Best Banh Mi 2011 | Ba Le Sandwiches | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword
Mark Antonation

Part market, part sandwich shop, this bare-bones spot in a dilapidated strip mall boasts nothing more than a counter, a couple of refrigerators and a wall of self-serve frozen-yogurt machines. But that's enough, because those refrigerators hold everything needed to make authentic banh mi. Ba Le offers almost twenty varieties of the Vietnamese sandwich, illustrated in backlit pictures on the wall above the counter and all prepared to order. A crunchy, house-baked baguette is warmed up and then stuffed with silky pâtés, shaved meats made of various parts of pig, a smattering of vinegary pickled vegetables, jalapeño slices, a smear of mayo and, in the true spirit of banh mi's homeland, enough fresh cilantro (stems and all) and crisp cucumbers to make a salad. Once completed, the sandwich is wrapped in butcher paper and secured with a rubber band. And if you simply need more of one of the ingredients, Ba Le sells the pâté, the pickles and the baguettes in bulk.

Mark Manger

When Jeff Osaka left Los Angeles and moved to Colorado, he started looking for a turnkey spot where he could open a restaurant, a place that just needed a little elbow grease and no extensive renovations, so that he could focus on what he really cared about: the food. He found such a space on Larimer Street, a former BBQ joint with a great oak bar on one side of the room. That massive bar remains the focal point of the dining room, and it's also the best place to experience Osaka's food. Grab a seat there and eat your way through the seasonal menu (it changes every month, or twelve times a year), marveling at Osaka's work with foie gras and scallops, tasting the humble simplicity of the dishes from your humble seat. At the bar at twelve, dinner becomes all about the food, without any distractions.

Courtesy Virgilio's Pizzeria & Wine Bar Facebook

By 5 p.m. on most nights, the bar and lounge at Virgilio's Pizza & Wine Bar is a sea of bodies, butts bumping into one another like bumper cars at an amusement park, but no one seems to mind the jostle, possibly because they're all having too much fun getting tipsy — which is easy to do when the wine catalogue features more than fifty globe-trotting selections by the glass, in three- and six-ounce pours. The back-lit bar, complete with a 32-bottle Enomatic wine system imported from Italy, is also stocked with nearly thirty beers on draft and by the bottle, many of which are Italian. It's a convivial scene, bolstered by two daily happy hours, live music on Friday and Saturday nights, and some of the best New York-style pizza, garlic knots and burrata in the area.

Kevin Burke's knowledge of everything behind the bar runs deep, and when he pours a patron a drink, it often comes with a side of vineyard history, a nugget of information about why he used one type of tequila over another, or a taste of something rare on tap that the drinker might otherwise have missed. His understanding of alcoholic beverages is broad, extending to beer, wine and spirits alike. But while his ability to educate about any of those is humbling, his strongest skill may be the precision with which he crafts cocktails, executing flawless classics, mixing up his signature drinks or, most impressive, actually listening to what really floats a drinker's boat and making something new and exciting based on that information. A strong believer in the role of the barman as a service provider, Burke does it all with elegance, style and genuine concern that he sling a perfect drink for the drinker, every single time.

Mark Manger

When Jabo Lawson abandoned his mobile barbecue pit and moved indoors, he traded up for a custom-built, in-house smoker, where he can now cook 700 pounds of meat at once. He uses that smoker to make tender brisket, piquant Louisiana-style hot links, pulled pork shoulder and, best of all, pork ribs, which are two inches thick, layered with opaque fat, deeply infused with throat-stinging smoke and so tender the meat practically melts into a puddle in your mouth. Everything that comes out of that smoker gets coated in a sauce based on a recipe from Shreveport, Louisiana, and made at varying levels of spiciness, every version delicious. By the time you've smothered your barbecue craving with meat, meat and more meat (and maybe a few sides), you'll think you can't eat another bite. But then Jabo's serves up a Utah scone, an airy puff of dough whose deep-fried, golden-brown crust is painted with a smear of sticky homemade honey butter, the perfect sweet kiss at the end of your meal.

Cassandra Kotnik

We're huge fans of Yazoo's signature dry-rubbed, Memphis-style 'cue — and especially fond of the Bob, a generous chunk of chicken breast that's smoked and swathed in jalapeños and bacon, giving the meat just the right touch of heat and savor. Lunchtime regulars at the bare-bones downtown location know it's best to arrive before noon or the Bobs might all be gone; thank goodness for the newer Greenwood Village locale, which also offers the substantial treat amid a more extensive menu.

Founded by Tina and James Pachorek, the Cheeky Monk has always focused on Belgian beers. Over the past year, however, both the original Monk on Colfax and its new brother in Westminster have broadened that focus to include the new world of American craft beer. But their dedication to fine brews holds firm — and not just in what beers they serve, but what they will serve them in. You'll find at least 35 styles of glassware at the Monk, most designed by breweries to hold their particular beer and each made to suit the nuances of a certain style of suds: tall and skinny, short and tulip-shaped, even a champagne-style flute and our favorite from Kasteel, which has a castle on the stem. What you won't find are American-style pint glasses. Beer drinkers will never be bored at the Monk — and neither will the dishwashers.

No, these three beer oases don't take credit cards, but they do take you at your word. If you don't have cash and don't want to use the ATMs on site, the staff will provide you with a self-addressed stamped "karma envelope" so that you can mail in your payment — and tip! — later. "I'd rather take that loss than pay credit-card fees," explains Paul Nashak, managing partner of the company that owns all three places. And, no, they won't make you wash the dishes.

Cassandra Kotnik

Steuben's channels its namesake — a Boston nightclub that started in the 1940s and hosted such notable customers as the Rat Pack — and other hometown restaurants of yore into an irrevocably hip, casual American comfort-food spot that brings together every slice of the Denver social scene. And because the place is always packed, it's a good spot for first-daters to meet at the chrome bar, cutting the tension with a few stiff, pre-Prohibition cocktails and maybe splitting an order of gravy fries. That bar is intimate enough to be conducive to conversation, and loud and busy enough to diminish the chance that anyone around suspects a blind date is in their midst. If things go poorly, you can always focus on ordering more food — or picking someone out of the crowd who looks like a more likely prospect.

Colt & Gray is a temple of offal, and the menu features parts of an animal that some people would consider scraps: sweetbreads, crispy trotters, liver pâtés...and bone marrow. Rather than serve a cross-section of bone, the kitchen slices the specimen lengthwise and roasts it until caramelized, velvety, collagen-y marrow is clinging tenderly to the hole in the middle. That hot, butter-like center gets scraped out with a long metal spoon and spread on griddled bread, seasoned with a pinch of salt. Onion-confit jam balances the rich spread with a sweet nip; a smattering of greens gives it a fresh, crisp bite.

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