Best Chef Ambassador 2013 | Jeff Osaka | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword
Mark Manger

A few years ago, Jeff Osaka, chef-owner of twelve, issued a plea to his fellow troops: Call me. Let's get together and hang and talk about how we can continue to capitalize on Denver's ever-evolving restaurant landscape. Osaka, a brilliant chef in his own right, has made it his mission to make sure that chefs in this city have a place to gather (oftentimes at his own restaurant), and the flock that does isn't remotely cliquish. Instead, his monthly get-togethers are all-encompassing, and they're lively and informal, too, although hot topics — Denver Restaurant Week, the health department, working closely with local growers and farmers, and satisfying guests — are usually on the table. We often hear local chefs laud this city's culinary camaraderie, and credit for some of that should go to Osaka, who doesn't just talk the talk — he walks the walk.

For an unofficial — and free — lesson in masterful raw cookery, head straight to TAG|RAW BAR, where every stool gives you insider access to the workings of chef Shaun Motada, whose pedigreed techniques speak to a real counter culture. Motada and his staff cook at a supersonic but controlled pace as they prepare a series of brilliant small plates and raw-fish compositions: kangaroo steak tartare, citrus-spiked ceviches, stunning sashimi and sushi rolls, ramen noodle bowls. It's a counter where you can live — and eat — a little dangerously, tossing your whims and fancies straight to the kitchen crew, whose ambitious combinations will rock your world. What chef doesn't want to see instant gratification? And that's exactly what diners get, too, when they park their butts in Motada's open kingdom.

Which came first, the chicken or the waffle? There may be a lot of disagreement about how this dish came about, but almost everyone agrees that the unusual combination of sweet and savory is delicious, which is why it's a staple of Southern cuisine. And you'll be heading south across the border — at least hypothetically — for Denver's best plate of chicken and waffles, served up during the weekend brunch at Lola. Although the restaurant is inspired by the coastal regions of Mexico, the brunch menu travels some unusual territory, serving up a great chicken-fried steak and a version of chicken and waffles that pairs a buttermilk-brined fried chicken breast and waffles with chorizo gravy and a sweet cherry syrup.

The Rackhouse Pub welcomes you with stews, casseroles and sauces served in metal measuring cups. This playful touch draws you right into the spirit of the kitchen, as if you were standing next to the cook while he offers you samples from a simmering pot of chili con carne. The spicy aroma of the whiskey chili grips you with cumin and red pepper pods, pulling you closer to the two-cup serving vessel surrounded by its diminutive partners brimming with sour cream, chives and shredded cheddar. This is thick, chunky Texas campfire chili, with Stranahan's whiskey adding sweet and smoky notes to the coarse-ground beef and tender beans, all swathed in a piquant, brick-red sauce that sticks to the sides of the cup. Luckily, there's a honey-glazed corn muffin to dredge up the last of it, because you won't even consider taking home leftovers.

Cassandra Stiltner

Some of the best cooking in Denver comes from restaurants that are completely off the grid — those with generic names, facades as forgettable as last night's one-night stand and featureless dining rooms with clashing color schemes. East Asia Garden is that kind of restaurant. You've whizzed by it on Broadway a dozen times, never giving it even a cursory glance. And that's a mistake, because it turns out the most amazing home-style, traditional Chinese food in the city. Here, among the usual suspects, are dishes like tofu with black eggs, pig's ears and cucumbers, cross bridge rice noodles (good luck finding those anywhere else in Denver) and Chongqing chicken, which is very much the food equivalent of a firecracker: a shovel of blistered, volatile fried chiles tangled with equal amounts of Sichuan peppercorns and cubes of fried chicken, hot enough to make your mouth numb for days. But the unadventurous have an out: Along with fried pig's liver, the menu includes benign dumplings.

A bar — a really good bar — should function like a kitchen. And bartenders — really, really good ones — should put signature stamps on their cocktails the same way that a really good chef handprints his food. A chef like Max MacKissock at Squeaky Bean, for example. So it's no surprise that the Bean's innovative bar program, commanded by Sean Kenyon and a squad of other serious spirit geeks, takes the modern cocktail movement to the next level. The roster, divided into 1970s and '80s movie headings — The Longest Yard (tall drinks); Rocky III (all drinks served on block ice); Up the Academy (drinks that are served up) — is compact and focused, but also crafty and ambitious. Particularly intriguing are the Weird Science offerings, a catalogue of smoked cocktails that, like the rest of the list, change on a whim. For all the drinks, the ingredients are market-fresh; the ice is hand-carved and tailored to whatever you're sipping; the spices, sourced from the Savory Spice Shop, are aromatized and ground in-house; and there's even a PolyScience smoking gun that infuses billows of vapor into the cocktails. It's an exceptionally innovative program that doesn't miss a drop.

Cassandra Kotnik

Super Star Asian nearly doubled in size last year, but securing a table here — especially on the weekends, when hunger-pained customers line up like dominoes to get their dim sum fix — is never easy. An eclectic mix of Asian families, American groups, couples and intrepid stalwarts with massive hangovers scramble for tables in the chaotic crowd of faces, most of which are buried in bamboo steamers filled with everything from divine shrimp-and-chive dumplings to pudgy lotus-leaf wraps. The dim sum dishes are all wheeled around on darting carts, pushed by solicitous servers who aren't shy about encouraging you to take one of everything. And so you should: Even the chicken feet fly right. Just make sure to hold on to your seat, because the unending stream of cranky customers who want it aren't afraid to stand at your feet and stare you down.

Denver has many restaurants that pimp class and sass, but sometimes nothing soothes the soul like cheap breakfasts with buttery hash browns slapped on the flattop, sandwiches stacked the height of Gary Coleman, pancakes that span the plate and unlimited jolts of java. For all of that and more, there's nowhere better than 20th Street Cafe, an iconic pit stop that opens at daylight and continues plying patrons with throwback eats through the bustling lunch hour. It's a salt-of-the-earth greasy spoon, as every true diner should be, holding down this particular spot of downtown for decades before LoDo even came into being.

Linnea Covington
Combination banh mi from New Saigon Bakery & Deli.

The Vietnamese bakery and deli that New Saigon opened last year locks its doors at 4 p.m., so you'll need to plan ahead. But you can order two banh mi sandwiches and get change back from a ten — so holding onto them until dinner is mostly a matter of self-control. Then, when the moment strikes, that crusty baguette — the freshest in town — filled with crunchy vegetables, pungent cilantro and your choice of marinated, grilled or cured meats will disappear like a guinea pig confronted by a python. The second sandwich is clearly too much food, but saving it for later just means thinking about nothing but banh mi until then. Besides, order two and you'll be able to try more of the meat fillings, which include sweet, fatty pork belly; barbecued beef; grilled chicken; even sardines. You'll only break between bites to quench the fire from the raw slices of jalapeño. And at this price, getting a boba smoothie to do that job won't break the bank.

Molly Martin

Dive bars are drying up in Denver, swept away by tides of development. We've lost many of this city's old saloons over the last few years, which makes the survival of Carioca Cafe — better known as Bar Bar — something to celebrate. Perhaps with a drink or ten. It's fascinating to watch how the clientele at this spot at the edge of downtown changes over the course of a day (and three happy hours). Get there at noon and you can grab a cup of coffee and reading material — or just study some of Denver's finest barflies, a few of whom might have been there since the doors opened at 7 a.m. As the hour gets later, an assortment of hipsters, punks and rockers mixes in with those barflies, the live music starts, and the next thing you know, it's last call. Dive, he said.

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