Best Of :: Food & Drink
First things first: The service at Ya Hala Grill is terrible — sometimes laughably so, sometimes maddeningly so. The building itself is little more than a cement bunker on Colorado Boulevard with half a bakery in front and a few tables in back, and the kitchen often seems to be working in its own little world, releasing your dinner in dribs and drabs and often completely out of order. But you've just got to get past all that, because the food at Ya Hala is so good. It's Syrian food, done traditionally and exceptionally well. Gyros for lunch, ballila and fouel and roasted chicken for dinner, the greatest baklava we've ever had for dessert. It's worth putting up with any indignity to get your hands on a plate of that baklava. When a restaurant serves the best Middle Eastern food in the city, you just have to be ready to suck it up — and then eat it up.
Breakfast King has always been there for us, through early-morning breakfasts and late-night breakfasts; breakfasts when the sun is just peeking up over the horizon and we haven't yet been to bed; and breakfasts at four in the afternoon when we've just woken up from whatever the night before had brought us. And no question, when Denver's night owls are in need of a feed, Breakfast King is the place to go. There are nights when this venerable 24-hour diner looks like something out of Quentin Tarantino's wet dreams — a weird conglomeration of club kids and criminals, night-shift blue collars and just plain folk who've found themselves a little bit lost on the wrong side of midnight. The King is there for all of us, helping us get up or come down, chill out or straighten up. In fact, the King has never once locked its doors in all the years it's been operating. And honestly, we're not sure what this city would do if it ever did.
Chef Ian Kleinman is a magician. Not just because he manages to make thoroughly impossible food (carbonated grapefruit, grape caviar, floating bacon and the like) that people come from all over the country to eat, but because he somehow figured out a way to do this at a hotel restaurant in Westminster, Colorado. Magic, indeed. In addition to watching over the regular menu at O's Steak & Seafood, Kleinman personally oversees a brilliant molecular-gastronomy menu that changes completely every week — and he has yet to blow the place up, burn it down or accidentally freeze himself in liquid nitrogen. A single taste of his instant peanut butter sorbet, watermelon powder, Miracle Fruit pills or guacamole space foam and you will never, ever look at food the same way again.
It seems like such an obvious idea: a restaurant dedicated entirely to the glory of the pig, serving pork and pork products. And yet Denver had no all-pig restaurant until Andy Ganick came along. His brainchild is the Berkshire, a restaurant whose menu is like something out of the sickest, most indulgent food fantasies: all pig, all the time. Pig for lunch, pig for brunch (a plate of bacon and a can of Pabst as the house "hangover special"), pig for dinner (bacon flights!) and a little pig in between. Almost every plate has pork worked into it somehow; if Ganick could get away with it, he'd even garnish the bar's cocktails with pig. But there is bacon-infused vodka for those who like to take their pig in liquid form. We go hog wild for the Berkshire.
While American Indian food may be the original American cuisine, not many of us have experienced much past fry bread. But Tocabe, a new fast-casual spot that got its start in Denver, does a perfect job of fusing the old with the new. In a Chipotle-esque setting, and at Chipotle-esque prices, you can get Medicine Wheel Nachos and delicious green chile, as well as pillowy fry bread. Made to order, these delicious edible plates are ideal for holding a variety of meats (including buffalo) and other toppings, as well as a slightly spicy ancho-chile sauce. Conclude your meal with more fry bread topped with honey, and you're guaranteed to become one with nature.
Shrimp and grits. Buffalo chicken wings and Rhode Island calamari. Memphis ribs, Louisiana etouffee, Maine lobster rolls and Chicago-style hot dogs. Steuben's isn't just an American restaurant, it's an All-American restaurant — a restaurant dedicated to the preservation and glorification of our mutt, immigrant canon; our staples and standards; our occasional flashes of brief genius. And while opinions may differ as to whether Steuben's is making the best version of some regional favorite, opinions always differ on every regional favorite. The fights over the Steuben's recipe for trout amandine, its green-chile cheeseburger or the truck-stop chocolate cake started even before the place opened, and they haven't stopped yet. The probably never will. And they all make for delicious conversation over a meal in this popular, comfortable hangout.
