part 3 of 4

Best Cheap Burgers
Nick's Cafe
777 1/2 Simms St., Lakewood

For $2.50, the modest Nick's will cook you up a fabulously greasy half-pounder, stash it on a fresh bun with all the trimmings and throw in a huge batch of fat fries. Eat it there or take it with you; either way, there's no McWait and no annoying McTeenagers.

Best Burger
The Cherry Cricket
2641 E. 2nd Ave.

The key here is the Cherry Cricket's nifty Charglo grill, a contraption filled with lava rocks that cook the outside of the pattie quick without turning it into shoe leather. The Cricket uses 70-percent-lean ground beef with Black Angus trim for a hearty flavor; choose from a half-pound or quarter-pound burger. Throw on eight types of cheese or one of seven other toppings, and you've got a handful of the best burger in town. Added bonus: It's served up in the swell atmosphere of a true neighborhood bar--and in Cherry Creek, no less.

Readers' choice: My Brother's Bar

Best Out-of-the-Way Burger
Buck Snort Saloon
15921 Elk Creek Rd., Pine

The menu claims it's "THE biggest, juiciest, most sizzling, messiest, sloppiest, hard-to-eat" burger around, and we'll be darned if that ain't the truth. Particularly since there's not much around the Buck Snort, a log cabin at the end of one of the most treacherously steep drives in Colorado. Once you're inside, though, you can relax. The waitstaff certainly does--some of them walk around in bare feet, and Sphinx the Cat will try to beg away some of your meal. There's always plenty of sports-TV talk and drink-buying in the background. But the real reason to seek this bar out is the three-quarter-pound slab of lean ground beef stuffed into a hefty kaiser bun. A side dish of mustard-laced potato salad is only for the extra-large of stomach.

Best Side Dish With a Burger
Annie's Cafe
4012 E. 8th Ave.

You're given the option of coleslaw when you order one of Annie's juicy burgers (try the Norma Lee--bacon, avocado and ground beef under a healthy camouflage of alfalfa sprouts), but don't fall for it. Order the fries instead. They'll appear alongside your burger in a limp yet crisp humongous mound--thick-cut, with the skin left on, and overflowing with the comforting essence of fried potato. Enjoy.

Best French Fries
The Links at City Park
2500 York St.

At a public golf course where Rolls Royces sit next to beat-up Chevys, the Links is full of surprises. First it was owner Sam Taylor's finger-lickin' good barbecue ribs, then the spicy french fries--really more like potato slabs. Cut lengthwise, the skin-on slices have a perfect crispy-tenderness enhanced by seasonings that are hard to put a finger on. But it's not tough to lay your hands on these terrific fries. Fore!

Readers' choice: McDonald's

Best Subs
1310 S. Broadway

There's nothing sub-par about Pasquini's, a wonderfully eclectic neighborhood Italian joint. The pizzas are great, the pastas are great--but those sandwiches! The made-for-Popeye torpedoes are huge meals of spicy, juicy meats, crunchy vegetables, fresh herbs and complementary condiments sandwiched between thick, crusty slices of bread made from pizza dough. The kitchen is happy to make such good eats, the waitstaff is happy to serve such good eats--and you, of course, are deliriously happy to eat them.

Readers' choice: Subway

Best Subs for Transplanted Easterners
Tommy's Terrific Subs
14011 W. Quincy Ave., Morrison

Ah, there's the sub. Granted, Tommy's is a bit of a drive for a sandwich. But for those who eschew upscale variations on the theme, Tommy submits the original Cosmo, a Pennsylvania-born sub filled with toasted cheese, meat and special sauce--a blend of three peppers and herb-infused oil. Submerge yourself in its subtle charms, and be sure to chat with the charming owners, a couple of ex-hippie types who provide entertainment, Eastern-style, in the form of good-natured verbal spouse abuse.

Best Chicken-Fried Steak
130 Main St., Central City

You may plan to squander all your hard-earned dollars downstairs at Bullwhackers casino, but the smart money heads upstairs to the dining room. For $5.99, Bullwhackers serves up a huge hunk of steak that's crispy on the outside, tender and peppery on the inside, and smothered in a traditional creamy white gravy. It tasted so good, we wondered if somebody's gambling Southern granny was tied to the kitchen stove, trying to work up money for bus fare home.

Best Rattlesnake
The Black Swan
Scanticon, 200 Inverness Dr. W., Englewood

Better you should take a bite out of him than vice-versa. And you get the tastier deal, anyway--when was the last time you were smoked, coated in a honey glaze and served alongside grilled apples and pineapples? The Black Swan's reptile is a local boy, sliced into nice fillets that taste just like...you guessed it, chicken.

