Longform

FOOD & DRINK

part 5 of 5
Best Tamales
Rincon Tropical
8615 E. Colfax Ave.

If you think of a tamale as something hot and porky wrapped in a corn husk, you're in for a surprise: The Salvadoran version is a whole new ballgame, both inside and out. Rincon Tropical, a fledgling restaurant that serves specialties of El Salvador (and sometimes suffers from fledgling disorganization), offers a delicious--and stunningly cheap--take on the tamale that comes wrapped in a banana leaf and studded with bits of chicken and potato, as well as the occasional olive or garbanzo bean. The tamales are nice alongside a seafood sopa or platter of fried platanos, but save some of your appetite for the pupusas--a homey kind of tortilla stuffed with cheese, meat and/or beans, and served with fresh sauerkraut and a mild salsa.

Readers' choice: Las Delicias

Best Crispy Chile Relleno
Brewery Bar II
150 Kalamath St.

The Brewery Bar takes the traditional chile of choice, the poblano, fills it with nontraditional yellow American cheese, then wraps the thing in an egg roll-type wrapper and deep-fries it into a chile-cheese pie. The cheap cheese turns into a molten mass of mmm-mmm good, and the pork-heavy, hot-as-hell green chile poured on top just intensifies the fatty flavor. Keep that "Tiny" 32-ounce glass of Bud close by--you'll need it.

Readers' choice: Blue Bonnet

Best Soft Chile Relleno
Mamacitas
1149 13th St., Boulder

Anejo is the big cheese on campus at Mamacitas. Sort of a cross between parmesan and Monterey Jack, anejo is semi-soft and melts in your mouth--not to mention inside the roasted poblano chile that Mamacitas uses for its chiles rellenos. The egg batter that surrounds the chile is always light and fluffy, and the whole package is deep-fried in good-for-you olive oil, which gives the relleno a cleaner taste. And then Mamacitas makes its relleno even better by wrapping it in a blue tortilla. Add a generous mound of rice and soft black beans on the side, and better becomes best. We're talking real class here.

Readers' choice: Benny's

Best Burrito
Chipotle
1644 E. Evans Ave.
745 Colorado Blvd.

Chipotle offers a number of blow-out burritos, but the barbacoa is the best thing we've ever tasted tucked inside a tortilla. The name means "barbecued," and that's exactly what happens to the shredded beef as it's braised with chipotle peppers, cumin, cloves and garlic before being heaped into a giant flour tortilla. On top of the beef goes a layer of pinto beans, cilantro-lime rice, sour cream and Monterey Jack cheese. Rolled up and doused with a killer tomatillo-and-red-chile salsa, the burrito is the size of a Chihuahua--and has its bite, too.

Readers' choice: Chipotle

Best Tacos al Carbon
Las Delicias
Four metro locations

As any gift recipient will agree, what goes inside the wrapping is the important thing. But it doesn't hurt if the package looks pretty. At Las Delicias, the taquitos al carbon not only look good, they live up to the restaurant's name. Tasty sirloin bits, grilled onion, slice-it-yourself avocado halves and wedges of citrus are piled atop three plain but functionally fabulous soft corn tortillas; a side of Las D's "special salsa," or pico de gallo, comes on the side. (You might also want to order a side of another liquid asset: Las Delicias' gravylike green chile.)

Best Fish Taco
Jalapeno Mexican Grill
5701 Leetsdale Dr., Glendale

After a taste of Jalapeno's fish tacos, we were California dreaming. The kitchen does it Baja-style, starting with soft flour tortillas, two thick, and then stuffing them to bursting with red onions, tomatoes, lots of jalapenos and, of course, something fishy. In this case, it's fingers of cod coated with flour and black pepper that have been tossed on the grill. Everything's held together by Jalapeno's secret mayo. Don't you wish they all could be California grills?

Best Taco
El Toro
4957 Colorado Blvd.

Pre-made American taco shells could double as shoe horns, they're so unyielding; one bite and the thing falls apart like broken glass. El Toro hits the bull's-eye by starting with a soft corn tortilla, laying down a layer of chorizo, tomatoes and cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses, then deep-frying the taco until the insides are all toasty warm and melty and infused with a delicious greasy flavor. The recipe started at El Toro's sibling, the Mexico City Lounge, but these tacos stand on their own. An order proves that good things come in threes.