You could cut the kitchen right out of the center of Marco's, airlift it to Rome, set it down in the middle of that city — and any Italian cook could step right up and get back to business. But we'd miss that kitchen, because it's the heart of a great, hip new hangout in the Ballpark neighborhood. The ovens here are serious fire-breathing monsters that can blister up a fine pie in sixty seconds. The crusts are made fresh with the best flour in the world: Italian flour. And everything — everything — is done in accordance with the rules set down by various Italian pizza-certifying bodies that get their kicks by traveling all over the world and telling people if they're making their pizzas properly. Marco's is, and owner Mark Dym has the paperwork to prove it. But more important, Marco's excellent pies prove that sometimes the old ways are the right ways and the best ways, and that one diverges from tradition only at one's own risk.
Want to know who made the great bread you had at that restaurant last night? Odds are good that it was City Bakery, the bakery and dessert-a-teria started last year by freaky bread savant Michael Bortz. Bortz started out in Denver as an independent, then went corporate as a baker for Paradise Bakery when the chain started making some serious moves in town. And then he went indie again, taking most of his wholesale contracts with him. The result is a bakery that supplies the best bread in the city to some of the best restaurants in the city, seven days a week. Baking isn't an easy job, so we're lucky to have Bortz looking out for us. If we had to, we really could live on bread — his bread — alone.
No other BBQ joint can touch the shrimp at Big Hoss — and we can't keep our hands off them. Served in a trough and doused with Hoss Orwat's special sauce, they're as close as you can come in Denver to the taste of the vinegar-sharp and spice-shot barbecue of the South Carolina tidewater region. And once you're done with the shrimp, pour the rest of that thin sauce over a plate of pulled pork brought naked from the kitchen. An order or two of shrimp, a couple PBRs off the tap, maybe a side of fried cheese and a Jim-Beam-and-Coke float for dessert, and you're well on your way to another memorable night at Hoss Orwat's house.
Small place, big flavor. Sometimes we crave Yazoo's amazing pulled pork, at other times its ribs. But once when we stopped in for ribs, the tiny kitchen was out, so indeed we got a BOB — chicken breast wrapped in bacon and jalapeños. then smoked — and almost died from pleasure right on the spot. In fact, the only problem with Yazoo is that it sells out of certain things so quickly that we can't always get what we happen to be craving at that moment. But that's not a very big problem, because there's always another great option. Adding a second outlet down south has helped expand supply, but we remain faithful to the small downtown spot, which just keeps pouring out that big, big flavor.
Bacon is already cured. In some cases, it's even smoked before it ever makes it to your table. So why not barbecue it again, Korean style? At Han Kang, a big plate of raw bacon, cut into easy-to-eat chunks, is brought to the table with one of those propane-fired portable grills. Throw on the pork, let it cook, and prepare to pig out. (The menu says this is a dish for sharing, but if you've ever wanted to eat an entire pound of bacon by yourself, Han Kang is definitely the place.) A bowl of garlic oil comes with the bacon, but a spread of alien side dishes also arrives with every order, ensuring new taste treats with every bacon-y bite.
It's not odd to find good barbecue in Aurora, but it is unexpected to stumble across good barbecue in a gigantic outdoor mall. Because who in their right mind would go to a spot like Southlands looking for pulled pork and cornbread? And who would imagine that you could not only find it here, but you could get that good 'cue from a drive-thru? While the location may be weird, it's also welcome when you're driving around the 'burbs and the pork jones hits. Because Jim 'N Nick's takes its barbecue very seriously. Everything is made from scratch, and the 'cue goes through a twelve-hour smoke. And if your diet needs a little more starch, order the Pig in the Potato Patch, a baked potato loaded down with smoked bacon, butter, sour cream, cheese, barbecue sauce and more pulled pork. This spud's for you.