Best of Denver

Denver's Ten Best Imported Chain Restaurants

Combo plates are a big part of Tex-Mex dining.
Combo plates are a big part of Tex-Mex dining. Chuy's
Did you hear? In-N-Out Burger is planning its first Colorado location, which means you'll soon have access to all the double-double burgers, hand-cut french fries and secret menu items you can stomach — no flight to the West Coast required, or even a one-hour drive to Colorado Springs, since the company is planning on building fifty outposts in the region.

But this isn't the only out-of-state chain with the Centennial State in its crosshairs: Shake Shack, the Danny Meyer-launched New York emporium of burgers and concretes (thick blended ice cream treats), will land in Denver sometime next year. This city has been a hotbed of national restaurant chain success — it's the fast-casual capital of the country, after all — but in anticipation of these high-profile outsiders making their local debut, we're saluting the ten best chain restaurants that AREN'T based in Colorado. These restaurants add something to our dining scene, even if, like many Coloradans, they're transplants from afar.

click to enlarge Combo plates are a big part of Tex-Mex dining. - CHUY'S
Combo plates are a big part of Tex-Mex dining.
6595 West 104th Avenue, Westminster

We're as surprised as you are that we're so often drawn to a Westminster strip mall for Chuy's, but this festive Austin-originated Tex-Mex joint emanates a siren call we can't resist. The chain deals in Lone Star State staples — molten queso, stacked enchiladas, sizzling fajitas — but the quality is higher than that of many of its competitors. We're fans of the Elvis Green Chile Fried Chicken, which takes potato-chip-encrusted bird and smothers it with green chile and cheese. The crowds are inevitable here, and if it's a bar table you covet, you'll have to hover anxiously, ready to pounce as soon as you see someone signal for their check. Luckily, friendly servers take drink orders from wait-listed patrons; let a jug-sized frozen margarita soothe you. And soon there'll be other places to get our Chuy's fix: Belmar and Tech Center locations are forthcoming.

Surprise! There's SPAM lurking in the tofu stew. - MARK ANTONATION
Surprise! There's SPAM lurking in the tofu stew.
Mark Antonation
Tofu House
2353 South Havana Street, Aurora

In Korea, from which Tofu House hails, achieving chain-restaurant status is a symbol of high quality, not a marker of mass production, and Denver's franchise, nestled into an Aurora strip mall, is one of the city's best Korean restaurants, chain or no. Unsurprisingly, tofu is the star here, and it features in a number of stews; order it in a combination if you're with a group, as you'll also get to sample Tofu House's other offerings plus a slew of banchan (small side dishes) and grilled fish, which you can have bone-in or deboned. We like the classic stew, for what it's worth, which comes bobbing with shellfish in spicy broth, ideal for ladling over rice.

Voodoo Doughnut
1520 East Colfax Avenue

Portland's Voodoo Doughnut built a legion of loyal fans in its home city, commanding lines for its wacky flavor combinations and irreverent names. See, for example, the Old Dirty Bastard (chocolate frosting, Oreo cookies and peanut butter on a yeast doughnut) or the Cock-n-Balls, which is shaped like its namesake. When Voodoo expanded beyond Oregon, Denver was its first stop, and the Colfax shop soon had an eager following of its own. You can't miss the bright-pink facade of this joint, which matches the boxes in which the doughnuts are packed; the hue serves as a friendly beacon 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 361 days a year. (Voodoo is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day and one other random day for a company party.)

Hillstone via Facebook
303 Josephine Street

Much has been made of Hillstone's famous fans. Hospitality maven Danny Meyer is in awe of the chain's service, and restaurateur/ramen-slinger David Chang is a fan of the French dip — facts revealed when Bon Appétít's Andrew Knowlton penned a feature-length homage to "America's Favorite Restaurant." These accolades tie back to the restaurant group's remarkable consistency; your favorite dish at Denver's Hillstone is likely to be just right in New York City and Orlando, too, and you'll have it delivered with the same warm service in the same social-clubby atmosphere. Despite the fact that there are multiple locations of Hillstone, this is a true neighborhood joint; you know what you're going to order for dinner here before you ever set out for the place. For us, that's the truly spectacular spinach and artichoke dip before the Thai steak salad or, yes, the French dip. Note that Hillstone also owns the Cherry Creek Grill a few blocks away.

