Little Chengdu Asian Cuisine (Blue Ocean)
Mark Antonation

Little Chengdu's English sign reads "Blue Ocean," a generic name befitting the generic American-Chinese menu that the restaurant offers its non-Chinese patrons by default. But don't settle: Ask for the Chinese menu, which has been translated into English. Here you'll access a raft of regional Chinese specialties, including two main highlights. The first is an all-you-can-eat hot-pot experience; order your soup spicy or not (we prefer spicy), and eat your fill of shaved beef, meatballs, mushrooms and greens, cooked fondue-style and then swiped through a dipping sauce you assemble from the condiment bar (our perfect mix includes sesame oil, sesame paste and garlic). The second is the list of hand-pulled and Shaanxi-style knife-shaved noodles, which get pooled with chili oil or dropped into heady Lanzhou-style beef soup. You'll need to go at night if you want to catch the noodle-stretcher in action.

Readers' Choice: Hop Alley

Super Star Asian Cuisine
Cassandra Kotnik

Of all the dim sum parlors that dot this part of town, the most consistently excellent is Super Star Asian, a bare-bones cavern whose back wall is lined with seafood tanks. Cart-pushers traverse the dining room, which is full even on weekdays, offering such standards as barbecued-pork buns and shu mai, shrimp har gow and chicken feet. Selections are most plentiful on the weekend, but if you don't see what you want from the extensive list of dumplings and snacks, you can ask for it. We always make sure to get the turnip cakes, crisp-edged and sided with plummy hoisin, and custard tarts, our favorite dessert. Nighttime at Super Star gives way to feasts: XO crab or lobster, cod in black-bean sauce, pork belly with preserved cabbage, and roasted duck, which should be ordered in advance.

Readers' Choice: Star Kitchen

Peter's Chinese Cafe

We can't say we exactly miss the American-Chinese takeout dishes that defined this country's perception of Chinese cooking for at least a generation — it's hard to go back to mu shu when you've had real Beijing duck, and wonton soup is much less interesting than fiery Sichuan dumplings (or chao shou). That said, we do occasionally feel nostalgic for the egg drop soup, sesame chicken and General Tsos of a different era. When we get that feeling, we head to Peter's, which has been serving the metro area well-executed versions of American-Chinese classics since the '80s. Highlights here include the shatter-crisp sesame chicken, sticky with caramelization, and the thick-set, burnished scallion pancake, served with a savory ginger-soy dipping sauce. Go at lunch, and your meal comes with fried rice and a delicate egg roll, sided with sweet-and-sour sauce and hot mustard.

Shin Myung Gwan
Laura Shunk

Barbecue is the focal point at Shin Myung Gwan: Tabletop grills cook up short ribs, bulgogi, pork neck and cow's tongue. Combo sets let you sample a variety of those offerings; as a bonus, they come with a stone bowl of spicy kimchi stew, a veggie pancake and a free bottle of beer. Spend some time perusing the hot pots that adorn most tables; we're fans of the octopus and bulgogi, built on a light, clear and deeply savory broth seasoned with green onions. You also won't want to miss the peppery and slightly sweet stir-fried rice cake, which you might also know as tteok-bokki. The version here, supplemented by thin slices of fish cake, is spicier than other renditions in the neighborhood, and it comes floating with a brick of ramen noodles, which melts into the broth as it bubbles.

Readers' Choice: Dae Gee Korean BBQ

Biju's Little Curry Shop

Defining Biju's Little Curry Shop as fast-casual Indian almost does it a disservice. Sure, it operates on a fast-casual counter model, with diners ordering their coconut curry, vindaloo or Masala beef, and then directing the addition of chutneys, yogurt and extra spice to taste. And yes, it's an easily replicated model, proven by its expansion into a second outlet. But to focus on the fast-casual aspect underplays the Indian cuisine itself — and that's what really makes Biju's unique. Founder Biju Thomas built his restaurant on the flavors of southern India, incorporating recipes from his native Kerala, relying on fresh ingredients and highlighting the lighter preparations. The dishes you find at Biju's, which do not shy away from heat or nuance, are hard to find elsewhere in the Mile High. That alone should entice you, whether you're looking for a quick lunch-counter meal or not. What you find at Biju's, though, will make you want to return again and again...or simply stay.

Readers' Choice: Little India

Best German/Eastern European Restaurant

Cracovia

Cracovia
Courtesy Cracovia Restaurant & Bar Facebook page

Cracovia celebrates a decade of serving great Polish and Eastern European cuisine this year, but its menu has always been worthy of celebration for those seeking out traditional soups, sausages, peirogi and other hearty and heart-warming dishes. Beets and cabbage play big parts, whether in tightly rolled golabki (cabbage rolls) stuffed with pork and rice, deep-red barszcz soup or a side of braised sauerkraut. Peruse the special connoisseur's menu for more unusual offerings, like duck-blood soup, kiszka (blood-and-buckwheat sausage) or golonka — a pork hock roasted to a crackly finish. Evening entertainment adds a touch of goofy, old-world charm, and Polish beers add to the good cheer. Raise a glass and say "Na zdrowie!" to another ten years of Cracovia.

Readers' Choice: Rhein Haus

Best Central/South American Restaurant

Señor Bear

Senor 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

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.

Ultreia

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.

Candela Latin Kitchen

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.

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