Readers' choice: Taco Bell

Best Exotic Taco
El Taco de Mexico
714 Santa Fe Dr.
2463 Sheridan Blvd., Edgewater

You know we truly love El Taco's tacos--because we eat them without benefit of beer (even the new, improved restaurant on Santa Fe doesn't have a liquor license). No, instead we face our tiny tacos of spicy barbacoa or tender-yet-chewy cheek meat or tantalizing tongue stone-cold sober. One bite of these tacos, though, and you'll immediately warm to all the possibilities that this incredibly authentic restaurant offers. (You can get the same exotic--for this country, at least--meats wrapped up in huge burritos.) Spoon on lots of El Taco's tangy salsa for an additional taste treat.

Best Gringo Mexican
Cherokee Dining on 12th
1201 Cherokee St.

Despite the name, the Cherokee doesn't serve Native American food. In a dining room that looks like a fern bar collided with a greenhouse--there are live plants in every available space--this neighborhood eatery dishes up decent American grub. But along with the extra oxygen and patty melts, the Cherokee offers a mean plate of spicy beef-filled burritos smothered with cheese, enchiladas filled with seasoned beef, and smoky, charbroiled fajitas. The portions are huge, the prices are reasonable and, considering Cherokee's proximity to government buildings, eavesdropping is the order of the day.

Best Yuppie Quesadilla
City Spirit Cafe
1434 Blake St.

Appropriately enough, you'll find this upscale rendition of the quesadilla sitting under the heading of "urban entrees" on City Spirit's new menu. Two whole-wheat, lard-free flour tortillas bookend roasted veggies tossed with a garlic-heavy pesto, slowly melting goat cheese and a chile-spiked salsa. It's not authentic, it's not traditional, but like the rest of the food and the scene at City Spirit, it's hip and it's healthy. Chase it down with a double latte and get back to your cell phone.

Best Neighborhood Restaurant
RosaLinda's Mexican Cafe
2005 W. 33rd Ave.

How do we love this place? Let us count the ways. First, of course, there's the food: wonderful shredded beef burritos, champion chiles rellenos (soft) drowning in green chile, and huevos that give you a whole new reason to break the fast. Second, there's the family: the hard-working Aguirres, including chief cook and mother RosaLinda, jack-of-all-trades (including journalism) and father Virgil, and the five children who alternately wait on tables and do their homework. And third, there's the philosophy: This is a family that truly believes in doing its bit for the neighborhood, which has needed all the help it can get over the past decade but is slowly improving. The Aguirres are one reason why. They set out free feeds at Thanksgiving and Christmas that put them in line to take over where Daddy Bruce left off, but their charity doesn't end on the holidays. Thanks to RosaLinda's, it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Best Mexican Takeout
Lala's Gourmet Mexican Deli
3609 W. 32nd Ave.

When you get a hankering to throw together a Mexican meal at home but don't want to start from scratch, start at Lala's instead. Ezekiel and Lala Lucero and their son Santiago make their own chorizo, as well as green and red chiles, salsa and terrific tamales. They're all available by the pound, as are the Luceros' sweet homemade chipotle peppers--ripe, dried, smoked jalapenos--and queso fresco, a fresh table cheese that's perfect for fillings. Finish off your feast with one of Lala's flans. No fair taking a siesta after the meal--Lala's did all the work.

Best Store-Bought Tortillas
Gordita's Thick Style
Soloman Baking Company

We don't want no sissy tortillas 'round here. We want something we can sink our teeth into, a tortilla that won't fall apart and dribble hot sauce on our manly Colorado cowboy boots. We want Gordita's thick tortillas (original or hot-salsa variety), made right here in Denver at the Soloman Baking Company. Available at Cub Foods and Safeway stores.

Best Dog & Burrito Vendor
Sayied, northwest corner, 17th and Market streets
Sayied originally hails from Afghanistan; he now lives in Fort Collins and drives to Denver every weekday to set up his outdoor hot dog-and-burrito stand. His prices are a bargain, and if you're a predictable regular, he'll remember your usual order or pop preference. Sayied loves working in LoDo, especially on busy Rockies game days. But you've gotta hurry. He goes home when he runs out of food or when the weather turns ugly, whichever comes first.

Best Television in a Mexican Dive
El Toro
4957 Colorado Blvd.

Nothing at this low-rent space in an industrial district costs more than $1.90, which is why the massive wide-screen television that sits like an icon in the corner of the dining room seems a bit out of place. Its technological opulence might help you forget the paneled walls, velvet paintings and money-sucking game that pits your intelligence against a metal claw and a pile of crafty, elusive stuffed animals, but you need no such diversion from the food. Eddie Garcia, whose family owns the Mexico City Lounge, still puts out a grand green chile and terrific tacos.

