Best of Denver

The Ten Best Bowls of Chili Con Carne in Denver

Green chile may be king in Denver, but there's also some great chili con carne.
Green chile may be king in Denver, but there's also some great chili con carne. Westword file photo
In the land of green chile that is Denver, finding the best bowl of chili con carne can be a difficult task. The main characteristics in a good chili are tender beef, spicy yet balanced flavors, a satisfying thick and hearty texture, and a dark-brown color. When it comes to the heat factor of chili, you want enough to grab your attention, but not so much that you burn your mouth and can’t enjoy the other flavors. Here are the ten best in town, in alphabetical order, all made from scratch and served in bowls with simple accompaniments, on half-pound burgers and quarter-pound dogs, and even ladled onto gooey mac and cheese.

click to enlarge The Cherry Cricket's chili recipe dates back to 1945. - KEN HOLLOWAY
The Cherry Cricket's chili recipe dates back to 1945.
Ken Holloway
Cherry Cricket
2641 East Second Avenue

This landmark in Cherry Creek North offers up the most unusual bowl of chili on this list. The Cherry Cricket is known far and wide for great burgers, but its chili recipe goes all the way back to 1945 and original owner Elizabeth McGuire. According to manager Samantha Taxin, the recipe is described as “Sioux City Southwestern red chili.” The Southwestern flair comes through with a pleasing combination of beef, chiles and spicy flavor; but what makes it unique is a distinct sweetness — not overly so, but sweet nonetheless, which comes as a front note that surprises your palate immediately. When asked, Taxin throws up her hands as if to suggest that there's a secret ingredient that diners will only be able to guess at (because she's not telling). You can order a bowl by itself or have it ladled on top of your favorite burger or “dawg.”

click to enlarge Chicago's chili will make you yearn for the Windy City. - KEN HOLLOWAY
Chicago's chili will make you yearn for the Windy City.
Ken Holloway
Chicago Style Beef & Dogs
6680 West Colfax Avenue, Lakewood

Owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Joe and Luanne Margotte and their daughter Dianne Margotte-Zimmerman, this tribute to the Windy City on West Colfax (in the heart of the 40 West Arts District) offers up a mighty fine bowl of red chili. Joe is one hell of a good cook, with impeccable attention to detail. His bowl of red is thick and hearty, with great color and texture, including beans. You'll find well-balanced chili flavor without too much heat. If you yearn for the sublime experience of a Chicago-style chili dog, you needn't look further than West Colfax.

click to enlarge Elway's makes a Prime chili. - KEN HOLLOWAY
Elway's makes a Prime chili.
Ken Holloway
2500 East First Avenue

True to John Elway form, the former quarterback's namesake restaurant aims high, whether it's in the staff or the cooking. So even a simple bowl of chili must be of the highest quality and worthy of the Elway brand. According to culinary director Tyler Wiard, “John Elway always strives for excellence and guards against becoming complacent with success.” The spicy steak chili is a game-changer that lives up to Elway's reputation. At its heart is USDA Prime steak, which is trimmed and cut by hand to the proper size for chili. The flavor is bright and bold, with a Broncos amount of kick. The heat will get your attention, as it should, but it’s not overpowering. The bold flavor is enhanced with great texture and a deep mahogany-brown color. If you go for a bowl, you're definitely going to score big; it’s accompanied by crispy tortilla strips, grated cheddar cheese, sour cream and finely diced red onion.

click to enlarge Newbarry's does Coney Island-style chili right. - KEN HOLLOWAY
Newbarry's does Coney Island-style chili right.
Ken Holloway
Newbarry’s Restaurant
2995 West Jewell Avenue

At its current location since 1948, this popular neighborhood diner is best known for serving breakfast all day, so an egg-topped skillet could be lunch or dinner, too. But Newbarry's also serves fantastic red chili. New owner Luis Colin recently reworked the recipe to cut back on the fat a little without sacrificing mouthfeel and that hearty stick-to-your-ribs quality. The makeover has been a smashing success that hits all the right notes. It’s well balanced and well seasoned,so it can stand alone, but you can also get it on a wide variety of menu items, including burgers and dogs.

click to enlarge Peppers serves up chili and good stories. - KEN HOLLOWAY
Peppers serves up chili and good stories.
Ken Holloway
Peppers Restaurant
3500 Morrison Road

Great stories abound from Peppers owner George Strompoulos, such as how he met his wife on a skiing trip to Aspen in 1972 (and their marriage is still thriving today). Or how his diner's time-tested chili was adopted from his original partner, Milt Latsonas, who got it from his father-in-law as a Coney Island hot dog recipe, which is one way to order it here. This chili is available with or without beans and offers a rich combination of versatile flavors and textures.

