Best Of :: Food & Drink
Xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, originated in Shanghai but became so much a part of Taiwan's cuisine that the most famous version in the world is made at a Taipei-based restaurant chain called Din Tai Fung. Dumpling connoisseurs on both sides of the Pacific spend plenty of time debating what makes a great soup dumpling, analyzing everything from the number of tiny folds that artfully close the dough over the contents to the best source of gelatin for the broth. But there's no debating the best soup dumplings in Denver: They're served at a tiny Taiwanese joint on Federal, Lao Wang Noodle House, where doughy rice wrappers encapsulating peppery pork meatballs and pungent broth are served ten to a steamer. Mouth-wateringly succulent, they're best consumed by biting the wrapper and sipping the soup out before consuming the rest. Shoving the entire dumpling in your mouth guarantees you'll scald your tongue.
"Medium" isn't a server's suggestion at US Thai Cafe when a new guest innocently asks for Thai hot -- it's an order. Because US Thai's "medium" is what most places peg as "hot," a sweat-inducing smattering of fiery red chiles mixed through any dish on the menu, used with just enough restraint to allow an eater to actually taste the rest of the flavors in the excellent food. But for those thrill-seekers who crave insane levels of heat, the kitchen will punch up everything from the green papaya salad to the curry with angry-looking peppers that are probably hot enough for some sort of eating contest, guaranteed to blister your esophagus and make your adrenaline flow.
Late-night munchies often call for a hit of greasy Mexican food, and that's when it's time to cruise over to one of the two drive-thru Tacos Rapidos outposts. Under their red roofs, these kitchens turn out fat burritos full of creamy beans, melted orange cheddar, juicy carnitas and French fries (yes, French fries); tacos exploding with tongue, pork and beef; breakfast burritos stuffed with eggs and sausage (and available all day); French fries smothered with carne asada, guacamole and sour cream. Each dish hits the sweet spot of whatever you might be craving — which makes it particularly noteworthy that both Tacos Rapidos sling their gut-busting food 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
A dinner at Flagstaff House is exemplary, and service doesn't flag after the meal is done. Even the most basic form of the restaurant's after-dinner coffee program is advanced: The eatery brews a proprietary house blend, made from six different African and Asian beans. More serious caffeine hounds can order from the French-press menu, which includes single-origin roasts from Ethiopia and Kona. The same focus is applied to espresso: every shot pulled, whether for consumption straight or as a foam-topped latte or cappuccino, comes from a blend of seven kinds of espresso beans. No matter what you order, your coffee hits the table accompanied by a massive, artfully arranged tray of accoutrements, which include pastel-hued chocolate mints, various sugars in multiple colors and house-made whipped cream. With such a mélange of sweets, dessert begins to look entirely optional.
The Denver Tea Room is tucked into a front room of a nineteenth-century Colfax mansion that now houses a bed-and-breakfast, and it's the perfect setting for lazy, weekend English-style tea service as well as book clubs, which meet in the room at night for heady intellectual discussion over hot drinks and cookies. During the holidays, the tea room (no relation to the legendary downtown spot of the same name) also serves an elaborate high tea on linen-clothed tables — or in a cozy, private parlor. Never-empty teacups supplement a multi-course affair that includes shepherd's pie, a tea tray of scones and finger sandwiches, and sweet spice cakes. You can while away several hours with this ritual, sinking back into a velvety couch in the sunroom for a long conversation.
In just a few short years, Jonesy's EatBar has become one of Denver's favorite haunts for American grub, seducing diners all over the city with its sassy board of classics: incredible fries, duck-confit posole, shrimp and crawfish grits, sliders lobbed with lamb. And in true, easy American fashion, these dishes are best consumed at the bar, where you'll enjoy the quick (and quick-witted) drink-slingers who are generous with straight-up shots and equally adept at pouring cleverly fashioned cocktails that are all too easy to absorb.
Empanada Express is faithful to the cooking traditions of Venezuela, the owners' home country, and the arepas are excellent examples of this. Round cornmeal cakes about the diameter of a soda can are studded with kernels of corn and pressed flat, then pan-fried until crispy. They might be coated with melted cheese or used to sandwich filling: piquant shredded chicken, savory black beans, sweet fried plantains that explode out the sides as you wrestle the arepa into your mouth. Empanada Express serves all versions with both a spicy, creamy tomato sauce and a garlicky chimichurri; a squirt of either brings the whole delicious snack together.
Saunter into Jason and Jeanette Burgett's stylish meet-and-greet bakery, and you'll be immediately bombarded with sensory overload — the kind that makes your double chin drop in disbelief. If the scents of exquisite fresh-baked cookies, pastel-hued French macaroons, ooey-gooey sticky buns that rise like the sun, perfect fruit tortes, pies, cakes and scones don't give you a sugar high, biting into any one of their sublime creations will. Wooden Spoon is a fantasy world of flirtatious sweets, of breads that crest above the rest, of heavenly breakfast glories mounted on soft brioche, and of comforting, stomach-swelling sandwiches. The half-dozen tables are nearly always clogged with regulars who probably have to race-walk to snatch a coveted seat; they must not eat too many of the goodies sold here.
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.
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.
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.