Best Central/South American Restaurant

Maria Empanada

Maria Empanada
Courtesy Maria Empanada

We have dreams filled entirely with the savory little Argentinean pastries from Maria Empanada, and then we wake up and make a beeline for the sunny corner cafe on South Broadway. The dream becomes a blissful reality with a strong espresso and a basket filled with delicate baked pillows bulging with spiced beef, cheesy corn, mild shredded chicken or ham and cheese, each with its own shape as a visual code for the contents within. An afternoon daydream leads to a return trip for wedge-shaped tartas and Spanish-style tortillas (masonry-like constructions of thin-sliced potato) and an accompanying pinguino of malbec — and, yes, that's an adorable penguin-shaped pitcher of wine. Maybe it's a dream after all, populated with edible pastry clouds and fat penguins that keep your wine glass filled. If you're wearing pants, it's not a dream — it's simply a South American slice of heaven in Denver.

Readers' choice: Cuba Cuba
North County
Danielle Lirette

Given the array of festive drinks at North County — boozy, house-bottled sodas, mojitos and a hundred tequilas — it's easy to chat and drink, and chat and drink, until you discover the hard way that you should've ordered some food. Never fear: That's where North County's mucho macho nachos come in. Unlike most chips-and-cheese plates hawked around town, this gargantuan platter is big enough for the table, with Mexican cheeses, olives, guacamole, jalapeños, pico and black beans lavished on top of and underneath the pile, so that every chip has its share of goodies. Proteins can be added for an additional charge, but even without them, this app more than holds its own.

El Tejado's potato tacos
Mark Antonation
El Tejado's potato tacos

New owners took over El Tejado last year, giving the space a facelift that makes it look like something out of The Flintstones. And that's appropriate, because El Tejado's green chile remains rock solid. This is a classic Colorado green chile, gravy-like and studded with pork, sometimes tinged a little more orange than green. While it's good smothering just about anything that comes out of the El Tejado kitchen, it's just as good on its own with a side of tortillas. And if you're feeling particularly brave, order the hot green chile. To create this fiendish concoction, the kitchen doesn't just drop some hot sauce in the kettle. Instead, it concocts a deeply layered, flavorful brew that's downright addictive — that is, if you don't singe your mouth on the first slurp.

Readers' choice: Santiago's
Danielle Lirette

It might seem odd that an upscale, nose-to-tail dining room known for charcuterie, aged steaks and even housemade hot dogs could also excel at a rustic dish like green chile — especially a meatless version. But chef-owner Hosea Rosenberg is a New Mexico native with a serious Hatch habit, so each year he makes the pilgrimage to green chile hallowed ground and returns to Boulder to roast and peel his haul for a season's worth of breakfast burritos. Rosenberg's recipe is tangy, hot and so redolent of the fire-roasted pods that pork would only be a distraction. But Blackbelly does pork with panache, too, so if you need a little meat in your stew, you can get a bowl of smoked-shoulder posole made from the same great green-chile base. Stop by for a breakfast burrito in the a.m., grab a quart of the green to go at lunch and then head back for some smoky posole come dinner hour.

Readers' choice: Illegal Pete's
Taqueria El Trompito

El Trompito's Denver taquerias offer a wide range of the standards found at most Front Range taco shops, but to experience the house specialties, you must sample the slow-braised meats, which balance deep, cooked-down flavors with toothsome texture. Not to be missed is the barbacoa de borrego, shredded lamb so juicy you'll have to hold your elbows high to keep your wrists clean. But the beef cabeza, lengua and barbacoa are standouts, too, as are the tacos toñitas, stewed meat and veggies on a corn tortilla. Of course, a good taqueria is not complete without a salsa bar — and El Trompito doesn't disappoint, with tubs of chile blends ranging from tongue-warming to face-melting.

Readers' choice: Pinche Tacos
La Popular
Danielle Lirette

For more than sixty years, La Popular has been defining Den-Mex, with thick green chile, smothered burrito torpedoes, and — most important — perfect tamales that somehow manage to be simultaneously fluffy and dense inside their corn-husk wrappers. Choose either red chile with moderate heat or green chile to please peppier palates, but don't be content with just two or three served à la carte; tamales this good should be ordered by the dozen. Mix and match for a colorful combo and grab a tub of green chile while you're there. In fact, make it a banquet, with housemade tortilla chips, salsa and fruit-filled empanadas for dessert. La Popular still assembles one of Denver's cheapest — and most satisfying — moveable feasts.

Readers' choice: Tamale Kitchen
Adelitas Cocina y Cantina
Danielle Lirette

The third time's a charm for Adelitas. We've been fans of the house margarita — a generous pour of Cimarron tequila mixed with fresh-squeezed lime juice, agave syrup and triple sec — since our first sip, shortly after the casual Colorado cantina opened on South Broadway. Over the past three years, we've forced ourselves to swallow house margs all over town — some syrupy-sweet, some sickeningly sour — and have yet to find one as good as the marg at Adelitas. At $5, it's a bargain — and the bargain gets even better during the two daily happy hours (from 3 to 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to close), when the margs are $4. And on Monday nights, the deal gets better yet: House margs are two-for-one.

Readers' choice: Rio Grande

Happy-hour lovers can stop bar-hopping and doing endless Yelp searches for the best happy hours throughout the city, because the best all-day happy hour lives at Historians Ale House. The daylong happy hour repeats Monday through Friday and includes $2.50 select drafts, $3 wells and house wines for $4. Wash down the booze with $6 appetizers throughout the day, or pause for the $5.95 cheeseburger and soda/beer lunch special in the middle of it. Historians bartenders know better than to overserve you, and it's unlikely you'd be able to withstand the 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. happy hour even if they didn't cut you off. But if you happen to have a weekday off, make the most of it with a handful of beers and a few baskets of pizza sliders.

Bannock Street Garage

The Bannock Street Garage is a dark dive bar that oozes character and happens to have the best all-day-every-day drink deal in Denver, the Billy Jack. For $5, you get a holy trinity of vices — a shot of whiskey, a PBR, and the cherry on top: an extra-long Pyramid cigarette. Besides the Billy Jack, there's plenty to keep you occupied at the Garage — old-fashioned ring-toss, a pool table that can be converted to play ping-pong, a vintage popcorn machine to cure the munchies, a music stage, and a few TVs for good measure. It's all housed in what used to be an actual body shop, and it retains that gritty, oily feel. Throw down your shot, grab your PBR and cigarette, and head to the bare-bones patio out back for some soul-searching. Act like a regular and prop the door with a rock; it locks from the outside.

LoHi SteakBar
Mark Manger

It took a renovation and a menu revamp to make LoHi SteakBar into a happy-hour all-timer, but folks up north are sure glad it did. And whether the streets are boisterous or still after dark, SteakBar has happy hour covered. From 10 p.m. 'til last call at midnight (or 1-ish on the weekends), the grill is still fired up and tossing around top-quality meats. Almost everything at happy hour is deep-fried or riven with sinew and fat, all the better to accompany two-for-one drafts, wells and house wines. One exception: lovely buck-a-shuck oysters, serving as a fine entry into late-night gluttony. Green-chile cheese fries ($8) throw you right into the deep end with a savory serving of Southwest-style poutine. Mini Blue Smoke burgers ($3 each) offer a high-quality grind topped with blue cheese and bacon. But the standout is the mini steak sandwich with Gruyère and onions ($4), a simply prepared treat that brings the goods from SteakBar's meat locker for a bite-sized price.

Readers' choice: Highland Tap & Burger

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