Last year may have been dominated by flashy new concepts, big-money projects and lavish menus, but in the first six months of 2019, smaller shops with tight menus offering unique international eats and regional specialties have risen to the top. The best new food this year can be found in suburban strip malls and out-of-the-way Denver neighborhoods. Of course, a few heavy hitters have proven their home-run power, too. Here are the ten best restaurants of the first six months of 2019, in alphabetical order:
African Grill & Bar
955 South Kipling Parkway, Lakewood
Sylvester and Theodora Osei-Fordwuo launched their second eatery at the beginning of 2019, bringing their unique, delicious cooking to Lakewood after the success of their Green Valley Ranch location. You'll find bold spices flavoring uncommon dishes representing Ghana, Nigeria and other African nations, as well as warm service from the owners and their family. Start with familiar samosas, meat pies, wings and fried plantains before exploring the wide range of porridge-style dishes that go by various names — fufu, sadza, kenkey, banku — depending on the main ingredient (cassava, cornmeal, plantain or yam, for example) and country of origin. Slow-cooked greens, braised meats and mouthwatering sauces round out plate after plate. African Grill & Bar is an unforgettable journey for vegetarians and meat lovers alike.
Denver's food-hall scene got a new player this spring with Broadway Market, where guests can eat their way through pizza, sandwiches, sushi, empanadas and curries, to name a few of the available choices. The rock-star lineup reads like a supergroup of culinary talent, including Biju Thomas (Biju's Little Curry Shop), Justin Brunson (Royal Rooster), Daniel Asher (Mother Tongue), Paul Reilly (Pizzeria Coperta), Lorena Cantarovici (Maria Empanada) and Jesus Silva (Misaki on Broadway), plus up-and-comers Mondo Mini, Miette e Chocolat and Wonder. Grab a beer at the self-serve wall of taps (where pint glasses magically fill from the bottom), then explore a world of lunch and dinner possibilities.
Farmhouse Thai Eatery
98 Wadsworth Boulevard, Lakewood
Freshness and balance are the keys to great Thai cuisine, and this new Lakewood kitchen serves up both, whether in seasonal salads like the Burmese Garden (tossed with whole tea leaves) or the Hello Summer (with watermelon, mint and lime leaf), rich curries and soups (don't miss the incendiary khao soi) and enlivened classics from the floating market noodle soup to the sublimely porky hang le curry. Everything is made from scratch and loaded with the Southeast Asian flavors of galangal, lemongrass, garlic, tamarind and chiles. The casual setting and reasonable prices encourage repeat visits to explore new flavors and seasonal specials.
Hank's Texas Barbecue
5410 East Colfax Avenue
Chef Christopher Nicki has been turning out solid barbecue since he fired up the smokers at the former home of Solera in February. Nicki taps into his Texas upbringing to excel at brisket and tricky beef ribs, along with smoked turkey, hot links (made by River Bear American Meats) and slabs of pork ribs. But Hank's goes above and beyond with sandwiches, sides and daily specials, like weekend prime rib, brisket sloppy Joes, loaded baked sweet potatoes, and green beans in spicy chile oil. Load up on meats by the pound on your first visit, but be sure to make a second visit for something different.
Istanbul Cafe & Bakery
850 South Monaco Parkway
Head east to find delectable Turkish pastries both savory and sweet at this little bakery in a shopping center off Monaco and Leetsdale. Skip your boring morning bagel and sink your teeth into some açma, with a texture somewhere between a croissant and a bagel, or simit, somewhat like a circular pretzel coated in sesame seeds. Or go for lunch and enjoy meat- or cheese-filled borek — coiled buns made of flaky pastry. And Istanbul Cafe can't be surpassed when it comes to baklava, since you can choose from seven varieties of the nut-and-honey-filled bites. Relax at a cafe table with a strong Turkish coffee or tea to wash it all down.
1510 16th Street
Lon Symensma's French/European bistro technically opened on December 28, 2018, too late to make our list of the twelve best new restaurants last year. But we won't begrudge the chef/restaurateur those few extra days of practice before LeRoux became one of the brightest stars of 2019. Dazzling plates, from the mushroom mille-feuille, which presents a rectangle of mushrooms sliced so thin that they resemble the pages of a book, to the wagyu beef tartare, presented beneath a smoke-filled glass cloche, have become signature items, while duck, lamb and seafood go through seasonal variations. A tribute to the chef's mentors in his younger days, LeRoux proves that the onetime student of European cuisine has now become the master.
2826 Larimer Street
Perfection is the elusive goal of every pit master cooking meat over wood, tweaking techniques and recipes until the ideal brisket emerges from the smoker encrusted in mahogany bark and dripping with fat. Owlbear founder Karl Fallenius has shown hints of what he's capable of in previous pop-ups and semi-permanent meat counters, but he's finally put it all together at his new Larimer Street smokehouse, where pork, beef and other meats attain barbecue transcendence thanks to equal parts oak and patience. Load up on meats by the pound, but don't miss out on the gooey mac and cheese and other tempting sides, or even meatless entrees like smoked jackfruit or portobello mushrooms.
1859 South Pearl Street
When you only make one thing, you'd better make it right. Igor and Beckie Panasewicz have had nearly a decade of experience creating Venezuelan arepas at their Avanti food hall counter and on the streets in their food truck, so every mouthful at their new Platt Park brick-and-mortar bursts with a heavenly combo of fluffy corn-flour shell, savory black beans, creamy avocado, sweet plantains and tangy sauces loaded with lime and cilantro, along with a choice of succulent meats. The menu is tiny (though seasonal specials pop up throughout the year), so Quiero must hit the bull's-eye every time. Thankfully, that's exactly what happens, making these arepas the single-most craveable bite in the city.
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Savory Vietnam Pho & Grill
2200 West Alameda Avenue
Chef An Nguyen honed her skills for years at New Saigon, which her parents owned until 2017. Now Nguyen's out on her own, proving that she's a force to be reckoned with in Denver's Vietnamese restaurant scene and beyond. Because food this good — starting with the goi thap cam (the house special salad mounded with shrimp, squid, snails, jellyfish and fresh Vietnamese herbs) through to bubbling goat hot pot and traditional noodle dishes like hu tieu and mi quang — shouldn't be constrained within the narrow definition of national cuisines. This is a menu for the whole city, representing the history of a family who set up a business more than thirty years ago and that continues to shine bright on Denver's west side.
1999 Chestnut Place
The restaurant built into the transformed Hose Company No. 1 building downtown got off to a rocky start in late spring, parting ways with its opening chef and going into an extended soft-opening mode until a replacement could take over. But Franco Ruiz is no second-stringer; he came to the restaurant after six years at Fruition, where he had built up an understanding of Colorado's small farms and ranches — and a Rolodex to go with it. Ruiz turned things around with a menu of regional American dishes with a little Mediterranean flair, all highlighted with seasonal produce and top-quality meats. The gorgeous space, with its vaulted glass ceiling and retro-chic decor, now has beautiful food to match.