Best Meal in a Bowl 2015 | Biju's Little Curry Shop | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

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.

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

Small details can mean the difference between good and great food, and fresh-baked breads are often one of those details. At Phoenician Kabob, the house-baked pita bread makes the rest of the menu come alive, from silky hummus awash in lemon and olive oil to creamy lebne to succulent and herbal kafta and lamb skewers. But the intoxicating bakery aroma isn't just from the pita; fatayer (Mediterranean savory pastries) are also baked fresh, with a range of fillings like zaatar, jibneh cheese and seasoned ground beef. And Phoenician Kabob goes beyond great food: A full bar means you can enjoy your fatayer with a Fat Tire, and the service is warm and welcoming no matter how packed or empty the dining room is.

Readers' choice: Jerusalem

Best German/Eastern European Restaurant

Golden Europe

Big, hearty dishes of simply prepared Germanic and Slavic dishes are the name of the game at Golden Europe, the Czech-run Arvada favorite that's been serving up schnitzel, wurst and cabbage for more than twenty years. The cozy, kitschy dining room is generally packed for dinner, full of boisterous diners hoisting half-liters of German lagers and Czech pilsners. Choose from seven styles of schnitzel — everything from classic Wiener schnitzel adorned with nothing more than a slice of lemon to thin, breaded ovals of chicken or pork topped with mushroom gravy, Dijon sauce or sautéed onions. Cuts of roast beef, duck and pork come sided with filling bread dumplings, buttery spaetzle and stewed red cabbage. You'll be treated like family here: Every plate is prepared with love and care and delivered in portions so big you'll think your own grandmother is in the kitchen, making sure you don't leave hungry.

Readers' choice: Cafe Prague

It's easy for French food to feel as tired as the stuff served to tourists on the Champs-Élysées. But not at Bistro Barbès, an unassuming French restaurant that opened last year in the heart of Park Hill, a neighborhood hungry for good food — and they definitely got it with this place. Chef-owner Jon Robbins has no interest in serving straight-up steak frites and sole meunière. Instead, he marries French technique with the sights, smells and flavors of the real France, a country where he lived and cooked for three years, a country populated by North African immigrants who have an approach to food beyond the five mother sauces. So at Bistro Barbès preserved lemons are as much a staple as veal stock, sweetbreads come in the form of p'stilla, and salads range from kale-based Niçoise to tabbouleh. What remains classic here, though, is technique: Robbins, a Mizuna alum, has a solid foundation, and it shows in every tender strand of housemade pasta, every perfectly cooked steak, every luscious beurre blanc.

Readers' choice: Le Central

Linnea Covington

Panzano may be located in the Hotel Monaco, but this is not your usual hotel restaurant. Unless, that is, your usual hotel restaurant happens to be in northern Italy. The motto of chef Elise Wiggins and her team at Panzano is Chi mangia bene, viva bene — "Those who eat well, live well" — and we can guarantee you'll eat very well indeed at Wiggins's place. While the menu is inspired by Italy, she sticks close to home for her ingredients — including incredible Colorado lamb — and the result is one of the freshest dining experiences in town. While the menu features plenty for gluten-free and vegetarian diners (don't miss the Cavolini di Bruxelles), Wiggins's dishes also include such sinful indulgences as chicken-liver mousse, duck mousse and wild boar, tucked inside pasta, tossed on salads or served on its own. Wiggins is as colorful as her food, so try to grab a spot at the chef's counter — or cozy up in one of the booths overlooking 17th Street.

Readers' choice: Osteria Marco

This is Denver, so not every dish of East Coast origin must conform to the exact specifications of the pizzas, bagels or deli sandwiches that rule in Manhattan or Brooklyn. Ernie's serves up delicious New York-style pizza without the slavish devotion to the ideal that gets many other pizzerias bogged down in details — so the slices may not be as floppy as those back East, and the pools of cheese and pepperoni grease don't need to be mopped off with a napkin. Instead, Ernie's focuses on great ingredients and a crust that achieves a perfect balance between chewy and crunchy. Fresh mozzarella handmade daily blends with whole-milk mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano atop a simple but flavorful sauce; old-school toppings like meatballs and Denver-made Polidori sausage share space with white anchovies, clams and smoky bacon. But no matter which toppings you choose, slices from Ernie's twenty-inch pies can still be folded down the middle, just like those back home. And if that's not enough to induce a little nostalgia, step up to the Skee-Ball machine.

Readers' choice: Fat Sully's

Patxi's proves that you don't have to be from Chicago — or even the Midwest — to know how to dish good deep-dish pizza. Somehow, this California-based chain has nailed the secret to can't-get-enough Chicago-style pie. Patxi's pizzas have a smooth, buttery crust loaded with quality ingredients and the perfect ratio of zesty sauce to cheese. In the Mile High, this is the closest you'll come to Lou Malnati's or Giordano's without having those pies shipped directly...and that's not an option yet on Amazon Prime.

Readers' choice: Patxi's

Oh Hey Creative

Cart-Driver is a sliver of a restaurant, not much larger than the Italian carrettiera's horse-drawn cart that inspired the name. But this converted shipping container is big enough to hold a wood-fired oven, and that's all that Kelly Whitaker's team needs to put out those blistered pies we can't get enough of. These are Neapolitan pies with a twist. There's a mushroom pizza with burnt onions, ash-laced vinegar and pungent oma cheese, and a Four Season that incorporates the best of each season — such as Brussels sprouts, pears, ham and potatoes — in four quadrants of the pie. Crusts come out of the oven white with a few black blisters, and are good enough to eat with even the simplest of toppings. Oysters, Prosecco on tap and housemade gelato seal the deal.

Readers' choice: Hops & Pie

Best Central/South American Restaurant (not Mexican)

Maria Empanada

Courtesy Maria Empanada

Lorena Cantarovici originally opened her Argentine bakery in a tiny Lakewood shack that didn't have room for much more than a pastry case bursting with savory empanadas and tartas. But a move to bigger digs on South Broadway last year meant that Maria Empanada was able to finally become the Buenos Aires-style cafe that she'd always envisioned, with modern decor, a state-of-the-art espresso machine, and enough space for families to come in and enjoy malbec, beer, and yerba matté served in the traditional way. And, of course, there are still those flavor-packed little pies filled with everything from classic seasoned beef with hard-boiled egg and olives to sweet corn in cheese sauce to a vegan veggie mix doused in chimichurri. Fat wedges of quiche-like tarta or potato-paved Spanish tortillas round out the savory options, while tender alfajores, roll cake oozing with dulce de leche and miniature sweet empanadas are there to satisfy dessert cravings. No matter what your choice, Maria Empanada is the perfect place to let life slow down and pass by the sunny windows while enjoying the warm hospitality of Cantarovici and her staff.

Readers' choice: Cuba Cuba

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