Scratch Burrito and Happy Tap

With a name like Scratch Burrito, you'd expect to find bulging, tortilla-wrapped creations when you walk through the door. And with a name like Clay Markwell — formerly of TAG — in the kitchen, you'd expect them to be good. What you wouldn't expect, though, is for a salad to be one of the big draws. Made with chopped napa cabbage, quinoa, roasted corn, black beans and avocado and tossed in a zesty chile-lime vinaigrette, Markwell's Scratch salad is a refreshing alternative to ho-hum mixed greens. Loaded with plenty of grains and beans, it's light but full of protein, so it won't weigh you down, like one of Scratch's globally inspired burritos. Unless, of course, you pair it with a few local beers from the Happy Tap.

Siete Salsas

The salsa bar at the accurately named 7 Salsas is so impressive, you'll be tempted to come here with plastic bags stuffed in your pockets, just so you can sneak out some of the good stuff. The killer street tacos, burritos, sopas, tortas and other south-of-the-border dishes that emerge from the kitchen are fine on their own, but you won't be able to resist slathering them with the splendid salsas that include a lush, bright-green marriage of acidic tomatillos, avocado and blazing jalapeños, and a deeply smoky, bittersweet, brick-red salsa that benefits from toasted chiles de arbol. The impeccably maintained salsa bar also includes plastic bins of fresh-cut radishes, glistening cilantro leaves, onions and pickled vegetables, and if you happen to load up your plate with more than you can eat, leave the plastic in your pants: 7 Salsas even provides little to-go containers.

Las Tortas
Courtesy Las Tortas Denver Facebook

At Las Tortas, the only thing louder than the thumping of the music is the sizzling from the griddle, so you'll need to lean closer to the person across the table and shout just to be heard. But once your sandwiches come, there's no time for talking, much less shouting, because food this good — and this messy — demands to be eaten quickly. Put down your suiza (chicken, ham and cheese) or norteña (steak, Milanesa, cheese) and you risk losing all the other toppings — refried beans, mayonnaise, onions, tomatoes, avocado and chipotle sauce — pressed between the bread. Don't miss the tortas ahogadas, a Guadalajaran specialty with griddle-crisped chunks of carnitas spilling out of baguette-like bolillos. Soften the crust with a smother of spicy, vinegary tomato sauce, and you'll wonder why you ever ate turkey with avocado.

Jax Fish House
Jax Fish House

When chef-restaurateur Dave Query opened the first Jax Fish House in a weathered brick building in downtown Boulder two decades ago, he managed to turn at least a few bohemian veg heads into fish heads. Now, with four locations in Colorado — Boulder, LoDo, Glendale and Fort Collins — he's got the attention of the meatheads, too, baiting just about everyone who saunters inside any one of his rollicking, ocean-themed fish houses with a show-stopping shrine to sustainably fished and environmentally responsible seafood. Whether it's raw oysters on the half shell, clams, peel-and-eat shrimp, king crab legs or Dungeness crab, steamed mussels floating in a Thai broth, crawfish, caviar or sea-trout roe, the offerings at Jax are enough to make you think Query's harboring his own secret dock in this landlocked state, complete with mystical mermaids.

Cafe Brazil
Summer Powell
For years, Cafe Brazil has been the go-to spot for Denverites looking for a taste of South America. Unlike most of the Brazilian restaurants in this country, it isn't a churrascaria, but rather a proper Brazilian restaurant that offers all the greatest hits of a canon that spans several countries. The space is casual and often crowded, the service friendly, and the food stands as a good survey of all the influences (Spanish, Italian, French and indigenous) that have made South American cuisine one of the most interesting ethnic culinary diversions to come along. Bonus points for the rum bar.
Los Chingones

Chef Troy Guard expanded his empire this year with Los Chingones, and the pig-ear nachos served here could land you in hog heaven. The kitchen braises the porcine lobes until the chewiness is gone, then fries them and crumbles them over a mess of ingredients that could send an elephant running for a Lipitor prescription: A bed of fresh tortilla chips is loaded with bean dip, queso fundido, pickled jalapeños, spicy chorizo, crema and, of course, ears to create a Mexican mayhem of spicy, salty and sweet flavors that you won't find anywhere else.

Lon Symensma, exec chef of ChoLon, is firmly entrenched in the top tier of kitchen luminaries who have made the Mile High City such a dynamic dining destination. But even the best chefs can't do it alone, and Ryan Gorby, the executive sous-chef of ChoLon, deserves his own star. He and Symensma have created a near-faultless food temple that embodies a collaborative spirit, consistently unleashing inspiring, outlandishly experimental and bewitchingly artistic dishes. Together they bring a deep intellectual rigor to the kitchen, sharing a mutual respect and ridiculously intense passion for each ingredient they touch, so that every plate that emerges is more scene-stealing than the last.

Elway's Cherry Creek

Once upon a time, the best steakhouses needed to accomplish just one feat: slap a huge slab of bloody steer on your plate and wait for the moo. Elway's — both the downtown and Cherry Creek locations — definitely meats those expectations. But today the best steakhouses separate themselves from the rest of the herd by offering more than brilliant beef; they reach for all-around culinary supremacy. And Elway's excels here, too, turning out sublime sauces and lush toppings for those steaks, as well as sides that both salute the classics (creamed spinach) and recognize modern tastes (Brussels sprout hash). And that's just the beginning of a charismatic — and refined — menu that forges on with lamb, roasted chicken, a killer smashburger, great chili and beautifully executed seafood. In fact, you could bypass the beef entirely and still have one of the most memorable meals in town.

Tacos Tequila Whiskey
Mark Antonation
Kevin Morrison started out with Pinche Tacos, a truck cooking up gringified tacos packed with succulent meats and strong flavors. It proved so popular that he soon steered his concept to a brick-and-mortar spot in Capitol Hill, Pinche Taqueria, which won our Best New Restaurant award in 2012. Last year Morrison doubled down with a second Pinche Taqueria, this one in Highland, where he expanded the menu and added a patio. Morrison isn't the first restaurateur to have the idea of moving street-style tacos in a hip, upscale environment, and he definitely won't be the last, but so far, he's doing it best, serving up not just tasty tacos, but tequila and whiskey in spots as fun as any street party.

The morning that Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán was nabbed in Mazatlán, the single TV at Tacos Selene was tuned to his capture — but the hordes of taco fans barely took notice. Who cares about the world's most-wanted drug kingpin when you're in taco utopia? A great taco is worth going the distance, worth driving across medians and through barriers, worth fistfighting for a parking space and, in this particular case, for a surface on which to sit, because this is a taqueria that never seems to experience even the slightest lull. If you crave tacos al pastor with pineapple, this is your muse. Lengua tacos? Your daydream. Barbacoa? It, too, fulfills every fantasy. Even the salsa bar, stocked with flavor-smacked sauces and every garnish imaginable, is an object of desire. If you want to taco 'bout a paradisiacal experience, this is it.

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