Best Of :: Food & Drink
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/restaurateur Lon Symensma picked the right person to oversee Cho77 when he opened this mailbox-sized Asian eatery on South Broadway three years ago. Right-hand man Ryan Gorby keeps turning out winners, whether they're dead-on renditions of such classic street food as chicken coconut curry styled after northern Thai khow soi (served in a metal lunchbox), tempting fusion snacks like bacon-cheeseburger shu mai, or one of his house inventions, such as wok-seared duck leg with fragrant jasmine rice. A seat at the bar gives you a view of the kitchen, where the flames roar beneath hot woks, dumplings steam in bamboo baskets, and knives gleam and flash in the dim light. You may be on trendy Broadway surrounded by bars, bistros and bands, but this is as close to a Southeast Asian night market as you'll get without leaving Denver.
Readers' Choice: Gozo
With so many wonderful restaurants lining West 32nd Avenue, it could be hard to pick a favorite. But we're particularly high on Spuntino, a charming Italian restaurant in Highland. When they purchased Spuntino from the original owners, employees Elliot Strathmann and Cindhura Reddy gave the place new life, something to be celebrated...and Spuntino's fans do. Tables and seats at the bar fill up quickly with diners enjoying chef Reddy's superb porchetta, expertly made pastas, a seasonal burrata spread or the arancini with Hatch chiles and smoked white cheddar. The wine and cocktail lists sing with elegant and enjoyable options, creating the perfect pairings for a lovely evening. Strathmann also makes his own amaro, which you should definitely sample at the end of a meal here. Whether you're looking for a special night out or just strolling along 32nd, Spuntino is a must-stop.
Readers' Choice: El Camino
Change suits Il Posto: In the year since it relocated from Uptown to RiNo, it's become a neighborhood anchor, and owner Andrea Frizzi has embraced his role as Larimer Street's unofficial mayor. This new address has a decidedly upscale vibe, with upstairs tables that overlook the skyline and a fine-dining-worthy menu that prioritizes precision and authenticity, with a wine list to match. Frizzi is an exuberant Italian, and his loud enthusiasm infuses Il Posto with a boisterous charm that encourages indulgence; you could bring a mid-day business meeting here (the lunch deal is great, by the way) and accidentally end up day-drunk and rosy-cheeked, with Frizzi settling into your booth for a chat. The hospitality is a key component in Il Posto's recipe for success, and it's also what makes this spot one of the best in the city for a date.
Readers' Choice: Rioja
While Emmerson is technically a block east of the official pedestrian mall, the smells coming out of its kitchen waft over to Pearl Street...and that's close enough for us. This sleek bistro morphs throughout the day: The fare is a little more standard during daytime hours, when sandwiches and pastries center the offerings, supplemented by such brunch innovations as the yeasted waffle and the avocado toast with Japanese furikake seasoning. Come night, though, the kitchen unleashes novel flavor combinations and impressive presentations: chicken-liver mousse with maple and cocoa nib, pork loin and hazelnut brittle, a whole roasted gourd filled with vegetable noodles and hay cream. Spring for the house-baked bread and house-cultured butter, don't skip the pasta section, and definitely do not leave without having dessert. And at any time of day, order one of Emmerson's equally innovative cocktails.
Proprietor Edwin Zoe can thank his mother for Zoe Ma Ma's success: Zoe persuaded her to run the kitchen at his original Boulder restaurant, where she built a menu with recipes from her native Taiwan and Zoe's father's native Shandong. The resulting items include a heady Taiwanese beef noodle soup, one of that country's most famous and revered dishes; zha jiang mian, or chewy noodles topped with stewed pork and a generous tuft of julienned carrots and cucumbers; and the CPR, a five-spice-laced stew of chicken and potatoes served over rice. The dishes were such a hit in Boulder that Zoe opened a second Zoe Ma Ma by Union Station, which quickly became a hit among office warriors looking for a unique, quick lunch. Keep an eye out for the special lion's-head meatballs, served only on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Readers' Choice: Citizen Rail
Move over, Colonel: There's a new KFC in town. Angry Chicken brought Korean fried chicken to Havana Street at the end of 2017, making the spicy, crackly bird more accessible than ever in metro Denver. And definitely more delicious. With a swank dining room, well-stocked bar (fried chicken is bar food, after all) and roster of sauces from buttery to incendiary, Angry Chicken is the reason so many poultry lovers are crossing the road. And if sticky sauces and juicy chicken aren't enough of a draw, the rice-flour batter that makes the coating so crispy is also gluten-free, so the whole family can indulge without worry. Don't get angry; get chicken.
