Best Of :: Food & Drink
If you want Denver's best breakfast burrito, you have to be willing to work for it, because it's hard to find. El Zarape is tucked away on Federal Boulevard, nestled into a shared parking lot with a used-car dealership. The best clue to its location: a line of cars that spills out onto Federal as hungry drivers wait for their unbeatable breakfast burritos, a bargain at $1.99 each. A homemade tortilla is wrapped around freshly fried potatoes, eggs and your choice of breakfast meat, wrapped in aluminum foil and then stashed in a paper bag with two packages of salsa. Grab the bag, pull out onto Federal and wait for a light before you attempt to spice up the burrito and take a bite. Traffic signal willing, it's a great way to start the day.
Readers' Choice: Santiago's
With Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery, chef/owner Clint Wangsnes and co-owner Christian Anderson gave residents of Park Hill and Montclair exactly what they needed: a casual hangout for lunch and dinner where families could feel comfortable and order from a menu that doesn't stoop to the usual fast-casual tricks but still keeps prices low. Sure, you can grab a burger, a salad or a sandwich here, but those sandwiches are stacked with housemade meats like smoked chicken pastrami and slow-roasted sirloin shaved paper-thin. And thanks to Wangsnes's penchant for sous-vide cooking, favorites like the 48-hour short rib and 72-hour onion soup benefit from long cooking times without adding to customer waits. Peppered with flavors from Thailand, China, Japan and the Mediterranean, Chop Shop's menu captures the international spirit of Colfax Avenue.
Readers' Choice: Solera
With so much great Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai and Mexican cooking happening up and down Federal Boulevard's busy blocks, a simple American grill can get lost amid the steamy clouds rising from pots of pho and the pungent smoke of roasting chiles. But when the Federal Bar & Grill opened in the former home of Mickey Manor in 2013, it quickly became a standout not just for nailing the basics with great burgers, fries and wings, but for its attention to detail, from picnic-worthy deviled eggs to a beckoning roster of uncommon craft ales to genuinely friendly and snappy service. The Fed, as it's known to regulars, fills a need for a neighborhood hangout in fast-changing Jefferson Park — something that no amount of tacos, pho or banh mi can replace.
Readers' Choice: Tarasco's New Latino Cuisine
The Chowder Room is a little slice of small-town coastal life right on one of Denver's busiest thoroughfares. The service is warm and gracious, the decor is homey while still displaying a seafaring theme requisite of seafood shops, and the menu from chef/co-owner Matt Stein is affordable and sensible, though not without a few fun surprises (ask about daily and weekly off-menu specials). For a few sparkling oysters, a butter-dripping fillet or a solidly constructed sandwich stuffed with cod, salmon or seasonal treats like lobster or softshell crab, there's no better stop for the price. And don't forget the namesake chowder: Classic New England-style leads the way, but the kitchen offers many variations depending on seasonal availability and the chef's whim. In a sea of glitzier fish houses around town, the Chowder Room is a safe harbor.
Readers' Choice: Beatrice & Woodsley
Everyone who works in the kitchen at Spuntino has muscular forearms from making pasta on the hand-cranked roller in the basement. That kind of effort goes into every dish and every glass at this intimate Italian eatery, all overseen by Cindhura Reddy and Elliot Strathmann, the husband-and-wife duo who took over Spuntino in 2014. Reddy is the chef; her experience working on rustic farms in Italy inspired dishes that combine rural sensibility with worldly sophistication. You'll find slow-cooked Colorado goat on one homey plate while marveling at octopus "carpaccio" on another; you'll wonder how Reddy gets those paper-thin shavings of tentacle to hold together in one postcard-sized slice. Strathmann selects the wines with the eye of a curio collector, presenting vintners and varietals that are hard to find even in Italy. The two keep things grounded in Colorado, though, with local, seasonal ingredients — some of which can be found in Strathmann's housemade amaros, perfect alongside a tempting dessert.
Readers' Choice: Fire on the Mountain
Havana Street is the most diverse conduit in the metro area, at least for culinary adventurers. But even amid Ethiopian, Somali, Mexican, Japanese and Vietnamese restaurants (and that's just a sampling), Yong Gung stands out. The menu at this bright and tidy eatery reflects Korean cuisine as it evolved during decades of Chinese immigration; the newcomers brought their recipes with them while learning to cook with new ingredients. The result is a canon of noodle dishes, soups and stir-fries, from jajangmyeon noodles in jet-black fermented-bean sauce to aggressively spicy jjampong soup swimming with shrimp, mussels, mushrooms and long noodles. Some dishes are reminiscent of sweet-and-salty American-Chinese combos, while others — like chilled naengmyeon — share a kindred spirit with Japanese cold ramen. Just don't skip the Korean fried chicken, coated in a spicy, sticky sauce so good you'll forget there was ever a KFC.
