Toast
Mark Antonation
There's almost nothing in this world as fine as a perfect stack of pancakes. Aged whiskey, a good lay, a stripper who's actually doing it to pay for her philosophy degree — these all edge out a perfect plate of flapjacks, but not by much. And when you're looking for that perfect plate, the place on your list should be Toast. The "Plain Jane Pancakes" here are so good they ought to be criminal — light and fluffy and dense all at the same time, cooked on the flat-top so that each one is marked with the concentric rings that can only be made by a flapjack-flipper who's got his eye on the ball. But what really raises Toast to the realm of hotcake heaven are the specialty pancakes with Fruity Pebbles or Oreos, spiked with lemon and blueberry, made to taste like strawberry cheesecake or in the style of bananas Foster. The kitchen will even do them in flights, so you never have to decide between one sweet, unbelievable indulgence and another.
The Oven Pizza E Vino
Mark Tarbell is some kind of pizza genius. We don't know what, exactly, he had to sell to the devil in order to gain his magical pizza-making skills and then apply them to the Oven, but his sacrifice was worth it. Because even with all the fierce and bitter competition in this town over what is essentially some dough, tomato sauce and cheese, the Oven continues not only to serve Denver's best pizza, but to stand far above its closest competitor. The Oven's pies are addictive, always displaying the ideal balance of quality toppings, sauce and crust. And the Belmar restaurant where you get to eat those pizzas is just plain fun — an honest-to-god neighborhood pizza joint that's full of neighborly types from across the city every night.
M.C.'s Brooklyn Pizzeria
Courtesy Brooklyn M.C.'s Facebook
In both atmosphere and attitude, Brooklyn MC's establishes itself as one of those straight-outta-the-boroughs New York pizza joints the minute you walk through the door. And then a pizza comes out of one of the big deck ovens, thin as a dream, looped with swirls of red sauce and splotches of cheese bubbling the way real mozzarella will. It's a great pizza that makes for a great slice, and chances are there are some slices from the last pie to come out of the oven waiting for you right now, under glass on the counter. So what are you waiting for? If you're hungry, broke and in a rush, MC's has you covered.
Viva Burrito Company
Take one Mexican restaurant, add a drive-thru, and what do you get? Another Best of Denver award for Viva Burrito. This spot is a great at virtually any hour of the day — breakfast burritos in the morning, enchiladas in an unbelievably good red chile after work, deep-fried tacos on the way home from the bar — but perhaps the best expression of Viva's greatness is during the lunch rush. Where else can you get a Mexican taco-and-enchilada combo plate, a horchata and some weird, jelly-filled churro-esque dessert in under five minutes, and for less than a ten-spot? We doubt that any such place exists — and even if it does, it would be hard-pressed to do the job better than Viva.
The Bagel Deli & Restaurant
Courtesy The Bagel Deli Facebook
We don't know what it is, exactly, but certain cuisines and certain restaurants are always better when the weather is right. A smoothie is always sweeter when the sun is out. A plate of goulash or bowl of borscht always tastes better in the frozen dead of winter. And a rainy day always — always — makes the food at Bagel Deli taste better. On such days, we like to take a quick turn around the market shelves and then settle into one of the well-worn booths where, as the rain patters down, we order up a cup of watery coffee and a nice scrambled-eggs-and-salami plate, maybe some latkes, rugelach or matzoh ball soup. The Bagel Deli also has some good sunny-day picnic food — thick sandwiches and good egg salad and a sixer of Dr. Brown's from the shelf. Still, when the rain is coming down, we always find ourselves heading straight for the Bagel Deli.
Las Tortas
Courtesy Las Tortas Denver Facebook
Las Tortas sells tortas and nothing but tortas — about two dozen varieties, from the simplest steak-and-chicken Jalisco to the most bizarrely overpowering La Macha, with steak Milanesa, chorizo, chile, a fried egg and a hot dog crammed together on a roll. There's a counter on one side where you order and pick up, a few high-top tables on the other, a cooler with Mexican Coke and beer by the bottle, and a couple of TVs hanging from the ceiling playing telenovelas and VideoRola. The joint is simple and spare and unbelievably awesome. And the best thing about it? No torta will run you more than eight dollars, and even that price is only for las especiales. The bulk of the items on the menu can be had for six or seven bucks, and just one of the tortas at Las Tortas is plenty big enough to make a meal for any big hungry boy.
This year's hot restaurant neighborhood news is a northwest-side story. In 2008, three new restaurants sprang up at the corner of 44th Avenue and Lowell Boulevard long held down by Cafe Brazil: Billy's Inn, Tocabe and Shazz. From there, it's a quick trip to Tennyson Street, where you can have breakfast at DJ's Berkeley Cafe, lunch at Brasserie Felix, then drinks at the Berkeley Inn, the recovered dive bar where you can still have a couple of cigarettes with your beer and shot. Then it's down to 32nd Avenue for happy hour at Venue, dinner at Duo, a quick after-dinner glass of wine at Z Cuisine À Côté, and a final nightcap at another newcomer, Root Down. In between, there's Big Hoss Bar-B-Q (fried cheese and whiskey floats), Bang, Taquería Patzcuaro (chicharrones), Masterpiece Deli and about a hundred other spots that range from a few of Denver's worst to some of its very, very best.
Bistro One
A roasted chicken is a benchmark dish for any kitchen. It can be the simplest or cheapest or most popular dish. But at Bistro One, it is none of those things. Instead, it's the soul of the menu — classic, traditional, borderless. The bird comes stuffed with cornbread, its little legs crossed, roasted to a perfect golden brown, surrounded by winter vegetables and sauced with a delicious, deep and complex golden raisin sauce. Of all the plates at Bistro One, this is the best, the most fully formed and skillfully executed — proof of the potential for a great restaurant in the making.
At Thai Lotus, the crew is Thai and the food obviously Thai, unkinked for the American palate, presented the way the best immigrant cuisines are — as recalled from home. The menu is, for the most part, a standard retelling of the country's culinary history: lad na and pad thai, curried this and that, and "hot" meaning hot-hot, like crying gasoline hot. But it takes one small diversion, into a section marked "Rotisserie" that has only one dish listed: a rotisserie chicken that is flat-out amazing. After you order it, you can hear the thunking of the cleaver as the chicken is deconstructed — and when it arrives, accompanied by rice and a bowl of thick red sauce flecked with dried hot pepper, it's steaming like something out of a commercial. Under that steam, the chicken has been roughly hacked into bone-spurred chunks, its golden-brown and fatty skin perfectly roasted and still attached, the meat inside juicy and incredibly tender.
At Masterpiece Delicatessen, partners Justin Brunson and Steve Allee do some pretty amazing things with a little bread, a little meat, a little this-and-that. Their simplest creations — egg sandwiches, grilled cheese, turkey with pears and cranberry honey — show their command of the artistry of restraint (just enough, never too much), while their more complicated plates demonstrate a high-end, Super Frog cookery gone feral in the service of a soup-and-sandwich board. Their kung fu is strong, no doubt. And here in Denver, we're lucky to have them.

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