Best Wings
Buffalo Bar and Restaurant
7095 E. Evans Ave.

Anyone can coat a bunch of wings in butter and Tabasco--and nearly everyone does. But the Buffalo knows better. Their birds are coated with a sauce that's sort of a cross between the original Buffalo-style and Southern barbecue, with a heat that sneaks up on you after the fifth or sixth wing. You can get these addictive little suckers by the pound, to take out or to eat in the Buffalo's spacious, casual dining room.

Readers' choice: Hooters

Best Funky Chicken Wings
Sadie's Caribbean Cafe
2334 Welton St.

Sadie's brings the welcome breezes--and flavors--of the Caribbean to this funky little joint just north of downtown Denver. And you'll need some fresh air after biting into one of Sadie's superb wings. Slathered in a fiery jerk marinade, the meat and skin practically caramelize in the cooking process, melting down into one blissfully sticky, sweet and spicy mess. If you happen to hit one of the chile flecks, hold on to your heat!

Best Fried Chicken
Duffy's Shamrock
1635 Court Pl.

Decent fried chicken is hard enough to find, let alone decent Southern-style. So, naturally, we discovered it at Duffy's, a venerable downtown place with an Irish name and Italian origins. Duffy's washes its half-bird in buttermilk, spices it up with herb-filled breadcrumbs and lots of black pepper, then deep-fries the whole mess for a tender, juicy, greasy finish. It comes with one of Duffy's homemade soups (try the New England clam chowder), a salad, a veggie, rolls and coffee or tea. At $8, that's something to crow about. The real clincher, though, is that Duffy's serves all this wonderful food until 1:30 a.m.

Readers' choice: KFC

Best Fried Catfish
Pierre's Supper Club
2157 Downing St.

While others swear by Pierre's wonderfully sloppy ribs and smoky links, we make no bones about being suckers for its fried catfish. The flavorful fillets are coated in a tasty batter (so good that Pierre's even sells it on the side), then fried a tantalizing golden brown. Meow.

Best Cornbread
Ethel's House of Soul
2622 Welton St.

Born in Mississippi, proprietress Ethel Allen honed her culinary skills in the South and in Chicago, where she got soul food down just right. And that includes the making of light, fluffy cornbread, a recipe she had to adjust for the altitude upon moving to Denver from the Windy City. The steaming squares--just the thing for mopping up the gravy left over from one of Miss Ethel's peppery smothered dishes or the juice from her heavenly yams--are served Southern-style with butter, raw white onion rings and jalapenos, all of which arrive at your table within minutes of sitting down. As if that weren't enough, a holler to the kitchen will bring forth seconds and thirds of the sweet bread.

Best Meatless Ribs
Wolfe's Barbeque
333 E. Colfax Ave.

Impossible, you say? Okay, what's lurking under that sauce is really tofu. But for those who can't or won't eat the real thing, Wolfe's smoked, grilled tofu strips dressed up in a perky, sweet sauce can satisfy otherwise insatiable barbecue cravings. Vegetarian baked beans and coleslaw round out a guilt-free dining experience.

Best Barbecue
The Links at City Park
2500 York St.

Sam Taylor's ribs are tender, meaty, sweet, just a little spicy--and absolutely addictive. We defy you not to lick your fingers between every bite. (Don't worry if you can't resist--just join the club.) But it's not just the ribs that the Links does right--it's anything Taylor touches, like the beef and pork sandwiches, with his signature smoke and sauce. Don't waste a drop--just grab a shred of Texas toast and have at it.

Best Cheap Steak
Teddy T's
6635 E. Evans Ave.

Teddy T's specializes in T-bones that'll put hair on your chest: beasty full-pounders for just $5, served in Teddy's intimate, bring-whomever-you're-having-an-affair-with lounge setting. It's the lowest cut of beef for the lowest price, but when you've got to have that cow and cash is tight, Teddy's is there for you. High rollers can move right on to the two-pounder for twice the price; either way, you'll get a baked potato, Texas toast, a dinner salad and soup for your trouble.

Readers' choice: Club 404

Best Cook-Your-Own Steaks
Minturn Country Club
131 Main St., Minturn

The chuck stops here. Also New York, porterhouse, salmon and swordfish steaks that you--yes, you--cook on one of two large grills in the middle of this casual clubhouse. Pick out your main course from a butcher's case, fill your plate at the all-you-can-eat salad bar and dig in. If you've got any complaints with this meal, you have only yourself to blame.

