Picking the Best Vegetarian Dish in a Non-Vegetarian Restaurant for the Best of Denver 2012 was a tough task. The owners of omnivorous restaurants have really gone above and beyond lately to cater to lacto-ovo vegetarians and totally plant-based eaters alike. In no particular order (save for number one), here are the ten best vegetarian dishes in Denver's non-vegetarian restaurants.
Sherpa House, 1518 Washington Avenue, Golden This eatery-slash-cultural-center is decorated inside to resemble an authentic Himalayan home; one dining-room wall features a small stove, another an intricate curio cabinet, and saddles, bridles, camping equipment and other artifacts of sherpa life adorn the walls. The food is equally authentic, with yak widely available across the menu. But Sherpa House really shines when it comes to its vegetarian entrees, of which there are many. The sherpa stew is served with naan bread alongside a large bowl of vegetables and bite-sized dumplings swimming in a spiced-to-taste broth that's so delicious you'll want to tip the bowl back and drink it down -- if you can manage to finish the sizable portion the kitchen serves up in one sitting, that is.
Cafe Brazil, 4408 Lowell Boulevard The vibrant colors and black matte plates at Cafe Brazil make the food pop just when you're looking at it -- but the flavors really pop when you take a bite. For vegetarians, there's nothing closer to the authentic feijoada tastes of Brazil within several hundred miles of this spot (at least, not any that can be obtained without meat). The meal is dished up with rice, fried banana and greens, but it's that black bean stew that ties it all together, smoky and comforting. Add in the impressive rum list and array of non-vegetarian dishes, and you've got a restaurant with international appeal across tastes. Virgilo's Pizzeria and Wine Bar, 10025 West San Juan Way, Littleton Although many cuisine types are easily adaptable to a vegan lifestyle, the cheeses and meats so prevalent in Italian cooking make it a little more difficult to find vegan versions of certain staples -- pizza especially. Denver has more vegan pizza options than most cities, but Virgilio's is the real jewel. The large dining room can accommodate parties of any size, but be prepared to wait for a table, because the wine program and garlic knots are just two of the draws that bring crowds through the doors. Many of Virgilio's specialty pies lend themselves to vegan interpretations, or you can build your own pizza with tomato- or olive oil- based sauces, all the regular pizza veggies plus a few specialties like green olives or fresh spinach, and dairy-free cheese. Do yourself a favor and order an extra pie, because when you can find vegan pizza this delicious, you'll definitely want leftovers. Pho 95, 1002 South Federal Boulevard The vegetarian pho at Pho 95 put the strip-mall Vietnamese noodle shop on the map last year when it garnered our Best Vegetarian Dish In a Non-Vegetarian Restaurant Award. And although several pho spots have popped up in the past year, many serving pho with tofu and rice noodles swimming in a vegetable broth, there was still no contest when it came time to pick our favorite rice-noodle soup. The serving sizes at Pho 95 range from that kitchen's small (which is really rather large) to eye-poppingly massive for less than $10, both served alongside heaping plates of Thai basil, dandelion leaves, spicy jalapeno slices, bean sprouts and lime wedges. The tofu is sliced into triangles and fried, then set loose in the soup with slices of carrot, broccoli, mushrooms, snow peas and thin strips of onion. No wonder it's been drawing pho-natics for years! Habesha Ethiopian, 5707 East Colfax Avenue When it's time to sit down with your loved ones and share a meal, there's nothing quite like the bonding experience that Ethiopian cuisine presents. Don't mess around with ordering single servings of the yemisir or kik wot or gomen. Instead, go straight for the vegetarian combination plate. For $11.99, it delivers generous servings of every last vegetarian dish on the menu -- and if your tablemates are also vegetarian, you can get it served family-style for a discount. As far as vegetarian cuisine is concerned, Habesha reigns over the Ethiopian Rocky Mountain empire. Park Burger, 1890 South Pearl Street
Park Burger was the veggie burger to beat in 2011; we raved last year about its grain-based veggie patty that's bound together with egg and then smashed on the grill to create a perfectly browned burger. And this is still, hands-down, the best vegetarian burger in the city. The cooks serve up that burger with lettuce, tomato, onion, a special sauce and whatever else you might want on there, including a fried egg, mushrooms, onions and more. The regular fries make a perfect traditional side, or you can mix things up with the sweet-potato variety, but the bottom line is definitely the burger. Whether you want to wash it down with a cold draft beer or a Moscow Mule from the bar, arm yourself with plenty of napkins, because it's going to be a falling-apart, messy, delicious ride until the savory end.