Best Nineties Version of a TV Dinner
Cinema Grill
13682 E. Alameda Ave., Aurora

The concept of eating while plopped down in front of a screen isn't new--we've been doing it since the first Muntz lit up the living room and Stouffer's started putting Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and peach cobbler in a plate of tinfoil. But picture the Nineties version of this, complete with big screen and better food, and you'll have Cinema Grill. Watch close-to-first-run movies while noshing on such fare as hand-tossed pizza, a chicken club or a cheeseburger with steak fries, all in the comfort of your own swivel chair. The waitstaff takes care of any ambling down the aisle in the dark with food--and will even deliver beer and wine--and the prices aren't much more than a tub of popcorn with motor oil at a theater that charges twice Cinema Grill's admission; it's $3 after 5 p.m. What really gets our Oscar, though, is that Cinema Grill avoided naming their sandwiches after actors.

Best Restaurant Owned by a Former Husband of Roseanne
Full Circle Cafe
511 Rose St., Georgetown

TV or not TV? Sometimes that's no question at all. As Roseanne dropped last names along her path to stardom, she also dropped husband Bill Pentland, who'd lived with her in Colorado during the late Seventies and early Eighties and even made the move to Hollywood, where he consulted for a while on his wife's show. Now Bill--graduate of the Widefield High class of '69--is back, as owner of the appropriately named Full Circle Cafe in Georgetown, the town where he met Roseanne twenty years ago. Don't touch that dial.

Best Shameless Schmoozing by a Restaurant
Kaddy Shack
1000 S. Boulder Rd., Louisville

TV stars hit the sauce! That would be the headline on the cover of the National Enquirer if the tabloid ever caught wind of this story. Woody Woodward, owner of Kaddy Shack in Louisville, takes the cake as this year's most shameless restaurant schmoozer. And he really knows how to cater to potential clientele: Kaddy Shack ribs have shown up on Letterman and alongside Leno; Willard Scott's even gnawed a few on the Today show. Willard will eat anything, of course, but in this case he was lucky enough to bite into some of the most flavorful barbecue around.

Best David Letterman Lookalike
John Shipp
Bella Ristorante
1920 Market St.

We were startled the first time John Shipp served us up a plateful of pizza--David Letterman working at a local bistro? There were the round glasses, the gap-toothed smile and the funny hair. He kept tugging at his tie, too, just the way we've seen Dave do a million times. But the height was wrong--Letterman is taller. And there weren't any cameras at Bella Ristorante, the LoDo eatery where Shipp was rushing around doing whatever it is restaurant managers do. So we gave up our quest for an autograph and launched into the pizza instead. Good choice. Come for the celebrity lookalike, stay for the food.

Best Place to Pretend You're David Mamet
Colorado Cafe
740 W. Colfax Ave.

The clientele at this 24-hour joint is as diverse as Denver itself, especially late at night. Although all the Colorado Cafes can boast an odd assortment of customers, the West Colfax location in particular seems to attract a bevy of interesting characters, perfect for your next novel. One evening might find two Beat wannabes eating existential French fries, a couple trying to rekindle their love affair over burgers, a loud, overweight family of four arguing over the last piece of bacon and a tuxedo-attired group fresh from the theater drinking coffee. Throw in a few bums hunched over the counter with just-plucked-from-the-sidewalk cigarettes hanging from their mouths and a businessman nervously trying to prepare the big speech for tomorrow's presentation--and your Pulitzer is just around the corner. Get the enormous pancakes for brain fuel.

Best Map of Denver on a Placemat
Duffy's Shamrock Restaurant & Bar
1635 Court Pl.

If you lose your bearings--and it's not difficult to do after stretching your stomach with old-time dinners and downing quite a few beers--Duffy's will show you the way to go home. The placemats at this venerable joint provide a map of downtown Denver, complete with one-way streets. And there's a leprechaun in the corner to bless you on your journey.

Best Reviews of a Restaurant on a Placemat
Club 404
404 Broadway

Actually, the reviews of Club 404 reprinted on its placemats aren't the best reviews we've ever seen. In fact, at times they're downright critical--which can sometimes result in diners enjoying the novel experience of reading a critic dis their dish even as they dig in. Good, bad and ugly--Club 404 takes it all in stride. And for that alone, the place gets a favorable review from us. But then there's that great neighborhood bar that pours those swell martinis, and the cheap steak specials, and the pool table. Guess it doesn't matter what they say, as long as they get your name--or numerals--right.

Best View of Coors Field
Lodo Bar and Grill
1946 Market St.

In the wake of hyperdevelopment seizing lower downtown, it seems you can't climb a staircase without finding a crowd of Dockers-bedecked barflies buzzing about the roof. The best example of the genre has to be the Lodo Bar and Grill--an industrial, urban-cowboy bar inside, with an oasis of cool breezes on top. Beware: Beer prices are steep. But with a location catty-corner from Coors Field, the people-watching afforded by the view is worth the price, and the food has improved considerably.

