One woman called to complain about Hapa (2780 East Second Avenue) winning Best Sushi Bar. "That place is inedible," she said. "I've tried it three times, and each time, I can't eat their fish. It's not fresh, it's not real fish. And your pick of Best Sushi When Price Matters, Fontana Sushi? That place serves frozen fish. It's not even fresh when it comes in. I've seen it."
Aside from the obvious question of why a person would go back to a place where she found the food inedible not once, but twice, you have to wonder what she thinks the savvy Hapa is serving, if not "real" fish. As for any concerns about Fontana (534 East Alameda Avenue), get a clue, hon: Frozen sushi is often safer than fresh, and believe it or not, sometimes frozen sushi is fresher than fresh, because the fish is flash-frozen right there on the ship about ten minutes after it's taken out of the water. I'll take a properly frozen fillet over something that's called "fresh" any day; chances are that the fresh fish spent up to a week sitting on the dock waiting to be purchased by wholesalers, then had a nice, multi-day trip getting here. Bacteria in seafood, which can already number in the millions while the fish is in the sea, begin to multiply the minute the fish hits the dock. You do the math.
Clueless in Denver wasn't the only one who had a beef with my raw-fish pick. Sara Roth wrote to say that while Hapa would have been a good choice for "Best-Looking Sushi Bar," she thinks Banzai (6655 Leetsdale Drive), a past Best of Denver pick for its excellent hand rolls; Sushi Den (1487 South Pearl Street), a many-time Best of Denver winner for its sushi; and Domo (1365 Osage Street), my all-around favorite Japanese joint, are all better. Hey, opinions are in the palate of the beholder.
Other readers fussed over my choice of Wynkoop Brewing Co. (1634 18th Street) for Best Brewpub for Food. "My friends and I call that place 'Wyn-Crap Brewing,'" says Ron Spearman. "The food is awful, and the service really sucks." Obviously, I disagree, even if it's taken me about seven years to come to this conclusion. Until recently, I thought Wynkoop was uneven at best, and heavy-handed with fare that you then had to wash down with heavy beers. But over the years, Denver's first brewpub has slowly reworked its menu, and this version is the best one yet. I can't think of any other brewpub in town where I'd be so optimistic as to order ahi tuna with a honey-wasabe sauce.
A few readers didn't like my choice of Restaurant Kevin Taylor (1106 14th Street) for Best Expense-Account Dinner ("No matter who's paying, it's still overpriced food that has no soul," says Kelly Bradley) or my pick of Anthony's (five metro locations) for Best Pizza -- New York Style. Paul Schreiber says his favorite New York-style pie is at New York Pizzeria (4990 Leetsdale), which has won in years past, and Sindy Larken says hers is at Papa Keno's (827 Colorado Boulevard), which won this year for Best Slice.
Callers have also wondered why the Food & Drink categories in the Best of Denver change from year to year. Well, for the same reason that you don't wear the same underwear every day: You'd get tired of it, and it would start to stink. For instance, this year we didn't have a bagel award because, frankly, there were no new interesting bagel shops in town. I still think previous winner Moe's Broadway Bagels (eight metro locations) makes the best. We didn't have a pick for hotdogs, either, which made several people cranky. "That's one of the great cheap foods for adults and for kids," says reader James Romano. "It should be a must every year." For the record, if I had to pick my favorite hotdog, it would be the authentic Chicago-style one at the aptly named Chicago (8590 West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood), another past winner. Owned by former Windy City residents Joe and Luanne Margotte and their daughter, Dianne Zimmerman, Chicago assembles Vienna beef hotdogs the right way: with yellow mustard, chopped onions and tomatoes, relish, pickles, sport peppers and celery salt, all on a thick, spongy, poppyseed-studded bun (and at the right price, too: $2.15). The great, divey joint also carries the delectable, Chicago-based Fannie May chocolates.
