A $2.89 blue-plate special at lunch? You can't beat that — not even if you go through a McDonald's drive-thru for a Happy Meal. And while a Mickey D's lunch will do nothing but make you feel bad for eating such junk, at Johnny's you're not only getting real lunch from an honest-to-Jesus local business, but you're getting a little kick of history with your meal. Both the style and concept of this place — a counter-service, plastic-tray car-cult joint with a freaky kick of Golden Age Americana oozing from every inch — pre-date our country's obsession with fast food, making Johnny's a window back onto a simpler time. A time when the phrase "Nothin' could be finer than dinner [or lunch] at the diner" really meant something. At Johnny's, it means good food for a very good price.
This has been Frank Bonanno's year. While cutting his losses on a couple of ventures, he continued to ensure that the French/Mediterranean-inspired Mizuna and the solidly Italian Luca remained two of the city's most consistently excellent restaurants. And then last December, he opened Osteria Marco in Larimer Square, a neighborhood already full to bursting with great restaurants — and it immediately rose to the top of the heap, putting all of Denver's charcuterie freaks in seventh heaven, while also serving wood-fired pizzas, panini sandwiches and a weekly pig roast. Never mind his great recipes, superb technique, solid work ethic and Today show appearances: Bonanno's comeback-kid routine alone secures his place as this year's best chef manning three of the town's best restaurants.
There are essentially two kinds of restaurants in the world: those run for the benefit of customers and those run as playgrounds for chefs. The Corner Office is unabashedly one of the former, and that "unabashedly" is why it's so successful. With no shame, no tongue-in-cheek, smirking irony, the bar will pour you a double whiskey while the kitchen lovingly plates up your requested bowl of Cap'n Crunch (with Crunch Berries). Lemon edamame and fish tacos? No problem. And then there's the Southern-style fried chicken and waffles, a dream plate with three pieces of perfectly golden and crisp-skinned fried chicken done to order, crowded on top of an excellent Belgian waffle (like a sugary buttermilk cloud, crunchy at the edges, soft in the middle), the whole thing dusted with a drift of powdered sugar and served with a warm jug of syrup on the side.
Chicken rice, the unofficial comfort food of Singapore, is exactly what it sounds like: chicken and rice and nothing else. But at Isle of Singapore, these two ingredients add up to big flavor. Officially billed as Hainanese chicken rice, it comes as a plate of white rice piled with chunks of rudely hacked, bone-in and double-boiled chicken. You're supposed to doctor your chicken rice with a variety of sauces and toppings, but all that's really required is a touch of hot sauce and a big appetite.
Davies Chuck Wagon was built in 1957, maybe one of the best years for diners, definitely one of the last. It's a Mountain View, constructed in Singac, New Jersey, and the name is appropriate, because from the street out front, you can see the foothills rising over a hump in the land. It's doubly appropriate, in fact, because of all the diners bolted together on those grimy East Coast assembly lines, Mountain View #516 traveled the farthest — to Lakewood, Colorado. The classic exterior makes a fitting setting for another classic: Davies' chicken-fried steak, the best version in town. The steak may be nearly an inch thick, but inside its jacket of crisp breading, it's tender enough (after having been soaked in milk and beaten into pudding with a mallet) to be cut with a cheap tin fork. The steak comes with a scratch-made white gravy (just flour, butter, cream, pepper and sausage grease) that's pure white death — and deliciously decadent. We brake for Davies.
While we're firmly of the opinion that, like jazz or summer blockbusters, barbecue is an American art form, plenty of international practitioners come up with some pretty good versions all on their own. The Chinese, for example. They have one of the oldest food cultures on the planet, and at the center of the canon is Chinese pork barbecue — that slick, super-sweet red stuff offered on just about every Chinese takeout menu in the world. For a taste of the real thing, head to Pacific Ocean International Market, where you can order it by the pound or by the length (usually measured by the space between two fingers — or two spread hands if you're hungry) straight from the butcher's counter.
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Chopsticks is a strange restaurant: It's one of the city's most authentic Chinese spots, yet it also serves some completely inauthentic dishes. At Chopsticks, you can eat Chinese pocket sandwiches full of delicious, saucy, shredded meat or completely non-threatening chicken lo mein — and then, halfway through your meal, decide that what you really want is a little cold jellyfish salad or a plate of flaming pig intestines, and then get that, too, without having to change restaurants or neighborhoods or do anything more than ask. Here the competing impulses toward satisfying the local populace and satisfying those far from home are brought into perfect balance on a huge menu filled with dumplings, porridge, hot pots and barbecue, a document that sees no contradiction in offering both beef in garlic sauce and haggis-like shredded lamb stomach.
Randy Schoch, owner of the Ling & Louie's chain, is making a real effort at gastronomic decency, redefining an already redefined culinary gestalt (quote/unquote Asian cuisine) and taking it through the stages from Asian to Asian-American to family-friendly yuppie-Asian. And somehow he manages to raise the bar by aiming lower than the competition. His best ideas? Offering children's bento boxes and Chinese party food, American takeoffs on Asian street dishes carefully calibrated for the mid-range palate. While that food may not rise much above solidly decent, what sets Ling & Louie's apart is how it treats kids as people, not just as unfortunate by-products of family dining attached inseparably to their parents' wallets.

Best Chips and Salsa — Non-Traditional

Tibet's

We know that pappadum isn't exactly a tortilla chip, and that spicy greenish-red stuff that's served alongside it at Tibet's isn't exactly salsa. But we don't care, because we also know that this stuff is addictive and free.

Best Chips and Salsa — Traditional

Reiver's

Reiver's, which got its start with the sniffles-and-Steely Dan crowd, became an entirely new restaurant last year with a top-to-toes remodel of everything from the menu to the interior by owner Dan Shipp. It's still a neighborhood hangout, but now it's a comfortable place where anyone would want to hang out. And you could hang out for a long time over an order of the best chips and salsa in town. The chips are thick, multi-colored and delicious, the salsa a savory, chunky and wet mess that ideally balances sweetness, spice and a razor blade of late-hitting heat. It's the perfect accompaniment for a couple of cold beers at the bar, or a good appetite-whetter before your chicken-fried steak arrives.

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