Best Star-Chef Duo 2014 | Ryan Gorby and Lon Symensma | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

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.

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.

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.

The ultimate Sunday brunch begins and ends with a Bloody Mary. It's vital, too, that there's something on the board for the egghead, the French-toast fanatic, the potato junkie and the granola-leaning earth muffin. Under chef Theo Adley, the Squeaky Bean's kitchen serves all that and more, but because chief bean-baller Johnny Ballen has a serious fetish for playful diversions, he's got a bag of tricks to elevate the creativity quotient — including the wall-spanning bingo board. Every Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m., Ballen and his irreverent accomplices roll out two hours of bingo, complete with a bingo ball-cage set, bingo cards and a dedicated bingo announcer in the form of comic Sam Tallent, who's also in charge of the prize patrol, a stash that includes bags of dollar-store trinkets; gift certificates to Golden Corral and a bottle of malt liquor stashed in a paper bag; and a grand prize of $50 to spend at the Squeaky Bean. No matter how the balls bounce, brunch at the Bean always results in a Sunday fun day.

Despite the waves of accolades, Land of Sushi might still be the most undiscovered sushi bar in Denver — but that's certainly not the fault of chef Ben Liu, whose exquisite fish outperforms that of the sharks who sell their sushi and sashimi for double, even triple the price. True, the name makes you blink in confusion ("Ocean of Sushi" would have made more sense), the flashing neon sign is more brothel than bluefin, and its location, tucked into an obscure corner of a strip mall, isn't particularly welcoming — but, oh, the fish! Liu turns out translucent sea scallops with tangles of fresh herbs; luscious sea-urchin roe wrapped in nori; rich toro shining like luxurious silk; and stunningly fresh whole mackerel perching on a stark white plate like a silver statue. Freshly grated wasabi that tastes nothing like the stuff squeezed from the tube is available for a small price, too, and it's worth it.

Courtesy Table 6

The sign of a great tater tot is when it doesn't need ketchup. And no one does elegant, condiment-free tots better than Table 6, where the humble potato proves once again that it pairs as well with a tie (and a glass of wine) as it does with jeans. Chef Carrie Shores, who took over the kitchen last year from longtime chef Scott Parker, likes to vary what form the long, crisp tots will take. We couldn't get enough of one recent version that featured slivers of fried onions and a dollop of rich French onion spread in a playful nod to that '50s party dip. For those who can never decide between onion rings and French fries, it offered the best of both worlds, a savory version of having your cake and eating it, too.

All photos by Lori Midson

Once you pass through the humble exterior, if the beautifully serene interior of Thai Diamond Cafe doesn't capture your attention, the smashing dishes certainly will. The menu travels all over Thailand, and while there's nothing groundbreaking on the board — no curry, soup or noodle dish that you may not have tried before — the kitchen, manned by a jovial Thai gentleman with an easy smile, does justice to the classics, turning out a warm laab with chicken or pork, chiles and fresh herbs; nuanced (and fiery) curries liberally stocked with meat, seafood or vegetables, including kabocha squash; intensely flavored soups, filled with seafood and aromatic with lemongrass and lime leaves; and noodles — thick and thin, egg and rice — in every guise. You'll see people waving their forks or chopsticks around, urging everyone at the table to try this or that, and if there are leftovers, prepare for a fight.

Thick-crust pizza used to be nearly interchangeable with deep-dish. These days, though, with the resurgence of super-thin crusts ranging from cracker to Neapolitan, it connotes something different, something that Goldilocks would've liked — i.e., not too thick and not too thin. When we have a hankering for this kind of pie, we head to Papou's Pizzeria, where owner Luke Loukopoulos turns out Greek-style pan pizzas. This no-nonsense storefront is elevated by its sparkling-clean vibe, its vintage Italian posters and its pizzas, of course, which boast a golden, rounded edge and a bottom that morphs from crackly to pillowy as you edge closer to the piles of melted mozzarella. Pizzas are cut into squares, not triangles, so everyone will be pleased, from the ones who want all middle (kids, usually) to those like us, who can't get enough of the crisp, buttery crust.

Courtesy Virgilio's Pizzeria & Wine Bar Facebook

Thin is in, with new pizza joints that keep crust to a minimum opening every day. But Virgilio's, a behemoth New York-style pizzeria in the suburbs, continues to dispense the area's best thin-crust pies: The crave-worthy, crisp-edged, thin-crusted rounds of dough freckled with brown patches of char deliver a satisfying chew. Slap the red-sauced surface with fennel-scented sausage, red onions and garlic, and you have a purist's pie; top it with blots of feta, artichoke hearts, black olives, spinach and garlic, and you're living the vegetarian dream. A carnivore's pizza bombarded with pepperoni, meatballs, ham, chicken and sausage may lead to a cholesterol spike, but the thin-is-in mantra only goes so far.

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