Sushi Sasa
Linnea Covington

Chef Wayne Conwell's minimalist dining room is known, rightfully, as one of Denver's top destinations for sushi. Whether guests arrive for preset sushi combos or lavish omakase dinners, they'll get some of the freshest seafood and most skillfully sliced sashimi around. But despite its name, Sushi Sasa offers more than just fish. A selection of otsumami (described on the menu as Japanese tapas) shows off Conwell's creativity, with decadent foie-gras-topped oysters, succulent miso black cod or fluffy steamed pork buns. You'll even find deep, umami-rich ramen and udon bowls, deftly fried tempuras and skewers of grilled filet mignon with a crunchy katsu crust. With so much to choose from, it's easy to rack up a hefty tab, but head over for a daytime meal when you don't have three hours to march through the menu and you'll find some of your favorites at lunchtime prices.

Readers' choice: Sushi Den

Motomaki
Courtesy Motomaki Facebook

Is it something in the water? Colorado has birthed many smashing fast-casual concepts, and Motomaki might be the most ambitious, creative one yet. For this venture, the owners of the Hapa Sushi chain took their brand of high-minded cool and rolled it in the trappings of Japanese fast food. Entrees come in either a rice bowl or a nori-wrapped package — the fusion of fast-casual burrito and sushi. Even though it's built on Asian and Hawaiian cuisines, the pork here rivals that at Chipotle. And while meals are delivered quickly and efficiently, fresh poke and sushi add a touch of class. There are few places that can serve you such dishes as Korean BBQ or neon-green seaweed salad for lunch and still get you back to the office in time, placing Motomaki in the center of the fast-casual Venn diagram: tasty, easy, and out of the ordinary.

JJ Chinese Seafood Restaurant
Hunter Stevens

The multiple menus at this eatery adorned with live tanks assure you that there's something here for almost every taste — all of it prepared with skill and an eye to tradition and served by some of the friendliest waitstaff in town. Even the standard American-Chinese dishes are far from standard, including sweet-and-sour shrimp that's neither cloying nor gloppy. But the restaurant's name is a giveaway that the best dishes are those featuring the ocean's bounty, whether the delicate and ultra-fresh razor clams in XO sauce or whole flounder with steamy white flesh encased in a shatteringly crisp deep-fried crust. The kitchen has a way with duck, too: Fried duck tongues are as fun to eat as miniature chicken wings, while dark-glazed roasted duck with pillowy bao buns stands in for less-adventurous sliders. Hearty and warming congee, shockingly cheap hot pots and even cheaper noodle bowls round out a roster that draws off-duty cooks from around the city until midnight daily.

Readers' choice: Star Kitchen

Viet's Restaurant

Viet's owner Hiep Thai comes from a restaurant family — and it shows in the quality of each dish on the extensive menu, ranging from simple rice or noodle combos with grilled beef or chicken to elaborate hot pots brimming with all manner of meat, fish and fowl. If you're not sure where to start, go with Viet's house appetizer platter mounded with softshell crab, pork, shrimp, egg rolls and shrimp paste, all served with rice paper to build your own rolls with. If you're feeling more adventurous, order a bubbling pot of lao de (goat hot pot) with funky chao (fermented-soybean sauce) and a garden's worth of taro root, turnip greens, garlic chives and other greens served with springy wheat noodles. Salads are also of note, whether loaded with plump shrimp, savory duck or shredded pork; the pungent dressings that balance fish sauce with sweet and tangy notes liven up an unusual variety of tropical vegetables, from banana blossom to bitter on choy.

Readers' choice: New Saigon

Suvipa Thai Food

Suvipa Thai Food opened last year in a spot that's seen a fair amount of turnover since the much-missed Vietnam Grill closed a couple of years ago. Although the French-bistro charm of that restaurant is gone, the owners of Suvipa have also stripped away any vestiges of the Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant and the pho house that came afterward. So today the bare-bones dining room offers no distractions from the intense and pure flavors coming from the kitchen: lively curries; handmade, flaky curry puffs bursting with seasoned potato or taro; tangy salads, such as the glass-noodle plate brimming with shrimp and ground pork. Even the pad Thai, often Americanized at other restaurants, gets special attention here and bursts with the flavors of pungent fish sauce, tamarind and chiles. The spice levels are adjustable, but even at the hotter end of the spectrum, the balance is apparent.

