Oak at Fourteenth
Danielle Lirette

Business at the six-month-old Oak at Fourteenth was on fire when the restaurant actually caught fire last March, forcing owners Bryan Dayton and Steve Redzikowski to rebuild their spot from the ground up. It was a long road back, but after nine months the partners finally reopened Oak's doors in December, revealing a restaurant that was even better than before. Besides making some big changes to the aesthetic — including an expansion and a decor scheme focused on warm woods and light-blue glass — the partners revamped the menu and drink list, keeping their upscale North American neighborhood restaurant theme but adding a few twists and surprises, including housemade, bottled alcoholic sodas.

The Village Cork

Forget Smashburger and Chipotle. Samir Mohammad, the chef of Village Cork, is the best thing to emerge in Denver in years. Long before he could drive, the Miami-born kitchen king, who was raised in New Mexico, was blistering his hands cooking red and green chile, flipping burgers and tossing pizzas, shaping a culinary career that would ultimately lead him to Denver — and to his own unassailable brand of globe-trotting cuisine, which he shares with enamored diners who drop their jaws in awe at each plate. His kitchen might be limited in equipment, but there's no end to his mad talent and chutzpah.

Cafe Brazil
Summer Powell

As cocktail culture ramped up in Colorado and many spots started focusing on gin-and-housemade-tonic or drinks that were brown, bitter and stirred, Café Brazil decided to give drinkers a place where they could learn about sugarcane spirits, so they added a beach-themed Rum Room. The best education is delivered in the rum flights, lineups that each showcase four of the spot's 75 offerings. For an understanding of what aging does to alcohol, try the Flor de Cana flight, which offers a side-by-side comparison of the same Nicaraguan rum aged four, five, seven and twelve years. Or experience how four different countries make rum with the South American flight, which includes selections from Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela. Our favorite could be the Añejo flight, four heady samples of stuff aged at least 21 years, basking in their vanilla-caramel glory and so smooth you could be sipping nice bourbon. If you're not ready to try your rum neat, Cafe Brazil makes great versions of Caribbean cocktails, including the Brazilian caipirinha, a sexy sweet mojito and batidas — icy fruit juice disguising the spirit so well that it's almost impossible not to suck down the drink much too fast. And if you're really into rum, make sure to ask about special offerings not on the list: The Rum Room keeps some rare stuff on a back shelf for true fans.

Fourleaf Chopped Salads

The Denver Tech Center is full of green energy, thanks to Fourleaf Chopped Salads, a homegrown marvel. This subterranean spot is only open weekdays, and only at lunch — when it's always packed. The menu features a dozen specialty salads, as well as some basic choices of greens, a couple dozen dressing options and a dizzying number of proteins and other possible additions: tofu, shrimp, turkey, salami, three kinds of chicken, apples, artichoke hearts, avocado, broccoli, chickpeas, corn, cranberries, eggs, jicama, olives, peas, pasta, sunflower seeds...and on and on. After you choose between iceberg, romaine, spinach or spring mix, you can add as few or as many toppings as you like; everything is then stashed in a bowl, and just before serving, a staffer dumps the mix on a cutting board and works it over with a giant, two-handled rocking knife that chops it all into bite-sized pieces. It's fresh, it's fast, and it's amazingly good.

Readers' Choice: Mad Greens

Carnitas Estilo Michoacan

"Burn, baby, burn" should be the slogan of Carnitas Estilo Michoacán,a superior taqueria whose savage salsas would knock Mike Tyson out of the boxing ring...after just one round. There are ten in all, in varying hues of green, orange, red and firecracker, residing in side-by-side metal buckets. There's a creamy avocado, jalapeño and tomatillo version; another with honey, fresh orange juice and bracing chile de arbol, as well as a hell-hot salsa with mixed chiles that hits more high notes than most mariachi bands. The salsa bar is stocked with plenty of other street-taco requisites, too, including sliced radishes, cucumbers, cilantro, lime wedges and pickled onions, carrots and jalapeños. And while there's no alcohol to dull the pain (a liquor license is pending), the housemade aguas frescas are terrific.