Best Indoor/Outdoor Patio
Blake Street Baseball Club
1902 Blake St.

Not only does Blake Street Baseball Club have a great outdoor patio, it is a great outdoor patio. Walk in the door and then...walk outside. The scene is like a baseball diamond, complete with grass and advertisements hanging from the walls. Even the food service is set up like concessions at the nearby field--ribs, burgers, chicken and, of course, hot dogs all come sizzling off the spit. Coors is the main draft, but microbrews abound. Catch a band under the stars, kick back and relax as only the boys and girls of summer can.

Best Outdoor Patio
La Coupole Cafe
2191 Arapahoe St.

With its graceful wrought iron, clinging vines and adorable tables, La Coupole's outdoor patio is a breath of fresh air. Instead of being overwhelmed by car exhaust and clunky furniture, the alfresco diner at this French brasserie is treated to a scene evocative of a countryside courtyard--a fantasy played out against the aged-brick wall of an actual historic landmark, the old Paris Hotel Building. The cooking at La Coupole, a comfortable version of nouvelle but with larger portions, is breezy and light, and if the elements prove to be too much, the interior is just as charming.

Readers' choice: Rock Bottom Brewery

Best Trip Back in Time
Gold Hill Inn
Sunshine Canyon

Among the first restaurants in this country were boardinghouses, where a nickel bought a six-course meal (and sometimes even a night's lodgings) at a large table filled with fellow travelers and manual laborers. The meat was usually boiled and the potatoes came from a patch outside the kitchen, but it was honest food at an honest price. Well, the ante has been upped to $21, but there's still gold in them thar hills, just outside of Boulder. The atmosphere at the Gold Hill Inn even harks back to the boardinghouse, with its mismatched chairs and rustic accents, but the grub's good and the drive breathtaking, particularly in the fall. Your six courses include a platter of fruit and cheese at the end, but load up on the homemade honey-wheat bread with strawberry-rhubarb jam at the start. The rest of the menu changes daily; memorize it from the blackboard in the rocking-chair-filled lounge--you'll never see it again once you're in the dining room.

Best New Dining Room
The Denver ChopHouse & Brewery
1735 19th St.

When Rock Bottom Restaurants spent $2.3 million renovating the turn-of-the-century Union Pacific headhouse, they could have made the place into another one of those theme-park concept restaurants. But they didn't. Instead, they took the building's original function and made the ChopHouse an extension of it. Inside you'll find soothing, warm tones and overstuffed booths covered with plush fabric, lots of rich wood and tabletop lamps, and seating evocative of railway dining. All very sophisticated but casual at the same time, and that's the beauty of the ChopHouse--you feel as if you're somewhere nice without having to don a jacket. The service is attentive but not fawning, and the microbrewery puts out a good selection of beers. All aboard!

Best Restaurant Resurrection
Today's Gourmet Highlands Garden Cafe
3927 W. 32nd Ave.

Patty and Chuck Perry left a huge hole in the tablecloth of Denver dining when they sold their Today's Gourmet restaurant in 1992. It took them three years to find a new space, in an old house in the Highland neighborhood, and now they're back in business, putting out some of the most innovative and well-executed food you'll find in Denver. Much of the menu (which changes daily) leans toward Italy and France, with a nod at our West Coast. Although such healthy offerings as trout sauteed in garlic and lemon shout with flavor, Patty's talents really shine when she hits the sauces--as in honey-bourbon glaze and dry vermouth cream. The lobster bisque has an inspired dose of brandy, and the veal sweetbreads are a sinful gathering of thymus glands in a mushroom cognac cream sauce. Dessert, especially the apple dumpling with caramel sauce, should not be optional.

Best New Restaurant
Mel's Bar and Grill
235 Fillmore St.

It sounds like a blue-collar diner, but Mel's features no wisecracking waitresses wrapped in pink. Instead, you'll find an efficient but exceptionally friendly waitstaff, charming and whimsical decor, and Mel and Jane Master. These former part-owners of Dudley's and Barolo Grill have brought their wine and food backgrounds together once again, and this time it's a culinary match made in heaven. Relax in the private booths and lounge through as many courses as possible, but be sure to try the exemplary risotto. The menu is sort of California meets the Mediterranean, with an emphasis on light and healthy food that still tastes rich. Break bread--it's got a killer crust and super-absorbent interior that soaks up Mel's good-quality olive oil like a sponge--and don't stop eating until after you've tried one of the divine desserts, especially anything with fruit. The wine list is user- and wallet-friendly, and even the coffee is good. When dine you must, eat at Mel's.

Readers' choice: Ocean Fresh Grill
end of part 5

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