Readers' Choice: Katsu Ramen
To the Wind may be one of Denver's tiniest eateries, but Royce Oliveira and Leanne Adamson continue to impress with creative dishes and achingly good desserts. After four years, the diminutive dining room — which feels more like someone's home kitchen than a restaurant — is still full of folks looking for seasonal treats and flavorful combinations augmented by labor-intensive technique, whether it's a past dish like bison-tongue pastrami or tender octopus with a hint of char or slow-cooked pork shoulder (or maybe even a crispy treatment of the same animal's ears). Fruit-filled tarts, rich cakes and creamy custards are a must, so throw caution to the wind and spring for dessert.
Readers' Choice: Sassafras American Eatery
Soup, pizzas, cookies and the occasional chalkboard special: These things are the marks of a good cafe. You'll find all of those and more at SAME, which stands for "So All May Eat." This spot isn't just a good cafe; it's a good deed in action. The food here doesn't come with a price tag, unless you want it to. Pay a fair price, pay what you can afford, or exchange your meal for some manual labor in the kitchen; the crew just wants to make sure you get a square meal. SAME opened in 2006 as Denver's first nonprofit restaurant, and it continues to be a model around the country for places that want to serve people in need of healthy, locally grown food with a side of dignity.
Viet's has long been a staple in the Far East Center, but since moving one door down from its original home to spacious and well-appointed new digs, the Vietnamese restaurant has been elevated from a neighborhood joint to destination dining. Simple dishes such as pho and chao (rice porridge with a choice of toppings) still stand out, but the real draws are the group entrees, including hot pots loaded with fresh greens and savory meats, appetizer platters with make-your-own spring rolls, and the impressive bo bay mon (seven-course beef), mounded platters of meaty greatest hits. For a quick smoothie or banh mi, hit V Express, which sprang up in the space next door after Viet's moved.
Readers' Choice: New Saigon
Watch for a gathering crowd and smoke rising at at the corner of South Federal Boulevard and West Exposition Avenue: That's the site of Tacos Marlene, a spot that cooks up some of the best street food in town. Take your place in line and peruse the display of bootleg DVDs for sale before placing your order; carne asada, lengua or pastor are good bets, but the adventurous shouldn't miss the tacos de tripa — not spongy tripe, but beef small intestine diced into manageable, delicate pieces cooked to order. You'll be asked if you want them crispy or soft; we recommend crispy for beginners and soft for a wonderful (but more difficult) texture that's almost like broad egg noodles. Eat up as you enjoy the lowriders cruising the boulevard on a weekend night.
Villagran opened last spring as the brick-and-mortar version of popular west-side food truck Villa Real, serving a more upscale version of its original street-food menu. Thankfully, some of the food-truck favorites made the leap to dining-room status; one of those was the suegra, which takes its name from the Spanish word for mother-in-law. There are many explanations for how the quesadilla-like construction got its name; most involve descriptions that sound mean when applied to your spouse's mom, but delicious when applied to food. At Villagran, two housemade corn tortillas are glued together with molten white cheese loaded with onion, cilantro and a choice of shredded beef, carne asada or carne al pastor. The lightly crisped handmade tortillas are what elevate the suegras above run-of-the-mill Mexican fare — and make you wonder why mothers-in-law have gotten such a bad rap for so long.