Fourleaf Chopped Salads, 6840 South Dallas Way, Englewood
The Denver Tech Center doesn't have much going for it in terms of food options -- unless you want a salad for lunch. In that case, you're in luck, because tucked into a below-street-level strip mall is the orange-and-green splashed Fourleaf Chopped Salads. It's only open on weekdays, and then only for lunchtime, but it's consistently packed, so don't count on finding a spot to sit down. There are a dozen specialty salads, a couple of dozen dressings and a dizzying number of proteins and additions: tofu, shrimp, turkey, salami, three kinds of chicken, apples, artichoke hearts, avocado, broccoli, chickpeas, corn, cranberries, eggs, jicama, olives, peas, pasta, sunflower seeds...too many to list. After choosing iceberg, romaine, spinach or spring mix, you can add as many or as few toppings as you like; your choices are stacked inside a medium or large bowl, and before serving, mixture is dumped onto a cutting board and worked over with a giant, two-handled rocking knife, chopping everything into bite-sized pieces. It's fresh, it's fast, and there's a reason there's a line out the door every lunch hour.
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Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs, 2148 Larimer Street Biker Jim's hot dog stand, a longtime staple on the 16th Street Mall, is known across the nation for Jim's array of dog and sausage options, including elk, rattlesnake, reindeer and much more. But Jim also dabbles in house-made vegan dogs, which are regularly available at his brick-and-mortar location (if you head in early enough -- they do run out, so call in advance). The vegan dogs come in an herb and a spicy variety, and although the herb is tasty enough, the spicy dog is definitely what earns Biker Jim's its vegan rep. The store also offers charred tahini cauliflower, fried green tomatoes, house-made fries, hand-cut potato chips, among other veggie-friendly sides, all of which adds up to a restaurant where both carnivores and plant-based eaters can sit down and share a meal -- and no one will feel deprived.
Sushi Sasa, 2401 15th Street Japanese cuisine is generally very vegetarian- and vegan-friendly, so choosing a sushi restaurant that deserves the title of best would seem like a difficult task. But Sushi Sasa makes that task ridiculously easy by virtue of one option on the menu alone: the veggie tempura roll. The tempura roll is even vegan-friendly, using flour and soda water instead of egg, forming a thick batter that's used to coat asparagus, carrot and Japanese pumpkin; the vegetables are fried and then rolled in rice and nori, sliced beautifully and served with a sweet soy sauce drizzle. There are also salads and vegetarian entrees, plus a tasty veggie roll with avocado, cucumber, mixed greens, burdock root and kampyo, or plain old avocado, cucumber or asparagus rolls. But the tempura roll at Sushi Sasa is a testament to what vegan sushi can be.
New Saigon, 630 South Federal Boulveard This restaurant has earned nationwide accolades for its authentic Vietnamese dishes and extensive menu -- and the menu at New Saigon is dizzying, broken up by numbers and abbreviations into a sea of letters and numerals. There's a whole page of vegetarian options in that book-like menu, but the best plant-based item on the menu is located under the noodle bowl section and highlighted in red: 10N. Described simply as "stir-fried tofu with lemon grass noodle bowl," the peanut-topped dish is a tangle of thin rice noodles, carrots, mushrooms, snow peas and crispy strips of tofu. The fried rice is good, the cari chay curry is creamy and amazing, but New Saigon's 10N is undoubtedly the best vegetarian dish in the city.