Readers' choice: Thai Basil

Dae Gee
Danielle Lirette

What started out as an obscure ethnic eatery tucked into the back of a Westminster strip mall has morphed into a minor Denver phenomenon since owner Joseph Kim added a second location on Colorado Boulevard, close to the heart of the city. With a hip, modern interior and marketing geared toward a young audience, Dae Gee manages to present traditional Korean cuisine without the intimidation factor common to other long rosters of unfamiliar food. Starting with an array of cute banchan dishes that take care of the salty, sour and spicy range of small bites and condiments — including several variations on kimchi — and moving into marinated pork and beef dishes that blend the familiarity of barbecue with the exotic allure of soy, sesame oil, fish sauce and gochujang (a pungent fermented condiment), Dae Gee's fare is at once completely accessible and excitingly novel. Warming noodle bowls, fun dumpling and pancake appetizers, and even a few challenging plates of ox tongue or beef tripe make for a menu broad enough to appeal to first-timers and experts alike. For added entertainment, head to the original in Westminster, where tables are equipped with grills for searing your own meats. With a few bottles of Hite or Cass Korean lagers, it's like a complete cookout with newfound flavors.

Readers' choice: Uncle

Ace Eat Serve
Courtesy Ace Eat Serve

Walking into Ace Eat Serve, you'll notice two things: Everyone is having a great time, either sampling Asian-inspired finger food or scampering around the ping-pong tables in the back room, and every table is topped with a condiment caddie sporting jars of sludgy chile oil. Don't write off the homely paste as some off-brand bottled sauce, though; if you did, you'd be depriving yourself of one of the most addictive and attenuated flavor bombs you'll find anywhere in the city. Beneath the reddish-black surface lurks a mess of chile flakes, sesame seeds and something called textured vegetable protein. We don't know what it is, either, but the resulting homemade condiment delivers a dose of mouthwatering umami above and beyond the base combo of hot, salty and sweet. Slathered on bao buns or stirred into a noodle bowl, the chile oil does something that other sauces never dare: It adds crunchy texture as well as a load of flavor — so much so that you'll be tempted to eat it straight off the spoon.

Tiffin's India Cafe
Mark Antonation

Tiffin's India Cafe is named for the portable mid-morning or midday meal in South India. What the tiny strip-mall eatery lacks in decor and amenities, it more than makes up for in brash flavors and addictive street-food offerings not found in many other Front Range Indian restaurants. The four-year-old counter-service joint started out serving only vegetarian dishes, and it still specializes in meatless dosas, biryanis and curries — but chicken, lamb and shrimp have since been added to bolster the South Indian selection. Those offerings include idlis (steamed lentil- and rice-flour cakes) that soak up sauce like savory sponges, and vadas (deep-fried rice-flour "doughnuts") served with a selection of power-packed chutneys or drenched in vibrant, tamarind-infused sambar stew. Despite the fast-casual setup, the service at Tiffin's is warm and welcoming, and the staff is thrilled to answer questions about the menu. The bold colors of the more familiar curries, like brick-red vindaloo and earthy eggplant bengan bartha, are a giveaway that even bolder flavors await. Skip the competition's boring and heavy all-you-can-eat buffet and trade up for Tiffin's fresh and vivid layers of spice.

Readers' choice: Little India

Biju's Little Curry Shop

Biju Thomas's fast-casual ode to the South Indian foods of his childhood just opened in December, but already it's become one of the top Indian eateries in the city. The menu is small and simple, with only a few proteins to choose from, but the flavors are big and complex, constructed from layers of house spice blends and slow cooking to coax out the best of each ingredient. Thomas wants customers to experience his food the way he's been eating it at home since he was a kid, with everything piled into a bowl so that each bite builds on the last. Start with a mound of jasmine rice or biryani; then curried beef, chicken, lentils or a little of everything, if you desire, is ladled on before the whole thing is topped with a nest of bright cabbage and citrus slaw and your choice of housemade sauces. Those include creamy yogurt moor packed with herbs, zesty mint and tomato chutney, or fiery samandhi and adacheri sauces that will surprise even the most ardent chile-heads. It may look a little messy, but the profound and varied colors, textures and flavors are sure to bowl you over.

Megenagna Ethiopian Restaurant and Grocery
Lori Midson

There's no printed menu at this cute Ethiopian eatery decorated with palm fronds, bamboo and rough-hewn furniture and attached to an Aurora market, but there are only two Ethiopian words you need to know: tibs and kitfo. The first is marinated beef or lamb sautéed in a variety of different spices and sauces, and the second is finely minced meat — although there's a vegetarian option, too — packed with rich clarified butter and blazing hot mitmita spice mix, sided with housemade soft cheese. From there, the staff will help you choose the level of heat you prefer and how you want your meat cooked (anywhere from raw to well done). And, of course, injera — the spongy sourdough flatbread made with teff flour — is part of the deal. Yes, you can check ahead on the restaurant's website for more details on individual dishes, but the main thing to remember is that everything at Megenagna is boldly seasoned and beautifully presented. The injera is earthy and almost smoky with the natural flavor of the teff, and the beef is so fresh and well prepared that even the raw preparations don't seem intimidating.

Readers' choice: Queen of Sheba

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