Best Kabobs
House of Kabob
2246 S. Colorado Blvd.

Once skewered for serving up kabobs as dry as the Sahara, House of Kabob owner Houshang Barzideh has been consumed by the desire to improve his fare. As a happy result, no one can beat his broil. Choose from the regular kabobs--chicken, vegetable, beef or lamb--or go with shish, which means six in Arabic and includes meat, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, mushrooms and zucchini. Barzideh has discovered that the real key to killer kabobs is marinating them in the appropriate ingredients. On his lamb and beef, he uses the liquid from pureed, strained onions, along with olive oil, lemon juice, yogurt and turmeric. On chicken, he leaves out the onion but adds saffron. Belly dancers on the weekends spice things up even more.

Best Hummus
La Casbah
9955 E. Hampden Ave.

Too much lemon has soured us on most hummus recipes. Sure, the citrus adds flavor, but it also preserves the dish--which accounts for why some restaurants go overboard. Not La Casbah, though. It elevates the classic Middle Eastern puree of the otherwise boring chickpea to gourmet status, making it fresh daily with a shot of garlic and the added pleasure of paprika. No ho-hum hummus here.

Best Pita Stuffings
Gindi's Pita-ria
1325 Broadway, #105, Boulder
1203 Pearl St., Boulder

Ah, la dolce pita. You'll find it at Gindi's, a tiny, tiny restaurant run by two transplanted New Yorkers. They stuff their pitas with such enticing fillers as oven-roasted eggplant with feta cheese (the house salad is in there, too), an herb-infused ratatouille, steamed eggs or gazpacho chicken salad.

Best Surprise Black-Bean Soup
The Breakfast Inn
6135 E. Evans Ave.

No, you don't have to slurp it down in the early a.m. Despite its name, the diner-style Breakfast Inn serves dinner, which is a good time to sample its unusually fine black-bean soup. The beans are cooked until easily digestible, and smoked pork, lots of cumin and minced red chile peppers give the base added oomph. The inclusion of rice almost puts this generous bowl in the full-meal category.

Best Black-Bean Soup
Cafe Brazil
3611 Navajo St.

The complexity here is astounding, but it's the taste that bowls us over. Cafe Brazil starts with a pork base--ham hocks, pork butt and two kinds of sausage--and layers on the flavor from there. Black turtle beans are cooked until near-disintegration and share space in the stock with garlic, ginger, cayenne and Malahat peppers. This intense preparation actually comes with your entree (why anyone would choose the salad over the soup is beyond us)--which, at Cafe Brazil, is sure to be just as stunning. Our choice: the grilled chicken breast in a sauce of ginger, raisins, shallots, toasted coconut and cashews.

Best Minestrone
Ristorante Catalano
5970 S. Holly St., Englewood

No, it's not Mama Leone's recipe. Instead, Papa Catalano concocted this winning creation at his Chicago restaurant, and his daughter brought it to us. Chockful of cannelinis, red peppers, tomatoes, basil, oregano and hot Italian sausage all floating in a sausage base, this stew is something special. The crucial ingredient, though, is the grating of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese that begins to melt just as the lid to the serving crock is raised before you. A side of the just-made breadsticks with marinara sauce, and you've got the makings of a meal.

Best Hot-and-Sour Soup
Blue Ocean
500 W. Colfax Ave.

What should be a celebration of the coming together of sweet, spicy, sour and bland ingredients more often than not contains just a bit too much of one thing--usually the hot and spicy--that overpowers the whole batch. At Blue Ocean, chef/owner Ben Kho backs off the hot peppers and the vinegar and instead concentrates on balance, even leaving room for the faintly flavored black cloud ears to offer more than texture. The result is an atypical walk on the mild side.

Best Pho
Viet Huong
1036 S. Federal Blvd.

There's always room pho one more, particularly when the soup's on at Viet Huong. This modest restaurant offers an immodest selection of nearly fifty soups, half of them a variation of pho. All the soups have one thing in common, though: a complex broth in which everything--star anise, shallots, lemon, lime, basil, cilantro, nuoc mam--comes together just right. Add lean meats and other fresh ingredients, and this everyday Vietnamese meal takes on the same import as minestrone or bouillabaise.

Best Dim Sum
Empress Seafood
2825 W. Alameda Ave.

