The Empress Seafood Restaurant
Courtesy The Empress Seafood Restaurant Facebook

Dim sum parlors originated as roadside snack stops for weary travelers, but today the daytime feast can be an hours-long, destination-worthy affair. In Denver, you'll find the heaviest concentration of buns and dumplings around the intersection of Federal Boulevard and Alameda Avenue, where several restaurants serve up cartfuls of transportive delicacies. The collection is most impressive at Empress Seafood Restaurant, where waitresses push trolleys full of such staples as pork-stuffed shu mai, shrimp-filled har gao, crispy turnip cakes and peppery pork buns. You can order other specialties from the menu, including delicate crabmeat dumplings, pork ribs in black-bean sauce, and pan-fried bean curd (i.e. tofu skin) roll. We never miss an opportunity to eat Empress's custard buns; the doughy puffs crack open into sweet, eggy centers. Like all the dim sum purveyors in this corner of the Mile High, Empress sees huge crowds on weekends; go on a weekday if you want a more leisurely paced lunch.

Readers' Choice: Star Kitchen

Blue Ocean Asian Cuisine (Little Chengdu)
Mark Antonation

This Denver Tech Center strip-mall restaurant, which still bears the "Blue Ocean" sign of its predecessor, offers an array of traditional Chinese dishes, from noodles hand-pulled to order in the back of the restaurant to dapanji, or big tray chicken, to hand-formed Sichuan wontons stewed in chili oil. But the showpiece at Little Chengdu is the stove atop your table, where you can cook up your own hot pot. Choose a broth, designate a spice level (be aggressive with your preference if you really like heat), and then order your produce and protein. We recommend starting with tofu skin, lamb slices, lotus root and enoki mushrooms and finishing with noodles and greens, but Little Chengdu serves all of its hot pot all-you-can-eat style, so don't be shy. While you wait for your pot to boil, wander back to the condiment bar and mix up the sauce in which you'll dip the cooked morsels that you fish from the pot. Sesame oil is a fairly traditional base, but you can go wild from there. Hot damn!

New Peach Garden

The traditional Chinese menu isn't exactly hidden at New Peach Garden; the dinner menu touts such family-style dishes as cumin lamb, tomato with egg, and something called "homeland tastes" — a combination of sautéed eggplant, potato and green pepper. The undisputed king of this collection, though, is the unceremoniously named pork sandwich — really rou jia mo, one of Chinese cooking's simplest and tastiest treats. New Peach Garden slits open firm, oven-baked flatbread and stuffs it with stewed pork chopped with green chiles, which impart a zip of racy heat. Savory pork drippings soften the flatbread as you proceed, though never enough to make the sandwich soggy, so you get a bit of crunch with every mouthful of unctuous pig. Since there's so much to sample on this menu, we recommend you order this handheld wonder as an appetizer. But don't offer to share it: Since it's so precariously packaged, you're liable to lose a lot of the filling (and thus the balanced magic of each bite) if you attempt to cut it in half.

Saigon Basil

The former owners of Saigon Bowl opened Saigon Basil in Northglenn nearly four years ago, bringing a taste of Federal Boulevard's Little Saigon district to the northern suburb. This is far from just a simple pho joint, however; you'll find a menu as thick as a phone book, each dish dialed in with vibrant Vietnamese herbs, seasonings and ingredients. What the restaurant calls "Everyday Favorites" would be specials at most other places, everything from shrimp wrapped in a thin jacket of marinated beef to rich and satisfying bun bo Hue (pho's burlier cousin) to bun bowls topped with pungent meats. For something truly special, try the lau do bien (a simmering hot pot brimming with seafood) or whole basil-fried fish. And as a measure of the kitchen's skill, don't miss the banh xeo, a crispy egg-and-rice-flour pancake studded with pork and shrimp. Miles may separate Saigon Basil from South Federal Boulevard, but Northglenn can lay claim to a little taste of Little Saigon.

Readers' Choice: New Saigon

Vinh Xuong Bakery
Linnea Covington

If there's one secret to understanding Denver dining, it's that the best food is often hiding out in a nondescript strip mall. Vinh Xuong Bakery II is tucked into one such mall, and the bright and airy coffee shop not only makes some of the best sandwiches around, but is kind on the wallet, too. At lunch, you can grab a grilled pork banh mi on a flaky hunk of French bread, pair it with a Vietnamese iced coffee and a mildly sweet and chewy sesame ball, and come away with change from a ten-buck bill...after tipping. From the baguettes to the cured and pressed deli meats, everything is made in-house, so this steal of a meal is consistently good on every single visit.

