Best Central/South American Restaurant 2018 | Señor Bear | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

Best Central/South American Restaurant

Señor Bear

Danielle Lirette

Señor Bear draws influence from several cuisines across South and Central America and the Caribbean, but it's not overly concerned with authenticity: Ambition and whimsy mark chef Blake Edmunds's approach to the food here, and his kitchen is clearly more concerned with putting out a delicious plate than with strictly observing tradition. While the restaurant debuted to immediate acclaim last year, the team has steadily ramped up its game since then, tightening the menu while expanding the inspiration to more regions. The current menu channels everything from Puerto Rican mofongo to Peruvian Chinese food to Oaxacan mole; crispy pig tail and French fry-topped broccoli get equal billing with more recognizable chimichurri-topped steak and rice and beans. Start your meal with a rotating frozen cocktail, and don't miss the soft-serve ice cream or the churros. And if you find yourself at Señor Bear during happy hour, two words: Gordo Crunch.

Readers' Choice: Cafe Brazil

Best South American Sampler Platter

La Chiva

Molly Martin

La Chiva is one of only a handful of Colombian restaurants in the entire metro area, and its central location on South Broadway makes it an easy destination for trying out some of the South American country's signature dishes. Corn-flour empanadas are a good bet, fried to a golden crisp, but if you're new to Colombian cooking, the Chiva Picada sampler plate is a great way to tour the menu without over-ordering. The platter comes with enough food for at least two hungry customers: There's Colombian-style chorizo, fried yuca, patacones (smashed and fried green plantain disks), rellenas (similar to croquettes), papas criollas (little Andean potatoes), sweet plantains, pork ribs, chicharrones and arepas. You'll leave knowing just a little more about Colombia — that the food is delicious, for example — than when you arrived.

Denver has been light on Spanish cuisine and all but devoid of Portuguese specialties — but at the end of 2017 it got a heavy hitter when Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch opened Ultreia inside Union Station. Even if we were awash in the food of the Iberian Peninsula, though, this jewel box of an eatery would stand out for its imported hams and cheeses, spot-on pintxos, tapas and petiscos (all manner of appetizers) and loving treatment of meats, whether steak, lamb, seafood or pork. Herbal gin-tonics (the Spanish leave off the ampersand) in various blends augment a drinks menu that also exalts sherry and rare red and white wines from Portugal and Spain's wine-producing regions. A seat at the bar to watch a four-year aged jamón Ibérico get carefully carved into succulent slivers is just the right place to absorb the ambience and feel like an international traveler.

Chef Jesse Vega thrilled the LoHi neighborhood with upscale bites at Central Bistro & Bar, but he and the restaurant's owner, Isiah Salazar, were ready to switch things up last summer. The result is just as hot as its predecessor (there's still the enormous "HOT" sign over the kitchen), but focuses on Mexican cuisine and the food of Vega's Puerto Rico. Plantains make multiple appearances — in several styles of mofongo, as plantain chips to go with a glorious guacamole, and as a stand-in for lasagna noodles in a dish called pastelon, which alternates plantain strips with layers of picadillo, mozzarella and salsa criolla. Puerto Rico is an island, so seafood also stars in zippy ceviches and a softshell crab sandwich. Vega pours his heart and soul into his mushroom and chicken empanadas, using his grandmother's recipe to capture the spirit of Puerto Rico on a plate.

Old South Pearl Street has the market cornered on Japanese cuisine. Here you'll find three restaurants all owned by the Kizaki brothers, all devoted to absolutely quality ingredients and authentic dishes. Choose Sushi Den for seafood, Izakaya Den for stunning architecture and small plates or Ototo for a more intimate experience, not to mention robatayaki — skewered meats and vegetables grilled over charcoal. Our favorite of the three is Ototo, which is smaller in size but offers a little of everything on the menu, whether you're in the mood for expertly sliced sashimi, a rich bowl of ramen, or Japanese specialties like whole grilled squid, skewered chicken gizzards and hearts, or hamachi collar perfumed with mesquite. With more than thirty years' experience serving the food of their home country in Denver, Toshi and Yasu Kizaki still know how to keep things fresh.

