Best Of :: Food & Drink
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.
Mexican fare isn't difficult to find on Federal Boulevard, especially if you're looking for street tacos, fat tortas or foil-wrapped breakfast burritos oozing with Denver-style green chile. But despite its name, you won't find the gravy-thick pork stew on the menu at Chili Verde, which instead specializes in the lesser-known cuisine of Puebla, Mexico. Pork and chicken come robed in rich, dark mole poblano, complex and zingy mole verde or smoky salsa morita. Chiles en nogada — the picadillo-stuffed poblano peppers topped with creamy walnut sauce and bejeweled with pomegranate seeds — are available year-round rather than just during Mexican Independence Day, as is traditional for the tri-colored dish, which represents the Mexican flag. Apart from the menu, Chili Verde also stands out for stellar service from a gracious and knowledgeable staff who are genuinely enthusiastic when it comes to answering questions about the food and drinks coming from the well-stocked and creative bar.
Readers' choice: New Saigon
The aroma of wood smoke greets you at the door at Gozo and tags along through the course of your meal, grounding the menu of Mediterranean-inspired dishes and blistered pizzas with rustic notes. Whether turning out quick-cooked and succulent clams with chorizo or slow-roasted short ribs, the wood oven that's the showpiece of the chef's counter is also central to the flavors that the kitchen builds. Polenta and risotto are also sure things at Gozo, both handled with care and patience for perfect results. The dining room gives equal opportunity to couples looking for an intimate dinner or boisterous groups out for small plates and drinks. Sit near the front by the open garage doors for an urban experience in full view of Broadway, or pick a table near the back for a quieter night out.
Readers' choice: Beatrice & Woodsley
West 32nd Avenue runs through the heart of Denver's Highland neighborhood, and today holds a string of eateries well-suited to the residential zone it has become to the west. But in 2012, Tommy Lee dropped an umami bomb on the east end of the street in what's become known as LoHi — a hip moniker coined by and for the young and fashionable set who now pack the shoebox noodle house nightly. On a menu stamped with traditional notes as well as modern, international riffs, you'll find actual umami bombs — miso-bacon jam and spicy seven pepper — that can be lobbed into ramen bowls featuring duck in shoyu broth, a Korean-themed shredded-pork-and-kimchi number, and a potent veggie combo with miso broth and chashu tofu. Steamed bao buns packed with everything from pork belly to falafel make for savory finger food for those craving more than soup. Uncle may be small in stature, but it's the big kid in the 'hood when it comes to flavor.
Readers' choice: Highland Tap & Burger
Playfully named for the state of inebriation, as in "three sheets to the wind," To the Wind Bistro sounds like a shoo-in for another category — maybe Best Place to Tie One On. But it's the food at this tiny restaurant on East Colfax, not its beer-centric beverage list, that makes you want to overindulge. In a space no bigger than a home kitchen, chef-owner Royce Oliveira puts out fare that's simultaneously seasonally attuned, comfortable and classy, such as empanadas plump with rabbit or duck, and pork (not chicken) and waffles. The menu reflects Oliveira's training — he spent years at Mizuna before going off on his own — but the vibe is casual, not intimidating. In large part, that's because of the warmth exuded by Oliveira and his wife/pastry chef Leanne Adamson, who run the show from the open kitchen and pour their heart and soul into the place.
Readers' choice: Prohibition
Choosing a favorite restaurant on Havana Street is like picking a favorite child — we love all the diverse ethnic eateries here — but Katsu Ramen is a standout, because the metro area's ramen scene is hotter than sriracha and cooler than mochi ice cream right now. Katsu Ramen threw open its doors in January to crowds eager to sample its five ramen types: shoyu with meat broth, miso with savory broth and vegetables, tonkotsu with pork, tan tan with spicy chicken, and hiyashi chuka, a summery ramen dish with chilled broth. The menu also features popular offerings like pork gyoza dumplings, a seared tuna tataki salad and a refreshing mango-sauced frozen panna cotta. The atmosphere has a certain kitschy charm, with plastic replicas of menu items and a stray Hello Kitty toy or three, but the most important thing here is that the diminutive space can handle volume — and that's exactly what it does every day, with a lunchtime line most restaurants would envy.