Readers' Choice: Sam's No. 3
We know, we know: Denver Central Market isn't so much a restaurant as it is a collection of stalls where you can buy everything from coffee to your weekly produce to a meatball sub. But this all-purpose food hall certainly functions as a restaurant, at least during lunch and dinner hours, when neighbors, gawkers and tourists descend on it en masse and post up at long tables with ceviche, pasta, sandwiches and porchetta, paired to all manner of drinks. It also functions as a meeting place, a cocktail bar (thank Curio bar for that), a meat and produce market, a coffee shop and, for Denver's many freelancers, a de facto office; that versatility ensures the place is packed nearly from when it opens in the morning until it closes late at night. Built into an old antiques warehouse, there's nothing else in the Mile High quite like it, which may be why Denver Central Market quickly became a neighborhood anchor in one of the fastest-growing parts of the city.
Readers' Choice: Rioja
The excellence of Oak at Fourteenth is apparent from the first sip of a cocktail created by beverage director/co-owner Bryan Dayton to the last taste of short rib or duck breast from chef/co-owner Steven Redzikowski's menu. The dining room is modern and streamlined, yet still feels warm and inviting, perhaps because of the wood smoke wafting from the kitchen. But whether the sense of comfort comes from that soft, campfire aroma or from the well-trained staff that never misses a beat, dinner at Oak is a full sensory experience, not just another meal. Since you're here to eat, though, bring a group and indulge in a large-format platter; the impressive ancho-glazed pork shoulder surrounded in roasted — nearly candied, really — seasonal vegetables is a jaw-dropper, even before you take your first bite. Wood-fired cooking has taken over the restaurant scene in Denver and Boulder, but Oak was the trailblazer that made it all possible.
Readers' Choice: Salt Bistro
Many Denverites think of the 16th Street Mall as little more than a destination where tourists grab Colorado T-shirts and overpriced beers. But the mall is also home turf for office workers and a growing number of downtown residents. For those folks, and for the rest of us looking for something special to top off a night on the town, ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro shines as a beacon of culinary excellence amid the fast-casuals and street-food kiosks. Chef/owner Lon Symensma's clever brand of Asian cuisine is a form of entertainment in itself, from the classic ChoLon French onion soup dumplings and kaya toast with egg cloud to newer explorations that go deep into Southeast Asian cooking, like a beautiful Burmese fermented tea-leaf salad. Symensma takes us on a journey he's made many times himself, showing us the street-hawker eats and the extravagant hotel dinners of his favorite cities. Not content to rest on his laurels, the chef keeps improving both the menu and the setting, with posh new seating for guests, better sound control in the always-packed dining room, and an evolving parade of dishes that show the kitchen at its most creative.
Readers' Choice: ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro
There's an unwritten maxim when it comes to outdoor dining: The better the patio, the worse the restaurant. After all, if you can pack the patio and keep the drinks flowing, who needs good food? But Potager's half-sunny, half-shaded patio flips that old saw on its end: It's an integral part of the dining experience. The word "potager" is French for "kitchen garden," so a seat on chef/owner Teri Rippeto's hidden patio means you're surrounded by herbs and vegetables that will make it onto your plate. Potager turns twenty this year, marking two decades of serving wonderful creations inspired by what's growing right outside the back door. With such longevity in Capitol Hill, Potager's every dish carries the terroir of the neighborhood.
Readers' Choice: Colterra Food & Wine
The ART is filled with fabulous artwork, but nothing beats the views from the fourth-floor Fire Terrace, an extension of the Fire restaurant and lounge. The hotel crowd is usually glittery enough, but at dusk this rooftop patio is bathed in golden light reflected off the History Colorado Center across the street. The patio boasts high-tops, a fire pit and posh cabana seating more suited to a swank beach resort than a downtown hotel, but the entertainment is definitely urban, as are the incredible glimpses you get up and down Broadway. Come for the social hour, which stretches from 3 to 6 p.m. and includes surprisingly good deals for the setting, and stay for twilight and beyond, when taillights twinkle and the scene turns magical.
Readers' Choice: Linger
The thirty-plus-year-old Racines is everyone's go-to restaurant, and when we say everyone, we're including man's best friend. Dogs are definitely welcome at this Denver institution, which reserves the most prime spot on the two-level patio for pets that want to enjoy the sunshine while their guardians enjoy a hearty meal. There's even a separate entrance from the sidewalk into the pet-friendly area, and if you want to give your pooch a bit of your breakfast sandwich or a morsel from that mountain of nachos, no one's going to stop you.
Readers' Choice: Denver Beer Co.