Tamales by La Casita
La Casita Facebook

You forgot to grab a hostess gift for the friends who'll be housing you on your vacation! Not to worry: Head to the C Concourse and Tamales by La Casita, where you can order great homemade tamales — the "Mile High traditional" version made by the Sandoval family for more than forty years — packaged for travel. Calm your nerves over the near-miss with a few beers and some solid Mexican food, then grab your to-go bag, a perfect taste of Colorado for your hosts. Carry on!

Mizu Izakaya
Lindsey Bartlett

What's an izakaya? In short, it's a Japanese pub with food intended to go with drinks. But to experience for yourself how the izakaya concept translates to the hip LoHi neighborhood, head over to Mizu Izakaya, which opened at the end of 2016 in a corner space that had once seemed doomed and now is booming. Yes, Mizu offers sushi, but that's not the focal point of the menu. Instead, think Japanese tapas and order from the binchotan menu — skewers and other small bites cooked over oak charcoal at high heat. Black cod, pork belly and marinated eel are a good start; then try something fried, like frog-leg karaage or whole quail doused in guajillo teriyaki. There's so much to choose from you'll need several trips to sample your way through, with sake, Colorado craft beers or food-friendly house cocktails to wash it all down. Don't say cheers, say kanpai!

Readers' Choice: Sushi Den

Sushi Ronin
Danielle Lirette

Sushi chef Corey Baker garnered such a reputation for his omakase feasts, customers sought him out at Sushi Den and Sushi Sasa — Denver's sushi pioneers — when they wanted a customized slate of fish. Omakase, then, is what you should order at Sushi Ronin, where you'll find Baker today; the chef's choice menu gives you a little taste of everything this restaurant does. And you should order it at the sushi bar, where Baker will tailor his picks specifically to you. He'll pass you such exotic specimens as Spanish mackerel and monkfish liver (basically the foie gras of the sea) if he thinks you'll like them, and add flourishes to his nigiri based on what you tell him about your own palate. If omakase is not quite your speed, Ronin is still worth a stop: The restaurant offers cuts of fish not available at many other places, and deals with them respectfully, making each bite a true pleasure.

Readers' Choice: Sushi Den

Tofu House
Mark Antonation

Don't let the fact that Tofu House is a franchise put you off: This string of restaurants stretches to central Seoul, where multiple locations of a restaurant are an indicator of excellence. True to its name, the restaurant specializes in tofu, a custardy version of which is tucked into a dozen or so stews, mixing with oyster and clam plus mushrooms, kimchi, pork or Spam. The classic version blends the bean curd with shellfish in a spicy broth (add an egg if you'd like); the power move here is to order it as part of a combination so that you can also sample some of Tofu House's barbecued bulgogi, spicy pork or squid. Combination meals are built for a group, and they include a small collection of barchan — the kimchi here is exceptional — plus a small fried fish, which you can order bone-in or bone-out. Spoon your soup over japgokbap (Korean multigrain rice), and pair your meal with a bottle of makgeolli, a semi-sweet, tart, fizzy rice wine that goes nicely with spicy food. When you inevitably return to Tofu House, consider also exploring the heady oxtail soup or the cauldrons filled with rice, meat, kimchi and seaweed; they may not get marquee billing, but they're superb offerings nonetheless.

Readers' Choice: Dae Gee

Sunflower Asian Cafe
Laura Shunk

Sunflower Asian Cafe's owners hail from Jiangsu Province, but ask a server what to order from the traditional Chinese menu (you'll need to request it), and she'll point you to dishes originating in Sichuan. Heed her advice, because the kitchen does masterful work with tingly Sichuan peppercorns and spice, and its less-spicy Sichuan fare is worth your attention, too. Start with the tea-smoked eel and maybe some spicy cucumbers, then work your way through spicy fried chicken, pepper-smacked dan dan noodle soup and fiery Sichuan-style boiled fish. From other provinces represented on the menu, the Nanjing salt duck, a Jiangsu specialty, is worth exploring if you've got a large group; the cold preparation is so savory it almost tastes cured. You'll also want to try the Yangzhou combo fried rice studded with seafood, Chinese sausage and peas. And because you should always eat your vegetables, don't miss the dry-fried green beans.

Readers' Choice: Hop Alley/Imperial Chinese (tie)

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

Little Chengdu Asian Cuisine (Blue Ocean)
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.

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