Readers' Choice: Tacos y Salsas

You can get a sandwich just about anywhere, but if you want to wrap your muzzle around a monument, then you need to go to the master of sandwich-making. And that's Masterpiece Deli, the spot that Justin Brunson opened several years ago in Lower Highland, before this part of town was a hot restaurant neighborhood. The come-to-Jesus white-truffled egg salad is the best in the city, but you can say the same for the Italian and the roasted vegetable, the pastrami special and the braised beef brisket on a baguette. This shop sticks to a simple formula: Use the best ingredients you can get your hands on (Brunson's own bacon, for example). And the result is inevitably a masterpiece.

Readers' Choice: Snarf's

Jax Fish House
Jax Fish House

This LoDo shrine to aquatics — thankfully bereft of any Disneyland-under-the-sea nonsense — is quite a catch for crab cakes, catfish and calamari, paddlefish and luxurious caviar, as well as a lovely raw bar glistening with oysters, the true benchmark of a seafood restaurant. Purists will insist that fresh oysters need no adulteration; dispense with the cocktail sauce and the Mignonette, they'll demand, and for chrissakes, never, ever cook them, they'll tell you, shuddering at the mere thought of oysters Rockefeller. And Jax does hustle fresh, briny oysters by the boatload, their exposed flesh scented with nothing more than the purity of the exotic sea. But there are exceptions to every rule — even for purists. To wit: the Hama Hama oyster, the fat mollusk floating in a tide pool of classic buerre blanc, its body festooned with translucent orbs of salmon roe, microgreens and scant shavings of black Périgord truffles. Proof positive that life is better on the half shell.

Readers' Choice: Jax Fish House

Pints Pub

Scott Diamond, who owns Pints Pub, has been collecting single-malt Scotches for twenty years, and while he claims to have the largest collection of the spirit outside of Great Britain, he's not just amassing bottles for sport. "One hundred and twenty-five distilleries have been making whisky in Scotland since World War II," he says. "We have whisky from 124 of those — and no one in the world can make that claim." Of those 125 distilleries, only 85 or 90 are producing the spirit today, so Diamond has spent the last several years tirelessly hunting down expressions from lost stills (stills that will never produce again) and silent stills (stills that exist but aren't currently making whisky). If you want to sample the breadth of what single-malt Scotch has to offer, there may be no better spot in the world to do so than Pints Pub, right in the heart of the Golden Triangle.

Mama Sannino's
Mark Manger

Jimmy Sannino, owner of Mama Sanninos, has decades of experience behind him; he jokes that he's been in the restaurant business since he was six years old. His family once owned the iconic Three Sons, and he's imported many of the recipes from that longtime north Denver spot to an Arvada strip-mall space that specializes in homestyle cooking and old-school red-sauce dishes. If you're craving that type of food, just about any dish on the menu will do, but Mama Sanninos makes a sublime spaghetti and meatballs. Pencil-thick homemade egg noodles come covered with a thick, spicy-tangy red sauce spiked with garlic and just a smattering of red chiles for extra kick, then topped with a couple of hefty meatballs, the beef pungent with garlic, basil and oregano.

Osteria Marco
Scott Lentz

Osteria Marco is not a pizzeria. It's a shrine to handcrafted cheeses and salumi, to suckling pig on Sunday nights and panini paved with prosciutto. It also happens to be a restaurant whose repertoire includes some of the most superb pizzas to ever cross our lips. A few bites in and you're transfixed by the salty, airy chew of the crust and the inspired combinations of toppings: pancetta, Pecorino and a yolk-flowing egg that seeps across the center; goat cheese, Fontina, fig purée and crisp nubbins of prosciutto that shatter like glass; and our favorite, a pizza with housemade sausage, caramelized onions, Fontina and thin rings of racy red Fresno chiles.

Readers' Choice: Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria

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