indoors to the outdoors, where the raised beds in the back yard produce much of the menu's ingredients. This is truly a garden of the food gods.
Flower Wraps Cafe and Urban Market
Platt Park residents Val and Carolyn Erpelding combined their talents -- he's a chef (and an accomplished ice sculptor), she's a florist -- to create the multi-purpose Flower Wraps, a restaurant/coffeehouse/flower shop that gets people coming and going. Situated adjacent to the Louisiana and Pearl LRT station, the restaurant part of the operation serves breakfast, lunch and "twilight" menus for people on the run, and caters to its clientele-in-transit with the "Fastracks Next Day Program," which lets customers order a sandwich on the way home and pick it up in a reusable bag to take to work the next morning. Bouquets are also on the menu, with everything from a dozen roses to an English garden basket option ripe for the picking.
Rioja
Scott Lentz
Chef/co-owner Jen Jasinski has put up many impressive menus at Rioja. But with all her housemade pastas, salads, Colorado lamb dishes and an ever-changing pork-heavy, Mediterranean board, there's always been one delicious constant: the Rioja "picnic." Combining Spanish chorizo, air-dried duck breast, shaved speck, Italian gorgonzola and assorted olives, nuts and condiments, this plate truly has something for everyone. And if you enjoy your picnic on Rioja's small, pleasant patio on busy Larimer Square, you're guaranteed to see almost everyone you know. Just don't offer to share; you'll want to keep this plate all for yourself.
Ya Hala Grill
The space is small and more than a little ragged. The service runs at a pace somewhere between slow-but-friendly and glacial. And the menu seems oddly foreshortened. But at Ya Hala, all that matters is the food -- and the food is absolutely fabulous. The kitchen must be imbued with some kind of natural magic for the deep-but-narrow cuisine of the Middle East, because it turns out unbelievably good roasted chicken, shawarma and baked goods -- particularly the baklava, a dish we'd simply assumed that, like celery, roasted eggplant or the musical stylings of John Tesh, was just not to our taste. But Ya Hala's baklava is food for the gods, a fitting end to a meal that starts with the best hummus in the city (flavored with sumac powder and olive oil) and just goes up from there. The presentations are straightforward, the flavors blunt and lovely, and each plate is given an attention born of complete love of the cuisine -- no shortcuts, no scrimping.

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