The term dim sum means "little heart's delights," and Empress Seafood's array sure warms ours. We bet you can't eat just one--these little tidbits have a way of adding up quickly. Start off with either the scallop or meat dumplings. Move on to the har gow, with its tantalizing shrimp filling, or the crispy pan-fried turnip cake, then grab a Malaysian muffin or custard tart to satisfy the sweet tooth. And remember, begging for more is not very dignified.

Best Egg Rolls
Champa Foods
2960 Champa St.

Yes, we know this place looks like a little neighborhood market, but step right up for the best egg rolls in town. Tucked behind all the groceries is a take-out counter making food to go, including decent burgers and wonderful chicken-fried rice that's heavy on the black pepper. The 75-cent egg rolls, though, are the real deal. They're huge, homemade packages stuffed with rice, vegetables and other tidbits, cooked to order (and until then, kept in the market's cooler right alongside the frozen pizzas).

Best Spring Rolls
Viet Nam Inn
6510 S. Broadway, Littleton

The concept is so simple that we're amazed at how few places get it right. In this Vietnamese variation on the theme, rice noodles, shrimp and pork are rolled inside a soft-cooked, rice-paper wrapper, covered with chopped peanuts and then served with fresh bean sprouts, lettuce and basil, with nuoc cham for dipping. Viet Nam knows how to roll with the munches: Use tip-top ingredients, make the fish sauce sweet and spicy, and no skimping on the extras. The result is two big bundles with a tiny price tag.

Best Sesame Chicken
Red Dragon
2021 S. University Blvd.

This dish is on every Chinese restaurant's menu, but too often the sesame chicken tastes like candy or wet Styrofoam--or both. Not so at the Red Dragon, which coats the tender (but not tenderized) meat with a thin, crispy batter and liberally pours on the ground red pepper. The resulting sweet-and-hot combination is addictive.

Best Sushi
L'Auberge Zen
9955 E. Hampden Ave.

Although sushi bars were all the rage a decade ago, L'Auberge Zen keeps the concept fresh by serving spanking-fresh seafood. The tuna, yellowtail and salmon sashimi are deceptively simple--and absolutely delicious. Don't be fooled by artsy-fartsy presentation or jujitsu-like sushi-making tactics--when you're eating it raw, accept no substitutes.

Best Soft-Shell Crab
New Orient
10203 E. Iliff Ave., Aurora

Many places want to hide this popular crustacean in a cloak of batter and spices, but New Orient recognizes that less is more. The delicate crust serves only to keep the heady perfumes from being released until the beautiful swimmer is split open to reveal a steaming, succulent crab. A spicy sesame sauce comes on the side, but we're usually in too much of a hurry to be bothered with dipping.

Best Crabcakes
240 Union Restaurant
240 Union Blvd., Lakewood

Even the crab didn't know he could taste this good. Ultrafresh Dungeness is packed into a ball of herbs and spices, then cooked until the outside is crispy and the inside still achingly soft and juicy. Although the cakes are great on their own, they come with an inventive aioli that 240 Union chef Matthew Franklin changes, along with the rest of the menu, about every three months. Our favorite so far: the sherry cayenne.

Best Pickled Octopus
Central 1 Restaurant
300 S. Pearl St.

It's nine o'clock in the evening and you're still too full from dinner to go out for another meal--but you need something. Then it hits you: pickled octopus, of course! And there's no better place for it than Central 1, a Greek restaurant. Lemony and soft (but still chewy enough to remind you that you are, after all, eating octopus), the dish, served with soft pitas, is a late-night delicacy you won't mistake for just another pizza. Opa!

Best Jellyfish
Golden Plate
9880 W. Girton Dr., Lakewood

The Golden Plate is almost impossible to find--it's tucked in a tiny plaza at the corner of Kipling Parkway and Hampden--but find it you must, if jellyfish tickles your fancy. Slightly chewy, a little rubbery but with a seafood flavor all its own, jellyfish is not for everyone. And if it's not for you, Golden Plate has many other intriguing items--but don't look for them on the regular menu: It's the "special menu" in back that lists such tantalizing dishes as dumplings stuffed with tofu and pork hash.

Best Fish Dish
Sushi Den
1487 S. Pearl St.

The best things in life are free of unnecessary encumberments, and that's exactly what's right with Sushi Den's steamed fresh fish in a bamboo basket (and that's the name the dish goes by--talk about simplicity!). The fish is always the very best available in Denver--we've sampled orange roughy, sea bass and salmon, and Sushi Den's owner/chef has been known to turn down quite a few at the airport--and the preparation the ultimate in good taste: steamed with tofu, noodles and mushrooms and served with a ponzu sauce for dipping.

