Best Szechuan Restaurant 2012 | Chef Liu's Authentic Chinese Cuisine | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

Chef Liu's, a strip-mall joint deep in Aurora, has a "secret" menu, and it features specialties from all over China, including Beijing-style pork with bean paste, fried pork livers and dan dan noodles. But Chef Liu's true specialties are the Szechuan dishes. Our favorites include mouth-numbing beef, twice-cooked pork, cumin-rubbed lamb and real Szechuan chicken. The best way to approach dinner here, though, might be to have your server order you a feast of interesting items, because that way you're sure to score something delicious you would otherwise have missed.

Mark Manger

The building that houses Tamales Moreno is so small that there's no indoor seating; instead, every square inch of available surface area is covered with Ziploc bags full of tamales. Eager diners come in and grab their order — and many make it no farther than the picnic tables outside before they eagerly unwrap a tamale. Inside each corn husk is silky white masa so smooth that it tastes as if the corn has been mixed with lard; the sweet masa surrounds hunks of succulent red pork and bits of earthy green chiles that soon send racy heat running up the back of the palate. You can also order your tamales smothered in a river of green chile that has the color and consistency of split-pea soup, a sour tang and a pleasant, prickly heat. If you're a glutton for punishment, the kitchen will gladly make that chile hot enough to melt your intestines.

Taking a trip to the Tasty Weasel Tap Room is like journeying straight to the center of Colorado's craft-beer-pumping heart. You'll find a festive atmosphere powered by rollicking tunes and an unconventional attitude, the same one that Oskar Blues — now Colorado's second-largest brewery — was founded on. Play Skee-Ball on the tournament-style Skee-Ball lanes, take a tour of the barely concealed brewery behind the tap room, get some grub from the brewery's own food truck, the Oskar Blues Bonewagon, or just chill out at one of the whiskey-barrel-made bar tables. But mostly, try the beers. Because they taste the way the Tasty Weasel feels: hopped up and full of flavor.

Readers' Choice: Falling Rock Tap House

Eric Gruneisen

Tap rooms and food trucks were made for one another. The former needs to offer something for its buzzing customers to put into their stomachs; the latter needs a reliable spot for hungry people — and a parking space. Great Divide figured this out early and has welcomed Denver's food trucks since they first hit the streets. Now you can find one outside the tap room every afternoon, whether it's a regular like Basic Kneads Pizza and Chef Driven or occasional drive-bys like Mestizos and Bambu. Get on board.

Aurora has developed an unexpected taste for craft-beer culture, and nowhere is that more apparent than during the occasional 50 Cent Wing Night at Dry Dock Brewing. That's when the crew from the Wing Hut (motto: Hot Craft Wings, Cold Craft Beer) brings its spicy signature dish to the kitchen-less but newly expanded tap room and serves the wings for fifty cents a pop between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. But the Wing Hut (which serves a nice lineup of craft beers itself) will deliver wings to Dry Dock anytime at its standard prices — and you'll need a couple of cold beers to wash them down, especially the spicy peanut or the habanero.

Cassandra Stiltner

El Trompito Taqueria is a smashing wonderland of Mexican street food dominated by the thud of cleavers in the open kitchen, where workers assemble tacos, huaraches, alambres, skyscraping tortas and aguas frescas made with fresh fruit. But the taqueria's essential dish is the mixiote de borrego, an overnight-braised lamb shank. The shards and slivers of meat, at once crunchy and soft, are heavy with a pungent, in-your-throat musk; they're swathed in a chile-slapped adobo sauce studded with prickly-pear cactus leaves. The lamb arrives with a heap of corn tortillas, Mexican rice and refritos dotted with crumbles of queso fresco; you can accessorize your meal from the salsa bar that squats in the middle of the festive, lively dining room.

Jax Fish House

Many bars in this town turn out balanced drinks, but the team of bartenders at Denver's Jax Fish House exhibits a different kind of equilibrium. The restaurant employs a complementary cadre of professionals with varying skills. Some lend deep, geeky spirits knowledge to the list, contributing housemade sodas, knowledge of the classics and inventive mixology wizardry. Others have perfected the true art of tending bar; they're expert conversationalists and endlessly entertaining — and they remember every drinker's name. The mix makes Jax a special place to go for a drink; it's both your friendly neighborhood watering hole and a worthy stop if you're after a killer cocktail.

When Utumporn Killoran, who runs the Thai Street Food cart on the 16th Street Mall, opened a same-name brick-and-mortar last year in Aurora, it quickly earned a spot on everyone's you-must-go-here list. From her tiny exhibition kitchen, which she runs with her husband and son, Killoran turns out deeply flavored curries and soups, all of which boast bold spices. There's nothing on her tidy menu that we don't love, but we're particular fans of her noodle jelly salad, which doesn't contain jelly at all. Instead, a slippery mound of glossy glass noodles is tangled with ground pork, shrimp, pungent herbs and lashings of fiery red chiles, the heat of which makes your stomach quake like a coin-operated waterbed. The dish is at once salty and sweet, tart and spicy — and incredible. But you can only get it on Saturdays, which is the only day that the Thai Street Food restaurant is open.

Readers' Choice: Thai Basil

Dessert king Keegan Gerhard is renowned for his sensational sugar sensations, but his savory creations are just as inspiring — starting with the crue fries, an irresponsible mound of Parmesan-dusted thin potato strips buried under a rich cheese sauce that in and of itself has the ability to take over its victims' veins like a heroin injection. But Gerhard doesn't stop there: He covers the heap with melted Jack and cheddar, crumbles of smoky bacon, snips of chives and zigzags of housemade ranch dressing. You'll push the plate away more than once in an effort to pretend that you couldn't possibly eat one more bite — and the second a staffer swoops in to take it away, you'll snatch it back and slap her hand for daring to try.

Hunter Stevens

City, O' City got a new chef and a new interior this past year, but it wisely kept the burger known as the Maximus, a hearty quinoa-and-pinto-bean patty grilled and served up on a Kaiser with special sauce and cheddar. But not content with leaving well enough alone, Brendon Doyle devised an El Jefe option, which adds sautéed mushrooms, onion rings, hot-sauce aioli and a fried egg. Vegans can switch the cheddar out with non-dairy cheese and get rid of the egg; the result is still a righteous burger that satisfies any late-night (or midday, or dinnertime) craving.

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