Best Central/South American Restaurant

Maria Empanada

Maria Empanada

Three years ago, Buenos Aires native Lorena Cantarovici decided to open a catering business using her mother's recipes for empanadas and other Argentine specialties. The business went so well that by last fall, she needed a bigger kitchen. She found it in a strip-mall storefront that looks oddly like a log cabin. Inside, she has just enough room for two tables and a counter, where she keeps a glass case stocked with a dozen or so different types of empanadas plus dulce de leche-based desserts, tartas (savory pies) and eggy Spanish tortillas. But that's all she needs to keep diners happy. Cantarovici's empanadas are the real deal. The flaky crusts — shiny from a finishing brush of oil or butter and crispy on the edges — give way to a mouthful of fillings that range from corn to ham and stretchy mozzarella or braised beef with just a little kiss of heat. These empanadas offer the true taste of Argentina — and it's delicious.

Readers' Choice: Cafe Brazil

ChoLon Modern Asian

One hit restaurant won't be enough for Lon Symensma, whose prominence in Denver's culinary scene has risen like the perfect soufflé. But until the culinary luminary unleashes a spinoff to ChoLon, his Asian-influenced restaurant downtown, we'll continue to curtsy and bow at his feet for gracing our city with a remarkably refined restaurant and a menu that displays his pivotal role in influencing how we eat. Focused, provocative and ambitious, Symensma's beautifully presented dishes run wild — as does his imagination — and the results are nothing short of stunning. Open your mouth and you'll understand why there's a continued clamor for his food...and more of his restaurants.

Readers' Choice: Justin Brunson

Long gone are the days when chefs sliced and diced behind an iron curtain. Today's toques like the limelight — and they love being the center of attention, which is all the better for voyeuristic guests who like to eavesdrop on kitchenspeak while also watching a floor show. And at TAG, Troy Guard's Asian-guided restaurant in Larimer Square, the highly interactive chef's counter offers the best seats in the house. You can kibbitz with the animated cooks — they're all talkers — and also banter with Guard, who's usually right there in the thick of things. And if you're not sure what to order, just ask: You'll be flooded with recommendations, all of which will exceed your expectations.

Readers' Choice: ChoLon Bistro

Twelve Restaurant
Mark Manger

It's the blind leading the blind, those people who shun Jeff Osaka's twelve because they make the mistake of assuming it resides in a so-called "sketchy" neighborhood. It doesn't. And frankly, we'd go to far worse areas just for the chance to eat a meal from the likes of Osaka. He's a serious culinary craftsman, whose commitment to cooking — and to his fellow chefs — is unmatched, as is his food, a deft marriage of comfort and current. Add in the fact that he offers a creative, affordable prix fixe menu, and you have one of the most satisfying restaurant experiences in the city...in any neighborhood.

Mile High Vienna Stand

While we don't subscribe to the belief that the only good hot dog is a Chicago dog, we will acknowledge that the Windy City makes one hell of a frank. And here in Denver, you'll find a reverent homage to the Chicago dog at the two Mile High Vienna stores, where Sonny Jarock and Jeremy Williamson have created shrines to Denver and Chicago sports. The menu shares a similar division, with green chile and tamales alongside Italian beef and a Chicago dog done exactly right: with a springy Vienna beef dog piled with sliced tomatoes, onions, neon green relish, spicy sport peppers, a pickle spear, mustard and celery salt (of course) on a steamed poppyseed bun.

Second Home Kitchen and Bar
Hunter Stevens

We love just about any dish where sweet meets savory in magical harmony, but the epitome of that blessed union may very well be chicken and waffles, an orgy of fried decadence. You'll find the best in the city at Second Home, a restaurant that commands much of the bottom floor of the JW Marriott in Cherry Creek. Each element of the dish is damn near perfect on its own: The chicken encased in a crackle of golden batter is hot, juicy and tender; the waffle, made with sweet cornmeal and redolent of cheddar, is light and crisp. But tied together and drizzled with sweet, earthy maple syrup, the combination is utter bliss.

Hong Kong Barbecue
Mark Manger

Hong Kong is famous for its siu mei, a blanket term that covers many roasted meats; siu mei shops in that city display whole, honey-glazed and five-spice-dusted, slow-cooked animals in their windows. Pigs and geese are the most popular critters, prized for the high fat content that makes the meat so moist as the fire melts the fat. Though siu mei is easy to find in cities with a vibrant Chinatown, it's a rarer treat in Denver, where Chinese restaurants tend to offer a mishmash of specialties from all over the country. But at Hong Kong BBQ, you can order cuts of siu mei served over rice — or simply buy a whole roasted duck or pig to take home. You can also order from the regular menu, which is loaded with such familiar items as kung pao chicken and lemongrass beef, as well as fried rice, noodles, hot pots and even curries — and every dish we've tried has been exceptional.

Readers' Choice: Wokano

The Bardo Coffee House
Courtesy The Bardo Coffeehouse on South Broadway Facebook

Bardo CoffeeHouse is mellow enough that you can hunker down and study for finals here, but you won't get hushed or scowled at if you stop in to grab coffee with your chatty girlfriends, either. The owners clearly spent a lot of time researching proper coffee-shop ambience, because Bardo has everything: booths, couches, meeting tables, two-tops, window seats, movable tables, multiple rooms, even a patio. The lighting isn't intrusive, the artwork is minimal and tasteful, and Otis Redding can be heard through the speakers at all hours of the day. Those hours, by the way, are 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. weekdays, and until 3 a.m. on weekends.

Crema Coffee House

Our love affair with Crema Coffee House started over coffee: well-pulled shots, sexy cappuccinos and beans from kick-ass roasters across the country. But now Crema has given us even more reason to hang out: some of the best food you'll find in any coffeehouse, anywhere. Owner Noah Price brought on chef Jonathan Power to come up with a creative breakfast-and-lunch menu, whose highlights include sweet-and-spicy five-spice granola paired with Noosa yogurt, rose sugar-brûléed grapefruit, a quivering egg custard loaded with bacon and Gruyère in a flaky crust, and a crave-worthy banh mi. Power sprinkles in occasional specials, too, and we have yet to be disappointed by any of them. "I wanted to make really fun, really good food that didn't overshadow what Noah has done with Crema," the chef told us when he introduced his menu. And he hasn't — but he's definitely created food that matches it.

Sugar Bakeshop

With coffeehouses on just about every block in Denver, it takes a lot more than a good bean to keep people coming back. At Sugar Bakeshop, that something extra is the service. Every latte slinger here seems eternally happy to see you, as does owner Natalie Slevin, who can usually be found rolling dough for her exquisite pop tarts in the open-fantasy kitchen, serving Novo coffee or chatting with tables. Sugar Bakeshop also has a great daily selection of homemade cupcakes, pastries, burritos and even paleo muffins for finicky foodies — and everything is served with a smile.

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