Best Ravioli
Cliff Young's
700 E. 17th Ave.

When you order ravioli at Cliff Young's, you're not going to be served bland, pasty pillows packed with meat and smothered in marinara sauce. What you will get (after an oh-so-attentive waiter deftly places a napkin on your lap) are delicate envelopes of pasta stuffed with shrimp and cloaked in a pesto cream sauce and sun-dried tomatoes. Even at lunch, this Italian delight will set you back $10.95. But it's worth every penny.

Best Breadsticks
1200 E. Hampden Ave., Englewood

Fratelli's makes many fine things in its in-house bakery, but we'd willingly plop down dough for the breadsticks it serves gratis with dinner. Yeasty, chewy and steamy warm, these fat fillers are more bread than stick and come with a parsley- and oregano-laden marinara. The breadsticks themselves contain plenty of herbs, as well as copious amounts of garlic--enough to require all members of your party to partake.

Best Thin Pizza
Papa's Pizza
540 E. Alameda Ave.

Papa (yes, there is a Papa) scoffs at the gourmet and instead speaks to the simple pizza lover in all of us. His wafer-thin crust with extra-thick handles holds back an avalanche of drippy mozzarella cheese and a sweet red sauce. Mama mia, Papa.

Readers' choice: Pizza Hut

Best Thick Pizza
2120 S. Holly St.

If there's a thicker Sicilian pizza on the planet, we haven't come across it. Pantaleone's crust is about three inches thick--almost like French bread--but airier and crunchier than you'd expect. And once you've added your fresh toppings--go for basil, spicy sausage and ripe tomatoes--the thing's almost doubled in height. You'll think you can eat more than one slice by yourself, but you'll be wrong.

Readers' choice: Beau Jo's

Best Stuffed Pizza
2740 S. Wadsworth Blvd., Lakewood

As if pizza weren't filling enough, Cappuccino's Italian jams ricotta and Romano cheeses between two thick layers of crust. With mozzarella and an oregano-laden sauce thrown in, this pie is more like lasagna than anything else--and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Readers' choice: Old Chicago

Best Pizza That Tastes Like a Hot Dog
Bourbon Street Original Pizza Bar
5139 S. Yosemite St., Greenwood Village

Bourbon Street's Coney Island pizza comes topped with--what else?--hot-dog chunks, mustard, onions, relish, red peppers and Monterey Jack cheese, turning your average pie into a trip back East. Actually, it's even better: You get the hot-dog taste without the appetite-axing Coney Island atmosphere. To make the experience complete, be sure to order this with the jalapeno dough.

Best Pizzelles
Gargaro's Italian Bakery
5058 Marshall St., Arvada

Gargaro's is so unassuming you could pass by a thousand times and never know what treats await. But once you step inside, this mom-and-pop place located just a hop, skip and a jump from Old Towne Arvada will bowl your olfactories over. First, there's the tantalizing smell of fresh bread baking. Get a loaf--you'll be tearing into it as soon as you're out the door. But save room for the pizzelles. These thin, flat, delicately light cookies, mildly sweet and sharp with anise, melt in your mouth.

Best Canolis
Carmine's on Penn
92 S. Pennsylvania St.

Sweet dreams are made of these. At Carmine's, an order of canoli brings a pair of crisp, freshly made, powdered-sugar-dusted shells filled with a cloud of fluffy, sweet cheese studded with chocolate chips. Even so, Carmine's canoli's are surprisingly light, taking the tomatoey edge off your meal, gliding in smooth tandem with an after-dinner coffee.

Best Noodle Kugel
East Side Kosher Deli
5475 Leetsdale Dr.

Any Jew worth his kosher salt will have pleasant memories of this dish--a pudding-like casserole of fat noodles, sugar and other ingredients, baked in the oven until it's crispy and caramel-sweet around the edges. Whether you want to try noodle kugel for nostalgic reasons or simply to see what the fuss is all about, East Side offers a variety of authentic pareve versions, including cherry, apple raisin and carrot, prepared without dairy products and sold by the pound.

Best Baklava
1550 S. Federal Blvd.

Too dry, too wet, too sweet, too buttery--the usual goofs with this Middle Eastern pastry of phyllo stacks held together with honey, nuts and butter aren't a problem at Cedars. The Dagher family uses rose water to undercut the richness and adds pistachios to the walnuts for an extra treat. The Daghers are so friendly, you may end up eating your dessert with them--but no matter how much fun you have, they won't let you help with the dishes. end of part 3

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