Best Feel-Good Chef 2013 | Daniel Asher | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword
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On the first Tuesday of every month, Daniel Asher, the kitchen magician at Root Down and a certified raw-foods chef, sets out to prove that a plant-based diet is anything but banal or boring, and he succeeds beautifully, turning out vibrant raw vegan dishes, all of which are organically sourced. His hummus is a showstopper, his squash pasta a mind-altering experience — the cashew cream sauce an impossibly perfect substitute for dairy — and the way he treats and prepares his vegetables is nothing short of miraculous. It's cooking steeped in consciousness, but it's also cooking that even a carnivore would crave.

First dates can be make it/break it propositions — and there are rules for getting it right, including minding your manners, wearing the right shoes, forgoing the offensive cologne, covering your private parts with clean underwear and making sure that your socks match. Beyond those, you don't want to be too frugal, nor do you want to come across as one of those flashy types who tosses money around like it's raining gold coins. So it's also important to find the correct place for a first-date outing: a place that has an appropriate energy level, atmospheric tunes, flattering lighting, an exceptionally good menu that accommodates both weird eaters and bona fide gastronauts, down-the-middle prices and plenty of liquid assets. Jonesy's EatBar fulfills all of these requirements, and it scores even higher on the first-date barometer because it's right next door to the Horseshoe Lounge, where, if things go smoothly, you and your date can get down and dirty. And even if the date completely sucks, Jonesy's is the kind of place that you'll want to return to with friends.

During football season, the outgoing owners of the Orange Crunch food cart pay homage to the Denver Broncos — hence the cart's name — by garbing themselves in home-team gear colored bright blue and even brighter orange, which happens to be the same hue as their fantastic Filipino empanadas, deep-fried half-moon crescents made with rice flour and stuffed with everything from shredded green papaya and mung beans to bison, bacon or (gulp) alligator. And those greaseless marvels are just the beginning of the food-fueled touchdowns that continue with Filipino egg rolls; crackling pork belly straddling a mound of rice; and fried "nanners," pastry-wrapped bananas caramelized in brown sugar and dusted with powdered sugar. Score!

While other food trucks hustle burgers, pizza and ice cream — not that there's anything wrong with those — Pink Tank, which is indeed the hue of a ballerina's tutu, is where you go for the F-Bomb, a hefty hot dog weighted with thick strips of bacon, scrambled eggs and cheddar mounted on French toast fairy-dusted with powdered sugar and glossed with maple syrup infused with caramel. The truck is an unapologetic shrine to swine, with bacon appearing here, there and everywhere — including on its own, in a mountainous heap of glory. Just get that and a glass of lemonade (pink, obviously), and you'll be in hog heaven.

Hunter Stevens

Zócalo, which got its start just off Broadway in Capitol Hill, added a sibling on South Broadway last year — which means there are now two places where you can get Denver's best free chips and salsa. The basket of fresh, salty chips arrives at your table a second after you sit down — accompanied by an incredible salsa that tastes almost meaty, thanks to the roasted tomatoes and chiles that form its base. It's thick, deeply flavored and delicious. You could make a meal of the chips and salsa, but don't make that mistake: There are many other things to try at Zócalo, including great grilled meats and the most decadent chile-cheese fries imaginable — topped with jalapeño slices and bacon.

French-fry fans are unwavering in their preferences: Some like them matchstick-skinny, others covet the pencil-thin version, while still others prefer pudgy. And then there's the issue of whether the french fry is intended to stand on its own, licked with nothing more than salt, or dipped in duck fat and blanketed with everything but the kitchen sink. The fresh-cut fries at Jonesy's EatBar are thin — pencil-thin — deep-fried spuds of crisp golden crack, and they don't require (God forbid) ketchup or anything else to make them perfectly palatable. Nonetheless, the kitchen here realizes that there are those who prefer their fries loaded up with more substance, so you can also order a version topped with bacon and cheese. Some regulars make this their daily meal.

Joni Schrantz

Classic Francophilia gets a flirtatious modern update at this bewitching, ooh-la-la bistro tucked behind the bustle of Larimer Square. The location is the perfect setting for the inspiring cooking of Dana Rodriguez, a spirited, gifted chef who romances her guests with lovely, unfussy dishes: butter-misted escargot primped with fresh herbs; sublime steak frites; and a phenomenal cassoulet with rabbit sausage, duck leg confit, pork belly, white beans and glossy pearl onions. A fetching wine list, sophisticated cocktails and disarming service that never slacks — not to mention that sensational courtyard patio — just add to the joie de vivre.

While the dish's origins are solidly steeped in the South, cooks far and wide have embraced the indisputable truth: There are few things as delicious as a juicy plate of fried chicken. And Tom's Home Cookin', an iconic soul-food shack in Five Points, is the incontestable bastion of the bird. Plunged in oil until the batter and skin meld into a crunchy, golden exterior that adheres to the tender meat, then punctuated with salt and pepper, the fried chicken here deserves its cultish legion of dedicated diehards, all of whom will stand in line for however long it takes to feed their soul. Just be forewarned: Tom's shutters when the food runs out, and the fried chicken is almost always first to fly the coop.

There's something about fried pickles — sometimes called "frickles" — that turns a sour mouth into a Cheshire-cat grin. TAG Burger Bar, which also pounds out bodacious burgers and adult milkshakes that make you quake, had perfected the fried pickle in a way that makes you want to pounce. The thick-cut cucumbers, pickled with coriander seeds, black peppercorns, garlic, sugar, salt, dill and white vinegar, are dredged in flour and breadcrumbs, then take a nose-dive in canola oil, and the results are fried pickle prestige. Pucker-proper on the inside with a crunchy and tawny exterior, they're served in glass jars and paired with a ranch dipping sauce that packs a pinch of heat.

Benihana is the Barnum & Bailey Circus of Japanese food, an unabashedly corny and often embarrassing centerfold of eye-rolling wisecracks, theatrics and occasional mishaps from the knife-wielding teppenyaki chefs who elevate (some would say disintegrate) food into an entertainment form. But guess what? The food here is nothing to sneer at, and the fried rice — allegedly a "top secret" recipe — is a dish that deserves a command performance. It's a medley (as best we can tell) of fried eggs, soy sauce, garlic butter, sesame seeds and vegetables, and it arrives at the table long before the chefs toss your beef, chicken or shrimp on the plate — a ploy, we think, to ensure that you order another round. Most people do.

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