Panzano
Linnea Covington

In 2008, Panzano chef Elise Wiggins discovered that she was wheat-intolerant, a diagnosis that could have caused her kitchen career to stagnate. But Wiggins, one of Denver's most innovative and progressive chefs, embraced the challenge, altering her diet, experimenting with gluten-free recipes and slowly integrating no-wheat dishes into her menu while educating her kitchen crew and service staff along the way. Today Panzano has four gluten-free menus — breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner — and no matter which board you pull from, you'll find plenty of hits, including Wiggins's gluten-free flatbread, buns, muffins, pizza crust and focaccia. Still, the star of her gluten-free lineup is the fried Brussels sprouts, the crisped leaves and heads bathed in an apple-cider reduction and sprinkled with pistachios and matchsticks of Granny Smith apples. If there's a goddess of gluten-free, it's definitely Wiggins.

Axios Estiatorio

"Then all day long until sunset we sat dining on a bounty of meat and fine wine, and then we went to sleep on the beach." That quote from the Odyssey tops the web page of Axios Estiatorio, and you might be tempted to take a nice, long nap after a meal here, too. There's more to Greek dining than gyros, and veteran restaurateur Telly Topakas decided it was time to give Denver a more upscale Greek restaurant when he opened Axios three years ago. Much of the food is based on family recipes of classic dishes; there's an impressive list of Greek wines to pair with them. But Axios does more than celebrate Greek cuisine: It also celebrates Greek culture, in a space as seductive as those sirens that almost ruined Odysseus.

El Taco De Mexico
Courtesy El Taco de Mexico Facebook

"For truly amazing flavors, El Taco de México is a must," wrote Bizarre Foods' Andrew Zimmern, shortly after he and his film crew touched down in the Mile High City. El Taco de México is "Denver's quintessential taqueria," he said, pronouncing that it serves the "best menudo and tacos in the city." And after decades of plopping our butts on the canary-yellow stools overlooking the kitchen, we're not going to disagree. But he missed our favorite dish here: The superlative — and spicy — green chile continues to outshine all the competition. The stoic women who spoon it over everything from burritos to eggs never crack a smile — but we do after taking just one bite of the incredibly flavorful, peppery brew. No matter where you're coming from, you'll find a home at El Taco de México.

Humboldt  Kitchen + Bar
Humboldt

Burgers are like pizza: Everyone has a favorite style. Some people go old-style, with beef, lettuce, tomato and mayo. Others veer toward the more-is-better camp, with truffles, pork belly and crispy chicken skin. Humboldt's burger falls in between — not too simple, but not over the top...and all good. Made with grass-fed Colorado beef, the patty is studded with bacon so that you get bacon in every bite, a good alternative to those messy bacon strips that slide around and slip out of a bun. Topped with Tillamook cheddar and onion jam, and sandwiched between puffs of buttery brioche, the burger is smoky, sweet and satisfying, making it a great non-fishy choice at this seafood-savvy restaurant.

Crave

Bartenders in Denver are hauling out special ice machines and hand-carving ice cubes to keep their fancy concoctions cold. Lucky, then, that Crave likes to warm things up. In addition to a board of traditional cocktails with a few twists, Crave offers a selection of steaming hot hooch to go with the sweet stuff being made in the kitchen. A Toasty Apple Cider with Myers's Dark Rum and housemade spiced cider seems almost wholesome, while the Irish coffee with locally roasted Method drip java and a dusting of freshly grated nutmeg may be the best in the city. Crave makes getting buzzed on caffeine and liquored up at the same time seem downright classy.

Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs
Summer Powell

In 2005, a former repo man plunked down a hot-dog cart on the 16th Street Mall, an area that had seen plenty of hot-dog carts before. But its owner, Jim Pittenger, definitely wasn't a typical wiener-slinger, and these weren't typical wieners. Biker Jim, as he's now known locally and nationally — thanks to all those Food Network shows on which he's appeared — was doing something outlandishly different: He was vending wild-game sausages (wild boar, rattlesnake, elk and reindeer), and if that wasn't enough to raise eyebrows, he was also festooning his franks with onions marinated in coke and cream cheese that he shot out of a caulking gun. Pittenger is that guy who teaches old dogs new tricks, and now that you can enjoy his gourmet tube steaks in a brick-and-mortar location, you'll often find us scratching at the door.

China Jade, which boasts a stellar Chinese menu, also harbors a "secret" hot-pot menu -- and it might be the greatest culinary discovery of our year. Pots are delivered to the tabletop burner filled with your choice of three bases: original (mellow and non-threatening), spicy (crimson red and bobbing with numbing peppercorns and blistering-hot dried chiles), or "yin-yang," with the mellow base on one side and the crazy-hot base on the other. From there, you pick from an add-ins roster of raw meats, including pork belly, pork intestines, fatty beef and lamb shoulder; seafood such as sea cucumber, head-on shrimp and surf clams; vegetables ranging from snow-pea tips and seaweed knots to spinach, baby bok choy, enoki mushrooms and radishes; pudgy pork dumplings; and several kinds of noodles. Once your selection arrives, you dip and drop the ingredients into the communal pot. The experience is wonderfully interactive, particularly when you're with a gaggle of unapologetic slurpers.
Adelitas Cocina y Cantina
Danielle Lirette
Brian Rossi, who's managed Mexican restaurants across town, finally opened one of his own last year: Adelitas Cocina y Cantina. The colorful, casual spot specializes in traditional fare, with a focus on dishes from Michoacán. But you'll want to start with an order of the fresh, housemade chips, which comes with three salsas -- one of them an avocado crema and another an amazing tomatillo -- and the incredible house margarita. A few margs later, you may never make it to dinner. Made with Agavales tequila, fresh lime juice and a lot of care by the friendly bartenders, these margs are a real bargain at just $5. And on Margarita Mondays the bargain is twice as good, since the house margs are two for one all night.
Sweet Action Ice Cream
Danielle Lirette

All those Americans who say that vanilla is their favorite flavor clearly haven't licked a cone from Sweet Action Ice Cream. This shop continues to impress us with its ever-changing roster of vegan and non-vegan offerings, which are inventive but not so over the top that they seem like concoctions devised by cooking-show contestants looking to one-up each other. Here, flavors range from hazelnut brownie and lemon ricotta to almond cardamom and the ever-popular salted butterscotch, all but guaranteeing you'll go through several plastic tasting spoons (patiently handed out by friendly staff) before deciding what you want. Even if you're not a vegan, make sure to sample the non-dairy ice creams; made with soy and coconut milk, they're just as smooth and tempting as the other picks. As if it weren't hard enough to decide what scoop/s you want, the oversized ice cream sandwiches in the freezer complicate matters further. Our favorite: vegan peanut-butter cookies stuffed with vegan chocolate ice cream.

Session Kitchen

Most of us think of ice as, well, ice, but if you're a bartender — especially a drink-slinger who belongs to the professorial cocktail brotherhood — ice is the most crucial part of a drink, if for no other reason than it comprises most of what's in your cocktail. The bartenders at Session Kitchen understand the physics of ice, and to prove it, they invested in the Rolls Royce of icemakers: a Clinebell, which makes 300-pound blocks of translucent, crystalline, pure ice, which they then sculpt into various shapes (spears, for example) to use in assorted cocktails. But what really separates Session Kitchen's ice program from other contenders is the seasonal ice cubes that change on a whim and have included blood orange, ginger beer and pressed apple. Drop one of those spherical cubes into a glass of whiskey, and every sip you take tastes completely different from the last because of the way the ice melts. Unorthodox? Probably. Clever? Definitely.

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