Broncomania must have gotten to me, because as I reflect on the ten best dishes I ate this year in Denver, I keep thinking of the National Football League (bear with me here). Not because some entrees were so well executed that they made me want to do an end-zone dance (although they did). And not because other entrees left me questioning kitchen calls that resulted in uninspired fare (although they did, too). The fact that I’m reminded of the NFL suggests one thing: parity. Just as any team can beat any other on any given week, in a dining scene as healthy as Denver’s, any restaurant can put out an award-winning plate. And that’s good news, sports fans, since this year served up some real culinary surprises. Herewith my ten favorite dishes of 2015.
Fried Chicken at the Post Brewing Company
Beer makes everything taste better, but the fried bird at the Post Brewing Company needed no assistance, liquid or otherwise, to make it worth (a) the drive to Lafayette, and (b) every minute of the inevitable wait. After testing countless combinations of flours, dredges, brines and pressure fryers, the culinary team at this Big Red F eatery figured out how to do what eludes so many others: fry chicken so that its battered crust stays on instead of slipping off. The result? An oh-so-satisfying meal of bite after juicy, crackly, perfectly seasoned bite. We can’t wait to see if the formula works as well at Good Bird, the spinoff coming to Longmont in January.
Marrow-Bone Brûlée at Mercantile Dining & Provision
There’s much to love at Mercantile Dining & Provision, from a croque madame with the morning paper to pot de crème with coffee to wrap up an exquisite meal. But in this embarrassment of riches, it’s a starter that nabbed a spot on this list: marrow-bone brûlée. Depending on the season, this staple might come with poached pears and port-shallot marmalade or radishes and bacon jam. But the iteration I can’t stop thinking about offered rich oxtail marmalade, refreshing blood-orange purée, and buttery marrow topped by a sweet, crisp veneer of caramelized sugar.
House Pasta at Meadowlark Kitchen
With its patty of chuck, heart and neck stacked exuberantly with candied bacon, onion rings, a poached egg and cheddar sauce, the burger gets all the attention at Meadowlark Kitchen, an edgy spot on upper Larimer Street. Look closely, however, and it’s the housemade pasta that shyly steals the stage. When I had it, the dish featured saffron noodles, slivered Brussels sprouts, whole parsley leaves and droplets of date purée. More than a well-balanced, visually appealing dish, the pasta was a sign of the kitchen’s deft, creative hand, especially when it comes to vegetables.
Chilakation at Dos Santos
It’s a good thing that Dos Santos only serves its Chilakation — the Uptown taqueria’s version of chilaquiles — at weekend brunch. If the dish were served all the time, I would have easily exceeded a healthy amount of corn chips, tomato-red chile sauce and poached eggs this year. Its addictiveness lies in the generous mound of chicken tinga nestled amid the cotija, cilantro and fried leeks. Braised in garlic, onion, chipotles and tomatoes, the chicken adds a complex smokiness to every sultry, saucy chip.
Sichuan Braised Beef Noodle at Zoe Ma Ma
This locally owned fast-casual spot facing the plaza at Union Station earns props for its housemade noodles, which start as a ball of dough and, before your eyes, turn into craveable dishes such as za jiang mian, with saucy pork, crisp carrots, cucumbers and cilantro. But the real reason to come here is the Sichuan braised beef noodle, with spicy, full-bodied beef broth, bok choy, fork-tender beef scented with anise, and chewy, ramen-like noodles. The dish is only served on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, so plan your visit accordingly.
Roti Pizza at Cho77
Chef-owner Lon Symensma’s love of Southeast Asia shines at Cho77, the long-awaited, more casual followup to his ever-popular ChoLon. As suggested by design elements such as a Vietnamese street-food cart and red chairs that recall Saigon’s red sidewalk stools, the menu pays homage to the street food that captivated Symensma on his travels. And none does so better than his roti pizza, inspired by stuffed roti that he ate during a bicycle tour of Singapore. The dish has since been re-envisioned as a flatbread with sausage, but when I had it, it was served as a pizza, with yellow lentils taking the place of red sauce, plus a fried egg, tomato curry and salty pops of lamb bacon.
Charred Spanish Octopus at Solitaire
In its previous life as the Highland’s Garden Cafe, the restaurant now known as Solitaire built up a loyal following for its gardens, which provided an enchanting backdrop for standard fare. But in the talented hands of chef-owner Mark Ferguson, Solitaire has an appeal that far exceeds the (still lovely) setting. Designed with an inner harmony that makes every meal flow like a good dinner party, the constantly evolving menu is precise and inventive in a way that’s hard to pull off in a small restaurant, much less one that sprawls over 4,800 square feet. And nothing captures the spirit of the kitchen better than a late-summer dish of charred Spanish octopus with saffron zabaglione, radishes, chorizo and shishitos.
Scandinavian Duck Meatballs at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox
Look closely at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox and you’ll see surprising touches around every corner. And I’m not just talking about design elements such as a bar top made of pinball-machine glass and yardsticks lining the bathroom stalls. Justin Cucci’s menu is full of edible juxtapositions that challenge and delight, including this notable starter: Scandinavian duck meatballs. A play on Sweden’s national dish of kottbullar, these meatballs were made of duck, not beef. And while they were dotted with traditional lingonberry jam, they were accented with grits laced with parsnips, an out-of-context touch that’s vintage Cucci — and delicious.
My Wife’s Donuts at Osaka Ramen
Don’t read between the lines when I say that one of my favorite dishes of the year was the doughnuts at Osaka Ramen. This doesn’t mean that Jeff Osaka’s ramen is anything short of spectacular. The tonkotsu alone, with its staggeringly rich pork broth, caramelized pork belly and drizzle of black garlic oil, is worth a drive from anywhere in the metro area. But there’s something about the mochi-filled doughnut holes — a combination of two of Osaka’s wife’s favorite foods — that catapults them into another sphere. It could be the mochi, a chewy, glutinous rice cake that melts in the fryer like a gumdrop. It could be the dusting of sugar and kinako (roasted soybean flour), a clever twist on cinnamon and sugar. Or it could be the smear of salted butter that finishes the barely sweet little suckers. Whatever the magic, this dessert has it.
Congee at Onefold
I’ll eat anything for breakfast: burritos, bagels, green juice, leftovers from the night before. But ever since Onefold opened earlier this year with congee on the menu, the dish has become my morning meal of choice. The preparation has varied over the months, but whether the porridge-like base of jasmine rice is finished with duck or chicken confit doesn’t substantially alter the spectacular outcome. Finished with soy sauce, chile oil, ginger and a poached egg, the congee — whose Asian profile reflects co-owner Terese Nery’s Chinese-American upbringing — offers a welcome change to standard American breakfast fare.