The Capital Grille via Facebook
The Capital Grille
1450 Larimer Street

The Capital Grille was founded in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1990, and it's since grown into a network of high-end steakhouses where you can always rely on a nicely grilled cut of meat. But what sets this place apart is its service, which puts most restaurants in the city to shame. Career front-of-house professionals deftly maneuver every kind of diner that sets foot in the space, from the skeptical patron who normally eschews chains, to the couple celebrating an anniversary, to the large party of executives looking to cut a deal over an expensive bottle of wine. Our hometown restaurateurs could and should take cues from the operation here, and anyone who occasionally craves a quintessential old-school steakhouse experience should keep the Capital Grille near the top of the list.

click to enlarge Alamo Drafthouse at Sloan's Lake. - ALAMO DRAFTHOUSE
Alamo Drafthouse at Sloan's Lake.
Alamo Drafthouse
Alamo Drafthouse
4255 West Colfax Avenue, 720-577-4720
7301 South Santa Fe Drive, Littleton, 303-730-2470

Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse grew out of founders Tim and Karrie League's passion for good movies, drinks and food — all under one roof. After opening their first theater, the Leagues learned they weren't the only ones who liked that trifecta, and Alamo quickly became a beacon. It's now expanding rapidly, and there are two locations in the metro area — one in Littleton and the other near Sloan's Lake. If being able to order a meal, snacks and alcoholic beverages during a screening weren't enough to endear these spots to you, know that both theaters also make a real effort to engage their local communities, offering discounted flicks and fundraising screenings for local organizations. Kill time before your movie starts in the bar, then snack your way through your movie — we like the pizzas and the chocolate chip cookies. The combo of cinema and dinner is good enough that we'll go out of our way to see a movie here, even if there's another theater within close proximity.

Art on the plate at Matsuhisa. - DANIELLE LIRETTE
Art on the plate at Matsuhisa.
Danielle Lirette
98 Steele Street

Japanese celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa had made previous inroads into the Centennial state: Locations of Matsuhisa lure upscale diners in both Vail and Aspen. But in 2016, this temple of refined Japanese cooking made its Denver debut, sidling into Cherry Creek North and unveiling its menu of heady, thrilling and precisely executed sushi, wagyu beef and creative delicacies, littered with Peruvian flavor and influence — all with prices that speak to its Beverly Hills roots. If you can spring it, we advocate for the omakase experience here, which affords you a glimpse of the true breadth of the offerings. Otherwise, don't miss the black cod with miso, any fish collar on offer, and the udon soup. By the way, if a glance at the dinner prices make you question whether you'd be able to pay your rent after this meal, know that lunch is a more affordable way to experience Matsuhisa.

Urban Farmer brings meaty fare to the Oxford Hotel. - MARK ANTONATION
Urban Farmer brings meaty fare to the Oxford Hotel.
Mark Antonation
Urban Farmer
1659 Wazee Street

Of all the restaurants on this list, Urban Farmer feels the least like a chain. There's nothing inherently streamlined about the steakhouse offerings, the design flourishes are both unique and luxe, and locally sourced ingredients (some from as nearby as the restaurant's rooftop) star prominently on the menu. But the restaurant, which anchors the ground floor of the Oxford Hotel, is one of a group of four (and growing). The nose-to-tail meat program is in the spotlight here, with an embarrassment of riches from which to choose. If you can't decide, the steak tasting is a nice option — it nets you four cuts of New York Strip that allow you to determine what you like best. Do not skip a side of ethereal potato purée, and if you're celebrating something, consider starting with a seafood tower. Note that Urban Farmer is also open for breakfast, lunch and brunch, when you'll find lighter fare.

Torchy's Tacos
Four metro-area locations

In its home market of Austin, Torchy's is at the epicenter of the great breakfast-taco debate, and is frequently cited as the pinnacle of this Texas phenomenon. Here in Denver, you can discover what all the hype is about, tasting your way through various combinations of eggs, cheese, bacon, potatoes and sausage on corn or flour tortillas (go for the flour) at one of four metro-area locations. Later in the day, Torchy's turns out a roster of cheekily named tacos built with creative ingredient combinations, like the Trailer Park (fried chicken and green chiles on a flour tortilla) or the Dirty Sanchez (scrambled eggs and a fried poblano chile).

True Food Kitchen
2800 East Second Avenue

Phoenix-based True Food Kitchen seems particularly suited to Denver's tony Cherry Creek North neighborhood. Its menu, co-designed by celebrity nutrition-focused doctor Andrew Weil, deals in wholesome eats that fulfill all manner of diets: gluten-free, vegan, anti-inflammatory and more. Dishes here include curry, an ancient grain bowl, seasonal pizzas and poke, and you can pair your meal with freshly squeezed juices or cocktails with organic spirits. The vibe is sunny and a bit sanctimonious, so it's a place we'd love to hate, frankly — except that the food is good enough to provide much-needed reprieve from our otherwise hedonistic dining habits, and it fills a niche in Denver's dining that, though hard to believe, was totally vacant before True Food's arrival.
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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk