Best Of :: Food & Drink
In a year that saw hundreds of openings, Denver's restaurant scene at times felt like short-track speed skating. But even with so many strong contenders, only one could take home the gold, and Lower48 Kitchen crossed the line first in the areas that matter most: service, creativity, plating, decor and, of course, food that you can't stop thinking about. Launched by a team of Frasca Food and Wine alums, with Mario Nocifera ensuring a gracious night on the town and Alex Figura acting as kitchen wizard-in-chief, Lower48 has turned a forgotten corner of the Ballpark neighborhood into a dining destination. Nowhere does Figura's creativity shine more than in the small bites, listed under the heading of "each": perhaps a melted Gruyère crisp slicked with sunflower-seed butter, feta and greens; a stack of dried celery root and house-smoked cheese; or a beignet filled with whipped tarragon. These tongue-ticklers are best combined en masse as an appetizer, then rounded out with one or two artistic small plates, such as charred octopus with lamb bacon or a stack of mushroom crepes. While the space is large enough to accommodate groups, with a private dining area behind a rolling door fashioned from a shipping container and a separate lounge called Service Bar, it's just as fun to come with a friend and sit at the chef's counter to watch the magic unfold.
It's good to be king. It's even better to be at Breakfast King when everyone else is asleep and you're looking for a home away from home, a home where the friendly, wisecracking servers know not just your name, but your regular order. That's likely to be chicken-fried steak smothered in country gravy — the best chicken-fried steak in the city at any time of the day — sided with endless cups of coffee. But the kitchen is cooking up that huge menu at all hours, so you can also get eggs any way imaginable, comfort-food dinners, or just a big slice of pie to soak up some of the coffee. No matter what you order, it will be a feast fit for a king.
People love chicken. People love waffles. Why, then, is chicken and waffles so polarizing, one of those dishes you either love or hate? At Session Kitchen, chef Scott Parker has created a version so good, and yet so different, we can all agree to like it. Called "chicken-liver mousse," his alternative is every bit as rich as the original, yet it comes off much lighter and more contemporary, a perfect fit for the dynamic street art and murals inside the stunning two-level space. Rather than fried chicken, Parker offers a jar of chicken-liver mousse accented with a dollop of seasonal, housemade jam. Sharing the plate are airy, crisp Belgian waffles, scented with orange and made from almond flour. The combination of smooth, earthy mousse, sweet jam and waffle is not a traditional chicken and waffles, but no one's quibbling when it tastes this good.
At a time when nearly anything can be eaten at the bar, it's hard to say just what counts as bar snacks. Is it a small plate of rillette on toast? Wings? Housemade trail mix? Yes to all. But when you want a classic snack, something with crunch and salt to nibble while unwinding from the day over a drink, nothing beats the mariquitas Cubana at Cuba Cuba. With a hint of sweetness and none of the oily residue of freshly fried potato chips, these long, thin strips of fried green plantains are just what you want with your coconut mojito. Although also available at the Sandwicherias in Boulder and Glendale, they're at their best at the flagship, full-service restaurant, where they're paired not just with garlicky mojo, but with mango-habanero mojo and guacamole. The platter is large enough for everyone to have some, but not so big that it will ruin the very good dinner to come.
The best just got better last year, when Boney's Smokehouse — Lamont and Trina Lynch's downtown, down-home restaurant — moved into a bigger space just a few doors away. Tucked in the basement, the new Boney's can be hard to find, but it's definitely worth the search...and some advance planning, since the hours are limited. But there's no limit to the load of barbecue you'll want to order — brisket, chopped chicken, pulled pork, hot links and ribs that have so much flavor from their dry rub and long tenure over low heat that they don't need sauce. Still, you won't want to miss the three versions at Boney's: a tangy basic sauce also offered hot, a sweet jalapeño and an excellent, mustardy gold. And give Boney's extra points for sides ranging from great collard greens and barbecue beans to lip-smacking mac and cheese. Lamont, a native of Florida, has spent years giving a Southern tweak to a repertoire of family recipes imported from the Bahamas; as a result, this barbecue defies categorization. Just call it the best.
"I think I love you," swooned the woman at the bar, her proclamation intended for the bartender who'd just slid a textbook-perfect Manhattan under her nose. Marcel Templet, the veteran who's been behind the booze at Capital Grille for ten years, is an everyman's bartender, an effortlessly affable guy who's mastered the art of greeting every stain of lipstick and every tint of tie by name while simultaneously commiserating with a just-dumped barfly, announcing game scores, juggling four liquor bottles and reciting the backstory of every spirit he pours. And he does all of it with genuine authenticity and an easy smile. You can teach almost anyone how to make a good cocktail, but it's the personality of the bartender that defines the personality of the bar, and Templet, whose showmanship hits all the right notes, leaves a lovely lasting impression.
Punch Bowl specializes in punches — and activities and games galore — but you'll be bowled over by the Bloody Mary bar offered during the weekend brunches that start at the eye-opening hour of 8 a.m. And you'll need your eyes wide open to take in the incredible array of items that come with this bar: enough veggies and cheeses to make yourself a salad in a glass — topped with bacon, of course. Go ahead and make a pig of yourself; you can dance off your breakfast when the DJ arrives later in the morning.
Your romance started with such promise — perhaps even right next door at Ace. But now all the games are over, and you're ready to break it off for good. There's no better place to deliver the bad news than Steuben's. For starters, the place is always packed and the tables are crowded close together, so your soon-to-be ex might think twice about making a scene. The menu is full of classic versions of comfort food from across the country, so there's sure to be a dish that will offer some solace for each of you. And should things go really badly, the bartenders are not only talented, but friendly; they'll lend both an ear and a hand while mixing a stiff drink to take away some of the sting.
Day or night, El Tejado attracts the most eclectic crowd around: Denver cops and paramedics grabbing a quick meal, hipsters making their way through buckets of Coronas, Spanish-speaking work crews slurping oysters and big shrimp cocktails. But our go-to order at El Tejado is the breakfast burrito: a big, fat version stuffed full of scrambled eggs, cheese, and the town's best hash browns, all smothered in a great, pork-studded, gravy-like green chile. If you time your visit right, you may find yourself serenaded by a mariachi band.
For more than six decades, La Popular has sold the town's best tamales from an old storefront on Lawrence Street. But when we really need to get our engine going in the morning, we'll stop by and bag a breakfast burrito to go. This is not the dainty little foil-wrapped parcel sold at so many other carry-out spots around town, designed to be eaten behind the wheel, but a hefty package that wraps a housemade tortilla around a mound of scrambled eggs, potatoes, green chiles, cheese and (very) spicy chorizo. If you really need a wake-up call, order your $2.75 burrito and get it smothered with green chile for another $1.50. No charge for the authentic atmosphere.
If you've ever been to South Texas, then you understand the unwavering fidelity of the region's residents to breakfast tacos. So when Austin transplant Brent Thrash opened Moontower Tacos last year with an all-day breakfast board of tacos, it quickly became a go-to joint not just for breakfast, but for dinner, too. Because once you wrap your jaws around a migas taco -- the flour or corn tortilla generously stuffed with soft-scrambled eggs, slices of fresh avocado, oil-crisped tortilla strips and glossy, jalapeño-spiked, three-cheese queso that's the hue of a flaming canary -- you're immediately hooked. The kitchen crowns the tacos with a blot of pico de gallo, and the result is a breakfast novelty -- at least in Denver -- that would be a star even deep in the heart of Texas.
There's nothing like a firehouse to make someone feel safe and secure. But Station 26 — which opened late last year inside a former firehouse — has its own special glow. The space has been renovated with a beautiful wraparound bar, slick lighting fixtures and a large patio out front through a couple of huge garage doors; there's even a preserved fire pole. And since the brewing equipment is located in full view of the tables, customers can watch the process while drinking the beer that results. Located in a mostly residential area between Park Hill and Stapleton, the brewery has a neighborhood feel — but still smokes on busy nights.