Pho 79

You never forget your first love, and Pho 79 was one of our first deep dives into the world of pho. Back then (before years began with a 2), the noodle house was just a hole in the wall with a few booths and wall murals, but over the decades, Pho 79 on South Federal has expanded and gained polish suitable to a veteran in the area's pho game. The quality of the broth remains a constant, though, with subtle beef flavor and warming star anise in the background. Pho fans might argue about the benefits of a light and delicate broth versus a richer, heavier soup; here the pot simmers all day so the pho gets more flavorful as the day goes on. It's packed full, too: Pho 79 doesn't skimp on the meat, so there's always plenty of quality steak, brisket, flank and other cuts. A tip from Pho 79 old-timers: Order a salty limeade with your pho for a curiously refreshing beverage that brings out the best in the broth.

Readers' Choice: Pho 95

US Thai Cafe
Mark Antonation

Head for Edgewater if you like your Thai spicy. US Thai Cafe brings the heat with force and flavor, but it's not just a gimmick. Thai chiles enhance and balance massive amounts of other spices — galangal, lemongrass, garlic, kaffir lime leaf and ginger, to name a few. Curries are thick with the pulverized pulp of said seasonings (get the brick-red massaman if you doubt us), while dressings on papaya salads and larb assert themselves with lime and fish sauce. Of course, you needn't destroy your tastebuds to get a taste of great Thai here; just order lower than usual on the sliding scale of heat. Or go all out — and then go jump in a lake. Sloan's Lake, that is.

Readers' Choice: Taste of Thailand

Ras Kassa's Ethiopian Restaurant
Courtesy Ras Kassa's Ethiopian Restaurant Facebook

For years, Ras Kassa's was the only Ethiopian option for folks in Boulder County — but then the quaint eatery, run by chef Tsehay Hailu, was forced to close in early 2015 because of redevelopment (you can thank the new Google office campus for that). Hailu limped along for more than a year in a temporary location at Boulder's Broker Inn with a takeout-only menu, and while the food was still great, we're glad to see Ras Kassa's settle in at its new permanent home in Lafayette. Customers who've followed Hailu for nearly thirty years can once again enjoy Ethiopian hospitality with honey wine, tangy injera bread and some of the best vegetarian offerings around — no small feat in Boulder County. Meat lovers will also enjoy the spicy kitfo with collard greens, housemade cheese and rich lamb stew. Welcome back, Ras Kassa's.

Readers' Choice: Queen of Sheba

Bawarchi Biryani Point
Mark Antonation

As the name of this restaurant suggests, the specialty at Bawarchi Biryani Point is a rice dish called biryani, the pride of Hyderabad, India. While Bawarchi is part of a large chain of restaurants that stretches throughout the U.S., the company's origins are in Hyderabad, and the aromatic rice served at this Centennial outpost will make you forget for just a moment that you're sitting in a strip-mall eatery somewhere southeast of the Denver Tech Center. Goat and chicken biryani both deserve high praise here, but consider adding an order of dosa — giant, crispy crepes filled with your choices of curries — or a bowl of vegetarian malai kofta loaded with pillowy meatless meatballs. The restaurant is usually packed with homesick Hyderabad natives and Centennial residents who have followed their noses to the cloud of spices wafting out the front door, so be patient if you have to wait for a table — you'll be glad you did.

Readers' Choice: Little India

Sudan Cafe & Khairat Injera Bakery
Mark Antonation

The designation "Middle Eastern" is a vague and shifting notion that doesn't exactly encapsulate the spectrum of cuisine cooked from Morocco to Pakistan, from Turkey to eastern Africa. So forgive us if Sudan Cafe doesn't fit neatly into standard notions of where the Middle East begins and ends; you'll understand once you try the kitchen's spice-laden ful — soft-cooked beans served as breakfast with eggs or at lunch on a crusty baguette — or Egyptian-style koshari, a hearty dish of lentils, rice and pasta topped with tomato sauce and onions fried to a crispy dark brown. While the dishes seem new and different, they have familiar flavors and spices, including cumin and garlic; you'll also find lamb and falafel on the menu. But you'll also be reminded of Ethiopian cooking if you order molokhia, a slippery green soup made with jute leaves and served with housemade injera flatbread. Herbed coffee and sweet mint tea are a great finish to a warm and filling meal at this friendly cafe; just leave your map at home.

Readers' Choice: Jerusalem

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