click to enlarge The Rackhouse ladles up a great cup of chili. - KEN HOLLOWAY
The Rackhouse ladles up a great cup of chili.
Ken Holloway
Rackhouse Pub
2875 Blake Street

Proprietor Chris Rippe offers a chili experience worthy of the excellent craft beer from Bierstadt Lagerhaus and C Squared cider being made in the same building. This chili is loaded with generous chunks of beef and pork as well as a blend of black and red beans. But the star ingredient might just be the Bierstadt lager, which makes for a tantalizing taste sensation in every bite. And another hidden ingredient proves the adage that everything is better with bacon. Served with sides of green onions, grated cheese, sour cream and flatbread, the Rackhouse's hearty offering will satisfy your cravings. Those in the know (which now includes you) can also order chili mac off-menu, which comes as a big scoop of chili on the bottom, a scoop of gooey six-cheese macaroni in the middle and another scoop of chili on top.

click to enlarge Sam's No. 3 has had plenty of practice making chili. - KEN HOLLOWAY
Sam's No. 3 has had plenty of practice making chili.
Ken Holloway
Sam’s No. 3
1500 Curtis Street

With close to a hundred years in business (and possibly the biggest menu in town), the iconic Sam’s No. 3 downtown has had plenty of time to perfect its red chili recipe. You can find this chili in many tantalizing dishes as well as straight-up in a bowl. Served piping hot, the Coney Island-style red is thick and rich with lip-smacking chili flavor. Offered with or without beans, the setup includes oyster crackers, red chili flakes and red vinegar. In true Greek-diner fashion, you’ll find the hearty chili on top of burgers, dogs, Toro pots (a Sam's invention) and Frito pie. Up front, owner Sam Armatas is still at the helm directing all the action.

click to enlarge Second Home's chili is a little more gourmet than some. - KEN HOLLOWAY
Second Home's chili is a little more gourmet than some.
Ken Holloway
Second Home Kitchen & Bar
150 Clayton Lane

Meticulously handcrafted under the watchful eye of executive chef Denis Zvekic, the chili con carne at Second Home is a masterpiece. It takes fastidious attention to detail to create a dish this good, which is more than you'd expect in a rustic dish like chili. The meat includes wagyu tri-tip as well as low-and-slow-smoked beef brisket. The blend of chiles includes roasted poblanos, chipotles and more. This chili is also studded with kidney beans, which are cooked just until the centers are creamy. You'll also encounter chunks of tomato that melt in your mouth like butter. Each order is enhanced with sliced green onions, housemade crème fraiîche and aged cheddar cheese from the Longview Creamery.

click to enlarge Steve's Snappin' Dogs has a dog-worthy chili. - KEN HOLLOWAY
Steve's Snappin' Dogs has a dog-worthy chili.
Ken Holloway
Steve’s Snappin’ Dogs
3525 East Colfax Avenue

At one of the best hot dog shops in Denver, owners Steve and Linda Ballas have created an exceptional chili con carne. Steve took his long and abiding passion for food and cooking and set out to concoct the ultimate hot dog chili, which pairs nicely with a locally brewed beer called Steve’s Snappin’ Ale. This robust chili is made with beans and offers top-notch flavor, texture and color. Steve can be proud, because his chili pushes the envelope for all the heat and flavor you can get without overpowering his famous snappin’ dogs.

click to enlarge West End Tap House swaps out the beef for elk. - KEN HOLLOWAY
West End Tap House swaps out the beef for elk.
Ken Holloway
West End Tap House
3945 Tennyson Street

Got elk? Known in the Berkeley neighborhood for Belgian fries and dipping sauces, executive chef Gary Johnson is rocking out a fantastic menu at the West End Tap House, including a kickass bowl of chili con carne made with elk. Although this chili may be lighter and leaner than its beef counterpart, you still get a rich texture with great color and fantastic flavors. Well balanced, it has a spicy but not overdone kick. The elk is tender yet chewy, and the beans round out the hearty bowl of red (garnished with green onions and cheddar cheese). According to assistant manager Matthew McGee, “If we tried to take this chili off the menu, our customers would riot.” It’s that good. If you ask nicely, you can add the chili on top of some award-winning creamy and dreamy orecchiette mac and cheese.

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Ken Holloway discovered his passion for food writing in 2010 when he began touring the country for restaurants showcased on the top food television shows. His travels have taken him to all 50 states and more than 300 eateries. He is an avid home cook who enjoys reading and collecting cookbooks and is a hopeful cookbook author working on a compendium of the best American comfort food recipes.