Readers' choice: Sam's No. 3
This is how you know that Root Down is still the best restaurant at Denver International Airport: You're willing to 1) ride the train from wherever you are at the airport to Concourse C; 2) stand in line for a seat once you get there; and 3) resist rushing through your Thai carrot-curry soup or mole-drenched breakfast burrito, even if it means a mad dash back to your gate for boarding. An offshoot of Justin Cucci's acclaimed LoHi eatery of the same name, Root Down at DIA serves globally inspired soups, sandwiches and brunch items that go well beyond the norm. Burgers, for example, are made of "never, ever" beef (beef that's never, ever been treated with yucky stuff) on a pretzel bun; wraps come with edamame hummus, chicken and minty yogurt; and drinks range from Prosecco to local beers. Whether you snag a seat under the hanging globes or next to the window with dramatic views of the runway, you'll find yourself wishing for a text from your airline alerting you to a delay, just so you have time for dessert.
Readers' choice: Root Down
There's a lot happening at Denver International Airport these days, but the most mouthwatering partnership is the one between Root Down and Vert Kitchen, which is now augmenting the premium sit-down menu with three daily grab-and-go salads — tuna power, sesame tofu and kale Caesar — for travelers in a hurry.
Filipino cuisine isn’t easy to locate in Denver, and most of what you’ll find is of the mobile variety. But that’s not a problem, especially if your search for empanadas, lumpia, chicken adobo and other Filipino specialties leads you to the Orange Crunch food truck, which specializes in rice-flour empanadas colored vivid orange with achiote seasoning and stuffed full of scrambled eggs, mung beans, shredded green papaya and a choice of meat — usually something mouthwatering like hickory-smoked bacon, chicken sausage or ground bison. Other specials come and go, so check the truck’s Twitter feed (@DenverOC) for the latest, which could be chicken skewers, smoked pork belly or kalbi short ribs. The only trick at this truck is waiting patiently for the delicious savory pies to cool enough so the molten fillings don’t burn your tongue, since each one is stuffed and fried to order.
Readers’ choice: Quiero Arepas
When searching for sustenance at 3 a.m., certain rules apply: The food should be cheap, fast and filling. After all, the party's over and last call has come and gone, but you're still out and about, looking to extend the night. The Tacos Rapidos on West Evans Avenue fulfills all requirements, serving cheap and decidedly downscale Mexican (by way of San Diego) fare with no fancy pretensions — or even a dining room. Sure, the guacamole comes from a gun and the corn tortillas are a little too thick and leathery to be double-layered, but the tacos are so fat with shredded-pork carnitas, spicy barbacoa or surprisingly tender lengua that you'll barely notice. Deep-fried rolled tacos (don't look for flautas on the menu), carne asada fries or similarly souped-up super nachos will satisfy the worst of late-night cravings. And if you're up early or late enough to yearn for breakfast, the breakfast burritos come stuffed with more bacon or chorizo than scrambled eggs.
Readers' choice: Pete's Kitchen
Toasted Cheez-It and Goldfish mac and cheese, adult milkshakes, deep-fried Oreos with Nutella? Troy Guard might've had the munchies when he came up with TAG Burger Bar's playfully innovative menu, a gluttonous ode to our childhood. Take a toke and then take your healthy appetite to TAG, because the signature Andrew Jackson burger can't be devoured in one sitting...or can it? Tell us after you try the hot mess of shaved black truffles, house-cured pork belly, crispy chicken skin, sunnyside-up egg, Brie, avocado, confit tomato, chipotle aioli slaw and tomato-truffle oil.
Whether you're looking for a patio where you can relax by a fire or one where you can work up a sweat throwing around bocce balls, Local 46's biergarten is the best place to play. The 2,900-square-foot patio, which this popular bar opened in 2013, is like going to visit that best friend who has the Cribs-style setup. It's cozy despite its size, and the gravel underfoot invokes a school playground or a huge campground. There are woody nooks where you can lounge by fire pits, a ping-pong table, cornhole games and, yes, a bocce-ball court. And you can order both food and drinks at the outdoor bar. If you're lucky enough to get a seat at the community picnic tables, order the Gutter Special: Your beers will be delivered to an ice-filled metal gutter splicing through the table.