Masterpiece Delicatessen
Summer Powell

Making cassoulet, the bean-and-meat stew that's chock-full of sausage and duck confit, is a days-long undertaking, and that's why it only graces the menu at Masterpiece Delicatessen as a special. Still, the sandwich shop makes a near-perfect version of the stuff: toothsome white beans bathed in a thick, buttery broth, topped with a couple of crisp strips of bacon and overlaid with a crunchy, fat-roasted duck leg, tender meat falling off the bone. The kitchen finishes the dish with a handful of crisp greens to balance the heavy meat binge. It's all so good that we want to eat bowl after bowl of the stuff until we've cleaned out the stockpot. Please, sir, may we have some more?

Shead's BBQ & Fish Hut

Down south, they know how to tame this ugly-ass bottom-feeder. They fillet it, pan-fry it with light seasoning and serve it up with hush puppies, okra and other comfort foods. Shead's keeps the Southern tradition alive in its clean, well-lighted strip-mall location; save some room for a juicy peach cobbler as a chaser. The fried tilapia isn't half bad, either.

Best Central/South American Restaurant

Cafe Brazil

Cafe Brazil
Summer Powell

When the original owner lost Cafe Brazil in the early '90s, Tony and Marla Zarlenga took it over and saved the name because Brazil has a great culture, a great spirit and a great reputation — and they wanted to channel that. But instead of a strictly Brazilian restaurant, they created a novolatino place that offers a contemporary interpretation of the cuisine of South America with influences from the Mediterranean. It's a unique world of the couple's own creation that influences everything from the menu to the artwork (which Marla paints when she's not working in the kitchen). There are a few bona fide Brazilian dishes, like the xim xim and the feijoada, but many of the menu offerings are Colombian with a Brazilian touch. The Peixe de Angola, for example, with Malagueta chiles tossed into the creamy fish stew made with sweet and spicy coconut milk and lime; the crispy, sweet fried bananas gracing many plates; the cazuela Colombiana, a savory stew of tomato and chicken breast and prawns; the dulce de leche ice cream, creamy caramel gelato topped with espresso. Whatever the origin of these dishes, each provides a beautiful window into a rich Latin American world.

Argyll
Cassandra Kotnik

Denver chefs are going to have to do more — much more — than toss a few slices of prosciutto on a platter with a fistful of olives if they're going to go nose-to-tail with Sergio Romero, the executive chef of Argyll. Romero's charcuterie program is done 100 percent in-house and features an all-star lineup of all the things we hold sacred: chicken-liver pâté, rabbit rillettes, foie gras mousse, duck prosciutto, gin-cured salmon gravlox, even pickled cow's tongue. He serves it all on a weighty slab alongside housemade condiments and spreads, including a potent beer mustard specked with caraway seeds, a Colorado purple-onion jam and an impeccable Niçoise olive tapenade.

Osteria Marco
Scott Lentz

Many restaurants offer cheese courses, but none as tantalizing as the board at Osteria Marco, where every cheese on the plate is crafted in-house. There's milky, pure, hand-stretched mozzarella. Soft, slightly chunky ricotta, kissed with sweetness and a tinge of clover. Smooth, slightly sharp goat's-milk ricotta. And, of course, an orb of sinfully rich burrata, the firm, mozzarella-like edge encasing a luscious, creamy center. The kitchen builds plates of one or more selections, supplementing generous helpings with relishes, honeys and delicate housemade crackers. We can't start — or end — a meal at this Frank Bonanno restaurant without sampling at least one variety.

The Squeaky Bean Farm + Table

The Squeaky Bean may very well be Denver's most wickedly irreverent restaurant, which is just one of the reasons it's such an alluring escape when you need a mood-lifter that's legal. Owner and head bean-counter Johnny Ballen has a wonderfully warped mind that's resulted in the erection of a Farrah Fawcett shrine, a bingo billboard and the flight of helium-filled balloons through the room, ensuring that no one walks out in a cloud of bitterness. But while all of those things add to the Bean's magnetism, it's executive chef Max MacKissock's sensational cooking that really seals the deal. A healthy dose of playfulness — and provocation — prevails in everything he touches, from his modernized TV dinners and duo of grilled quail squatting on a Coors Light can to his Italian wedding soup, prepared so brilliantly that you want to weep. And then there's the profoundly innovative — and completely refashioned — "green chile" lofted with foie gras and downplayed with Fritos. MacKissock isn't afraid to drop culinary bombshells, and his risk-taking tendencies thus far have resulted in enthusiastic reviews from foodniks near and far. Few chefs understand exactly what it takes to make a palate soar like MacKissock does, and for everything he does, and everything he will do, we give thanks.

Deluxe

We like to live dangerously by hopping on a stool and taking in the controlled anarchy of an exhibition kitchen, specifically one that's as up-close and personal as the copper-topped chef's counter — the only thing separating the cooks from the customers — at Deluxe. It's pockmarked, scratched and a tight squeeze, with only a half-dozen seats, but it's also the best seat in the house for bantering with the crew, headlined by executive chef Dylan Moore, whose appreciation for peepers is apparent. A sign above the chef's counter reads "EAT" — and if you sit in Moore's domain, you'll eat beautifully, with the added benefit of observing a classy cast having as much fun as you are.

Elway's Cherry Creek

Considering the absurdly high number of chili cookoffs that take place in Denver, it doesn't make sense that it's next to impossible to find a butt-kicking bowl of the stuff at a restaurant. What's even more wacky is that the one chili that does bowl us over comes from the kitchen of Elway's Cherry Creek, a white-tablecloth steer palace that slings a $48 porterhouse, Japanese sea bass for $39, and a half-dozen oysters for just under twenty bucks. And yet for less than a tenner, you can swell your belly with chef Tyler Wiard's sensational chili, a cast-iron crock brimming with a brick-red stew thumped with oregano, garlic and cumin and shocked with the heat of numerous chile powders, whose blaze slowly sneaks up on you like a silent thief. It comes with all the requisite sidekicks — ribbons of cheddar, red onions and sour cream — but this is a chili that stands righteous without any embellishment.

Chef Liu's Authentic Chinese Cuisine

"Really? You want that?" The server's eyes grow wide and sparkle with mischief, and after patiently reciting the English translations from the "secret" Chinese menu, she cheerfully nods and scampers toward the kitchen, pausing just once to glance back for affirmation. Chef Liu's Authentic Chinese Cuisine is a shrine to familiarity and weirdness, where tofu skin and fried pork livers intersect with cumin-dusted lamb skewers, chicken blistered with chiles the color of the devil's burning ears, and Beijing-style pork bumped up with bean paste. The Americanized Chinese and Northeast Chinese dishes on both menus represent amazing breadth and depth, and even if you're one of those lucky people who pads your belly with Chinese food on a daily basis, it's safe to assume that when you stop by Chef Liu's, you'll discover an imperial lust for something entirely new.

Duffeyroll Cafe
Joe Jenkins

Nothing sates a cinnamon-roll craving quite like downing a fresh bun, still steaming from the oven, at Duffeyroll Cafe, a Wash Park breakfast shop with suburban offshoots. Hand-rolled with the ideal amount of cinnamon filling between each layer of fluffy, bready pastry, each bun is lightly crisped around the edges and just gooey enough with glaze — your choice of six different toppings. While we like the zesty orange, the rich Irish cream and crunchy, pecan-vanilla version, we're particularly partial to the original topping: a light and sugary coating that bolsters the taste of the pastry beneath.

Best Of Denver®

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