While some restaurants I tried didn't rate a Best of Denver award this year, they were good spots nonetheless. Roberts Italian-American Deli & Restaurant (6745 West Ken Caryl Avenue in Littleton) is a friendly little place that makes delicious, inexpensive spaghetti ($3.95 for a healthy portion, with $1.35 extra buying two meatballs) and uses top-shelf Italian meats for its sandwiches. The bread here was so good, I had to check out the bakery it came from; as a result, Breadsmith (8290 South Holly Street in Centennial) wound up winning the award for Best Challah I've found in the area.
Chicken Teriyaki (6603 Leetsdale Drive) is tiny and slow, but an order of seven beef-filled gyoza for $3.25 is ample reward for your wait. So is the hot meatball sandwich at Mr. Lucky's (711 East Sixth Avenue), which usually has only one person working. That person, though, knows how to put big, round balls of seasoned beef in a fat baguette with provolone and parmesan and run it through the salamander so that the specialty oven turns the bread hot and crusty and the insides become one big molten mass. And I even found a bang-up ethnic joint in Parker, where Joong's Thai Pan Restaurant (10920 South Parker Road) does it right with well-spiced curries and a very tasty pad Thai.
Another also-ran, Swing Thai (301 South Pennsylvania and 845 Colorado Boulevard), has continued to improve on a good idea: fast-food Thai. Uneven when it first opened, Swing Thai now hits the mark pretty consistently. (Skip the fresh spring rolls, which always come out tasting like carrots wrapped in uncooked dough, and go for the tom kha gai, a rich, rich take on the coconut-based lemongrass soup.)
A final contender was the biscotti from Wally Biscotti, whose twice-baked Italian cookies are now sold throughout the Southwest and on both coasts. The company was founded by Wallace Friedlander, and he's been able to get a bunch of local markets to carry his goods, including the Whole Foods Market in Boulder (2301 30th Street) and Cherry Creek North (2375 East First Avenue), and the new one that just opened up in Highlands Ranch (9366 South Colorado Boulevard). The biscotti factory itself started out in Boulder but has since moved to 4850 East 39th Avenue. The difference between Wally's biscotti and others is that Wally's cookies are soooo moist, you don't have to have your orthodontia redone after biting into one -- and the flavors (pistachio-almond, peanut butter, ginger) are intriguing.
But for all the wonderful discoveries during my Best of Denver research, there were also many, many disappointments. I visited one reader's recommendation, Sweetwater Station (9975 Wadsworth Parkway), and came away wondering: "What were they thinking?" To get to Sweetwater, you have to drive almost to Wyoming, and there's nothing about this smoky spot that would entice me to drive there again. The burger was fine, a solid half-pounder nicely charbroiled and served on a fat, crusty-topped bun, but I could have butchered a steer, ground up the meat and cooked it on my own grill in the time it took to get to the place.
On another excursion, I found myself flashing back to the '70s at Mestizo (303 16th Street), in the second-floor space that had once been Beacon Grill. This Latin-themed restaurant and lounge had been touting its free happy-hour buffet, so a friend and I stopped by -- only to be greeted by chips and salsa and a few sad make-your-own- tacos fixin's. Working the singles scene at the bar were several sad-sack out-of-towners, complete with rolling briefcases full of sales materials.Open-and-shut cases: Don't bother calling the number for Panadería & Pastelería Santa Fe (750 Santa Fe Drive) that we offered in the Best of Denver -- and got from directory assistance and the phone book. The only way to reach this warm, wonderful Mexican bakery is by calling 720-904-2088. And the number for Vasil's Euro-Grille, another winner, is 303-799-3600.
Meanwhile, the phone at China Terrace (1512 Larimer Street), a Chinese mainstay in Writer Square for over two decades, is most definitely disconnected and the place closed for good. And I noticed that the odd building that had been Ed Dee's Killer Shrimp and then Pho Parker (1180 South Parker Road) is now called the International European Restaurant, with Russian letters on the sign.
An exciting new urban-style market is now open seven blocks east of downtown. Marczyk Fine Foods (720 East 17th Avenue), owned by husband-and-wife team Peter Marczyk and Barbara Macfarlane (she was one of the Wynkoop Brewing Co.'s founding partners), promises fresh produce, international cheeses, dry-aged beef, baked items, an in-house wine shop and more, including that truly hard-to-find commodity, ample parking.