Readers' Choice: Domo

Mark Antonation

When Bamboo Sushi first landed in Denver from Portland, it operated out of a stall at Avanti Food & Beverage, giving the city a tantalizing taste of its sushi. It initially garnered praise mostly for its sustainable sourcing; Bamboo's deep commitment to good ocean stewardship is particularly admirable in a category that relies heavily on over-fished specimens. But that stall turned out to be a rather limited glimpse of the restaurant's capabilities. Bamboo's permanent LoHi location is sleek and modern, with a wide-ranging list of sushi served both traditionally and innovatively, a well-rounded sake list, and an array of izakaya fare that carries Bamboo's sourcing commitment from water to land. Also worth noting is Bamboo's omakase, for which you can set your own price. It feels like a steal, especially paired with the Wednesday night deal on sake, when every single bottle is half price.

Readers' Choice: Sushi Den

Mark Antonation

Cattivella means "naughty girl" in Italian, but the only naughty thing about chef-owner Elise Wiggins is that she didn't open her own place sooner. With an approachable menu of shareable plates (think buffalo burrata and flatbread), wood-fired pizzas, entrees and scratch pastas, Cattivella captures the heart and soul of Italy, a country that Wiggins knows well. And since she's a constant presence in the restaurant, no dish goes out without her stamp of approval. With a bustling open kitchen and wrap-around chef's counter, Cattivella, which opened last year in Stapleton, has a convivial vibe, one that spills to the spacious patio when the weather is warm. This is a place where friends greet old friends and newcomers make new ones, all while savoring agnolotti and drinking great wine.

Readers' Choice: Gaetano's

Molly Martin

Romano's is truly old, old-school Italian. Neil Romano moved to Denver from Manhattan (bringing some of mother Carmela's recipes with him), and in 1967 founded a three-table pizzeria in Littleton with his wife, Ellie. Over the years the restaurant has expanded in both space and scope, adding liquor and many of those classic dishes, redolent with the garlic that was key to Carmela's spaghetti sauce. Today a third generation of Romanos work the kitchen and the charming dining room, filled with regulars who consider themselves part of the family. That family's motto: "Every day we are grateful for la dolce vita — the sweet life we have found here." And we're grateful they did.

Readers' Choice: Gaetano's

Danielle Lirette

For a chef who's been in the restaurant business as long as he has, Radek Cerny still manages to bring a sense of fun and whimsy to some seriously French cuisine. Papillon, for example, was a smash hit in Cherry Creek before many of today's hot young culinary stars had tasted their first frites. The chef returned to Denver in 2017 after years of serving dinner in Boulder, putting Atelier in the original Il Posto location in the Uptown neighborhood. Here you can luxuriate in rotating classics like duck rillettes, escargot, foie gras and lobster, but Cerny also has a way with such Western favorites as elk (look for wapiti on the menu), Alaskan salmon and bison short ribs. Be sure to bring a few extra bucks for a bottle of wine; the list here is dazzling, and the food is built to match with the best of Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Readers' Choice: Bistro Vendome

Danielle Lirette

Vibrant vegetarian cooking is about far more than tofu and seitan. Boulderites have long been focused on meat-free dining, so they're a tough lot to impress. Leave it to Leaf to rise above the competition and provide modern, international and inventive dishes that folks actually crave. The restaurant has its own farm, so produce is at its best during Boulder County's growing season, but the kitchen supplements locally grown goods with a worldly roster. Enchiladas are stuffed with jackfruit carnitas, fried chicken is reimagined with meaty king trumpet mushrooms, and sweet-potato gnocchi are dressed with jewels of fava beans, winter squash and nutty pesto. No matter what you order, every bite is alive with the seasons of Colorado.

Readers' Choice: Vital Root

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