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 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

Phoenician Kabob

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

Golden Europe
Mark Manger

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

Bistro Barbes

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

Panzano
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

Ernie's Bar & Pizza

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 Pizza

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

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