Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs
Danielle Lirette

Biker Jim, aka Jim Pettinger, a former repo man who slings Denver's best wieners from his polished stainless-steel carts downtown and, more recently, from the parking lot of Argonaut Liquors, knew he'd struck culinary gold when acerbic food mouthpiece Tony Bourdain declared publicly, to a full audience at the Temple Buell Theater, that he'd "been to the mountaintop and found enlightenment" at Jim's stand at 16th and Arapahoe, where Bourdain had spent the afternoon stuffing weenies down his throat. All of Jim's sausages are creatures of beauty, but the Alaskan reindeer showboat takes top dog for its mildly gamey flavor, woodsy earthiness and slightly spicy kick. As with all of his offerings, Jim splits it down the middle, sears it on a blazing grill and tucks it into a crusty roll speared with a shot of cream cheese from a rifle-sized caulking gun, then heaps it with a mound of grilled onions soaked in Coca-Cola. Hot dog!

Best Neighborhood Italian Restaurant

Gaetano's

Gaetano's Restaurant
Cassandra Kotnik

It's worth hanging out at Gaetano's just to banter with the endearing kooks who belly up to the bar. There's the guy who insists on having his burger well-done and a half dozen "pats" of butter with his basket of white bread; the woman who orders shot after shot of Jack and never seems to slur or stumble; the old-timer who starts every sentence with "Remember when..." And his buddy who kicks his stool, a reminder that Gaetano's isn't that place anymore. But while the barflies definitely keep the conversation interesting, it's also worth stepping behind the bulletproof front door for the pizzas, pastas with arrabbiata sauce and the "Tasty Treats," ribbons of roasted New Mexican chiles wrapped around a fat, fennel-specked Italian sausage link tucked inside a gold-tinged crust slicked with olive oil and dotted with parsley. The kitchen serves them with a respectable marinara that's pelted with chile flakes, but these Mexican/Italian treats are just as tasty naked.

Tacos y Salsas

So here's the thing: Tacos y Salsas, the canary-yellow, slightly seedy, fluorescently lit and stridently loud taquería with six locations throughout the metro area, has always pimped an unassailable salsa bar stockpiled with a six-pack of flavor-bombed reds, oranges and greens bolstered by vats of pickled jalapeños and carrots, cool radishes, cilantro, diced onions, lime wedges and a sweat-inducing pico de gallo — everything you could ever want for dressing up your tacos. But it's only recently that the outlets have introduced chips to the lineup, and while they're not made in the joint's own kitchen, they're free — a perk that's becoming very rare in this city. And here's an insider tip: If you hit up any one of the Tacos y Salsas outposts during a lull in the action and ask the kitchen to whip you up a batch of chips in the fryer, more often than not, they're happy to oblige.

Elway's Cherry Creek

The Cherry Creek Elway's is a bastion of big spenders, big deals and big steaks. While the hormone-charged bar is a meat market for pin-up cougars with head-turning cleavage and the young, moneyed cads who want to take them home, and the dining room is a swell of starched shirts, pressed pants, high heels and more cleavage, the real showpieces here are the wet-aged, primal cuts of Prime beef. They're judiciously seasoned, grilled to your exact specifications and percolating with juices, the very essence of medieval decadence. But there's more, much more, to appreciate at Elway's. Fish is treated with the same respect as steer, a rarity in a steakhouse kitchen; the appetizers are clever and could make a meal on their own; the cult-classic side dishes never disappoint; and the wine list, while predictably expensive, is anything but predictably ordinary. In a town filled with high-end steakhouses, Elway's never fails to score.

Dancing Noodle Thai Cuisine

At noon on a Friday, Dancing Noodle Thai Cuisine, a tiny storefront restaurant, is anything but dancing. It deserves to be packed, though, because the Thai dishes turned out here shimmy, spin and sway with penetrating, provocative flavors that don't just dance, but sing, too — loud and proud. The coconut-laced curries are redolent with the stink of garlic, ginger and heat; even the overexposed pad Thai is shockingly good. And the couple who runs this surprisingly great joint is sweeter than Thai tea.

Z Cuisine and A Cote Bar a Absinthe

A coveted seat at the frolicsome bar of Z Cuisine, chef/owner Patrick Dupays's lovely French bistro, is still one of the most pleasurable spots to spend an enchanting Denver evening, especially when you can share the time and a bottle of wine with a like-minded devotee who appreciates the virtues of Z Cuisine as much as you do. From day one, Dupays has blessedly stood his ground, archly resisting conceit and never falling prey to culinary clichés or gimmicks. And we should be incredibly thankful for that, because while so many restaurateurs are looking for the Next Best Thing, Dupays keeps it real with astonishingly good mussels, a seriously amazing charcuterie plate, and a rusticated cassoulet that's still one of the best dishes we've ever eaten.

Buffalo Doughboy Bakery

Just a block off Broadway, a Popsicle-hued Victorian is home to Buffalo Doughboy Bakery, a hustling bakehouse and confectionary whose glass cases brim with scratch-made savory cheese galettes, crumbly scones, sweet turnovers that pop with cherries, cupcakes, breakfast quiches and warm and buttery croissants, lighter than froth and so flaky that the softest blow turns the golden shards into confetti. You can order them naked, stuffed with feta and spinach, pumped with chocolate, or swelled with salty tarps of prosciutto and Asiago, the last of which is the equivalent of falling head over heels in lust for the first time.

Snooze
Lauren Monitz

It's easy to flip for the flapjacks at Snooze, the mod breakfast barn for hipsters who stumble in and congregate at the counter or the crescent-shaped vinyl booths for steaming jolts of java, Bloodies to counteract the bleary eyes and sustenance to soak it all up. Snooze doubled our pleasure with a second location this year, keeping the same menu, which includes our favorite pineapple upside-down pancake, a saucer-sized sphere bundled with squares of caramelized pineapple, dusted with powdered sugar and dolloped with a scoop of cinnamon butter that melts into rivers of sweetness. This is a pancake bestowed upon us by the breakfast gods.

If you're going to haul out the ego and deem your restaurant — or, in this case, deli — a "masterpiece," you'd better live up to the superlative. There's a reason that this Highland sandwich shop commands lines out the door, making it nearly impossible to snatch up one of the few tables or counter stools: The sandwiches really are that good. Exhibit A, the Italian, featuring thin, nearly translucent Parma prosciutto; smoky salami; the rich fattiness of mortadella, pepperoni and capicolla; sheets of provolone and peppery arugula, lettuce and slivered red onions. It all comes stacked on crusty ciabatta slicked with vinegar and oil and smeared with a black-pepper-spiked aioli — and is nothing short of a masterpiece.

LoHi SteakBar
Mark Manger

Thank Sean Kelly, exec chef of LoHi SteakBar, for the best chocolate pudding in town. There are other sugar finales on his menu — slices of pie from Living the Sweet Life Bakery, sorbet and ice cream from neighboring Little Man and a fantastic banana split — but it's the housemade double chocolate pudding, a luxuriously thick, excessively rich, astonishingly good confection of semi-sweet Callebaut chocolate, milk, sugar and cocoa crested with whipped cream and chocolate shavings, that we wish we could freebase. If you plunge into Kelly's pudding and still insist that you don't have a fever for chocolate, you really are sick.

Best Of Denver®

Best Of