Best Of :: Food & Drink
Bastilla and sweetened black coffee at Cafe Paprika: That's the one order that captures the essence of Morocco in particular and North Africa as a whole. Ginger and cumin and saffron, cinnamon and powdered sugar, a billion layers of phyllo dough with shreds of herbed chicken stuck in between, the heat of the coffee on your fingers through the filigreed glass cup -- all of it combines to transport you far from the Denver strip malls and deep into the deserts of the other side of the world.
You might recognize the name "Tacos D.F." It was painted on the side of a great lonchera that once prowled the streets of Denver. Now all the pleaures of that taco truck can be found in the same spot night after night, in a little joint in the middle of a strip mall along Parker Road. The space is warm and comfortable, with one wall covered floor to ceiling with black-marker graffiti scrawled by legions of satisfied customers. Service is exceptionally quick, incredibly friendly and eager to please. There are specials written out longhand on construction paper -- but anything from the regular offerings of pork and asada tacos, tacos cabeza, sopes de bistec and a short list of tortas is bound to be good. It helps to speak a little Spanish here, but you can usually get by with some phonetics, a little mime and a lot of pointing at the menu hung above the window where orders are taken, paid for and delivered.
Tonti's is an enigma. It's a tiny strip-mall joint, almost always empty except for a couple of employees hanging disconsolately around the counter. And while about half the time what we get off the short, predictable menu (pizzas, calzones, stromboli, meatball sandwiches) is completely forgettable, the other half it's
fantastic beyond any rational explanation. At its best, Tonti's makes the kind of stromboli you just can't stop eating, the kind of New York-style pizzas that wake you up in the middle of the night -- calling you from inside the refrigerator, demanding that you eat a leftover slice cold, standing there in your socks and boxers. So, yes, sometimes Tonti's makes the best strip-mall Italian food in the city and sometimes it doesn't. Just ask yourself one question before you go in: Do you feel lucky?
If you wanted to give people a true taste of Denver, where would you send them? For us, Elway's -- Big John's eponymous temple of meat -- comes out on top every time. For the scene, the service, the staff and the sly humor implicit in the menu's design, Elway's is that single restaurant that defines what it is to eat in Denver today. There's money here, but there are also plenty of people in blue jeans. Although the restaurant is in Cherry Creek, it could be picked up whole and successfully transplanted to almost any other neighborhood in the city (as proven by the recently announced expansion into the new downtown Ritz-Carlton). And while chef Tyler Wiard and everyone in Elway's kitchen certainly know how to handle a piece of meat, the little flourishes and big hospitality are what set this place apart. Oh, yes, and then there's that connection to a certain quarterback...
Legislators and local union leaders, cowboys and cooks. You never know who'll end up at Brewery Bar II on any given day, because everyone who knows and loves Denver for its less cosmopolitan charms passes through here eventually, looking for cold beer, hot chile, gloriously sloppy Meximerican grub of no discernible geographical provenance and that certain dim-lit and rough-edged temper that's the solid base from which all of Denver's uptown glitz and glamour have grown. Though Brew II has recently spawned a passel of polished suburban offspring, they're bastards born of opportunism and sprawl psychology. You want the real thing? Head down to the blue-collar part of town, grab a seat at the bar and order a Tiny.
Cafe Star isn't a French restaurant -- though some of the preparations (like the duck confit) are certainly Continental in origin -- and given the worldliness of its cuisine, it isn't a completely American restaurant. It isn't a fine-dining restaurant -- it's too fun for that -- but neither is it just a neighborhood restaurant, because there are nights when even the neighbors can't get a seat. No, on this food frontier, Cafe Star is blazing its own trail, building on the failures of California cuisine, the innovations of immigrant cooks and the decades of dining dominance enjoyed by the big cities on the coasts. This is a New West restaurant through and through, and a great star on the local scene.
At the Buckhorn Exchange, every square inch of space that isn't being used for the butchering, cooking and plating of meat is covered with something meat-related. Hundreds of dead animals are mounted on every available bit of wall; every nook and cranny is jammed with gewgaws and antique bric-a-brac, more than a century's worth of Old West history that dates back to original owner Henry H. Zeitz, who rode with Buffalo Bill for a decade before settling in Denver and opening his own watering hole. Zeitz once shot a bandit in the back for hitting one of his waitresses, and in 1938 was presented with Custer's sword by a procession of thirty Indians riding down Osage Street. This is how the West was fun.
Ten years ago, Vesta broke new ground when it introduced the notion of a hip, sharp and trendy dipping grill to Denver. Amazingly, ten years later, the place remains the absolute definition of a hip, sharp, trendy and groundbreaking restaurant. In the interim, others have tried to copy the dipping-grill concept; what sets Vesta apart is chef Matt Selby's way out West cuisine -- an extreme, customer-driven fusion that owes its frisson to adventurous eaters willing to surrender themselves to anything coming out of this kitchen. Today, Vesta still feels like a wild, expressionistic experiment riding an opening-night rush -- a full decade after that opening night.
Funny that it would take two Brits with French wine pretensions and a long history of globe-trotting culinary excess to come up with Denver's premier American restaurant. Owners Mel and Janie Master have helped define Denver's place in American food history for decades, the last twelve of them at Mel's in Cherry Creek. Nearly every great young chef now working in the city has taken a turn or two through this kitchen, and over the past year, with the hiring of chef Chad Clevenger, Mel's reached a new, humorous high, where tacos, steaks and peanut-butter-and-banana-sandwich flavors of the American West were brought to the fore. Mel's will be shutting down come summer, but it's nice to go out at the top of your game.
It seems impossible, but Deluxe has managed to get better over the past few years. That's saying something, because it was pretty damn good to begin with and has always been one of our favorite spots for kicking back and treating ourselves. The menu -- a kind of Bizarro World take on the California Cuisine revolution, cooked as if the intervening twenty years never happened -- is short and tight, just right for grazing (oyster shooters, served in pho spoons) or for going all out. While the dining room is decidedly hip and funky, we prefer a seat at the copper-topped bar that surrounds the tiny kitchen, which is perfect for people-watching and even better for dining close to the action. And lest you forget what's really important here, a sign hung on the back wall reminds everyone: EAT.
When your grandfather thought about a nice dinner out, Bastien's may have been the spot he had in mind. Big fat steaks, ageless cocktails and a tacky, shmaltzy, absolutely dead-on swinger's swank put this place high on our list of favorite restaurants. Forget fusion, forget classicism or over-intellectualized retro-ironic menus that take a half-page explanation just so that everyone will get the joke. At Bastien's, modern living (at least in terms of food, booze and interior decor) hit its high point in 1957, and it was at that point that the Bastien family -- who've owned the restaurant through three generations -- stopped all the clocks and threw away the calendars. The sugar steak alone is so classically American that it should have its own display at the Smithsonian.
There was a moment there, right around 2004, when it seemed like Latino-Asian fusion would be the Next Big Thing. And Denver was on the cutting edge, because international restaurateur Richard Sandoval introduced it first at Zengo. But just as Zengo was hitting its stride, the rest of the restaurant world was turning back toward an embrace of purity, sustainability and locals-only utopianism. And still, as a monolith to the end of a culinary era, Zengo works. It looks like a nightclub, feels like an L.A. singles bar and tastes like genius. With its ambitious menus and yin/yang balance that mixes sushi, antojitos and back-and-forth, shared-plate ideals, Zengo remains a testament to stubbornness and stability in an industry that never learned not to eat its young.