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FOOD & DRINK

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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.

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