Five Iconic Dishes From Denver Restaurants That Keep Customers Coming Back

The hazelnut-crusted prawns deserve to be the signature dish at Barolo Grill. Instead, it's the braised duck, which has taken a few turns over the years -- a little balsamic here, some Kalamata olives there -- but remains a top seller. More than that, though, it's a dish that draws people through the doors. "Everything else can change but we keep that duck," says owner Blair Taylor.

Barolo, of course, isn't the only restaurant synonymous with a certain dish. Here are five of our favorites, and while the dishes themselves are obviously well-known -- that's what makes them iconic -- the stories behind them are not.

See also: Review: Barolo Grill Has the White (Tablecloth) Stuff

Kale & Apple Salad, Oak at Fourteenth and Acorn Kale salads are a dime a dozen these days, but none compares with the one at Oak at Fourteenth and Acorn, where chef-owner Steven Redzikowski saw the potential in this green long before there was a bandwagon to hop on. If not prepared correctly, raw kale can be tough and bitter. Redzikowski sidesteps this by cutting the kale into thin ribbons known as chiffonade, which are tossed with thinly sliced apples, candied almonds, lemon, Parmesan and togarashi chile powder. The recipe is now a classic; the salad has been on the menu from the start at both Oak and Acorn. But the chef admits it took a bit of tweaking to strike the right balance of salty, crunchy, spicy and sweet. While recipe testing at home, he tried it many different ways, with pistachios, walnuts and even pears, before finding the sweet spot. "I tell the guys, 'If we run out of kale at Oak, I think people will throw bricks through the windows.'" Budino, Pizzeria Locale Pizzeria Locale isn't just for pizza anymore. At this offshoot of Boulder's sit-down restaurant, the butterscotch budino is so hard to resist, "we have had people who work in the surrounding shops come in every single day in a week for a budino," says culinary director Jordan Wallace. Before the restaurant opened, the owners explored the possibility of streamlining the kitchen, approaching Stonyfield (the organic New Hampshire dairy company), only to be told that "tens of thousands of puddings would have to be produced at once to make it feasible," recalls Wallace. They also talked to an organic dairy in Vermont, but hit a wall when the company said it could only produce one layer, not the decadent four. Today the kitchen puts out all four layers -- buttery, almost nutty pudding, with caramel, chocolate ganache and whipped cream -- making this the pudding de resistance. Kaya Toast, ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro Over the years, several dishes have clamored for iconic status at ChoLon, including dumplings that burst open to reveal French onion soup and wok-charred Brussels sprouts with mint and ground pork. But chef-owner Lon Symensma's interpretation of kaya toast best symbolizes what this kitchen is all about. In Singapore and Malaysia, kaya toast is as common as our breakfast burritos, served with a poached egg, soy sauce, and toast spread with kaya, or coconut jam. The flavors slap you around a bit: salty soy; rich yolk; sweet, thick jam. ChoLon's version is nothing of the sort, with housemade coconut jam stirred over a water bath for an hour, toast points and a cloud of foamy egg. "It's the balance of sweet and savory that keeps people coming back for more," says Symensma, who jokes that if he took it off the menu, "there could be a rebellion."

Keep reading for more iconic restaurant dishes.

Macaroni & Cheese, Mizuna These days, Frank Bonanno is known for everything from lobster ramen to caramel apple pie. But 13 years ago, we knew him primarily as the source of the decadent mac and cheese we couldn't get enough of. To this day, the dish remains on the menu at Mizuna, the only constant on a board that's changed more than 160 times. He didn't invent the dish; Thomas Keller is the one who brought an orzo-based version to the national spotlight. But Bonanno, who did a brief stage at The French Laundry in the late '90s, brought the dish closer to home, winning immediate raves for its perfectly cooked lobster nestled in royal crown of mascarpone, beurre blanc and lobster oil. "To this day it's the number one," he says. "Nothing even comes close." Sausage & Peppers, Gaetano's When Gaetano's was bought by Breckenridge-Wynkoop, the menu at this old-school Italian restaurant was given a face-lift. One of the casualties was penne with sausage, green peppers and red sauce, which was replaced by fancier, more complex fare. But like the shady dealings purported to have happened behind its walls, the dish didn't go away, it just went undercover. And when the restaurant changed hands again last year, new owner Ron Robinson knew the dish had to come back. "It's an iconic dish that everybody recognizes this place for," he says.

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz