Eating my way up and down Havana Street — a delicious endeavor I just finished — took nearly a year. Not everyone has the time or inclination to follow in my footsteps, though, so to save you time, I've narrowed my findings down to a list of must-try dishes and the places you’ll find them.
Aurora has attracted residents from around the world whose palates crave not only familiar dishes from their homes, but new cuisines as well. Peppered throughout the sprawl of chain restaurants littering Havana are a number of hideaways beckoning to adventurous diners. But these small eateries are more than just mom-and-pop shops; together they constitute a veritable United Nations of food and welcome anyone willing to try their exceptional fare. I skipped one or two well-known eateries that have received recent coverage in favor of newer or lesser-known joints; here are the ten best dishes I ate from my tour de Havana — listed from north to south.
Elote Correado at El Bombón
1082 Havana Street, Aurora
The elote correado at El Bombón should be on the bucket list of every Denver-dwelling street-food snack addict. The dish integrates the indulgence of Mexican street corn with the bliss and familiarity of ballpark nachos. Instead of plain tortilla chips, El Bombón starts the novel repast with nacho cheese Doritos for a mind-blowing first layer, then tangy, shredded Monterey Jack is showered on, and jalapeño-studded nacho cheese is ladled over buttery white corn kernels that swim in pooling queso and melting butter. The hot mess is served gussied up with pickled jalapeños and a spiral of hot sauce. Crunch from the corn kernels and cheese-imbued chips is joined with the smooth creamy nacho cheese sauce. Subtle spice imparted by the hot sauce cuts through the richness of the Jack cheese and butter, making this an indulgence fit for a Guy Fieri-sized appetite. If you have room, complete your indulgent snack with a scoop of ice cream made with seasonally imported Mexican fruit.
Torta Cubana at Taqueria El Gallito
403 Havana Street, Aurora
There's something about the torta Cubana pictured on the fluorescent yellow menu at this Havana Street taqueria that can make a meat eater’s heart flutter. This kitchen sink-style sandwich contains myriad random ingredients and probably got its start the way many notorious dishes do — in an effort to reduce food waste by throwing a bunch of day-old ingredients together and hoping for the best. Lift the massive top piece of thick, griddled bread and you’ll find a trove of several seemingly unrelated ingredients: hot dog pieces, chorizo, a fried egg, provolone, queso, carnitas, ham, turkey chunks, avocado, tomato, and even a thin layer of refried beans. Although the torta defies the laws of sensible gastronomy, it instantly vanquishes all doubt the minute you sink your teeth into it. Each mouthful captivates your attention, invoking the question “How can so much go on between the two pieces of bread?” Creaminess from the avocado and queso, salty crunch from the fried carnitas, a meaty component from the seared ham, turkey and hot dog, subtle tanginess from the provolone, and a good dose of breakfast burrito from the chorizo, refried beans and egg all come together. Wash it all down with an imported Mexican soda, a piece of tres leches cake, and, to make your ride home more comfortable, some Prilosec.
Combination Beef Pho at Pho 99
1080 South Havana Street, Aurora
After following the same pho recipe for seventeen years, chef/owner Mickey Ha must surely be getting tired of such an unvarying routine. “After all these years, we still taste the broth every two hours to make sure it tastes right,” Ha affirms, however. And the chef advises diners to do the same: “Tasting pho is very much like tasting wine; if you taste the broth first, you can enjoy its various flavors and aromas. This way, you can also better assess the amount of accompanying herbs and sauces you will use to produce the flavor you are looking for.” Tasting before you add extras is a good rule of thumb for appreciating the complexity of the beefy broth and tenderness of the meats served within. The No. 8 contains five different cuts of beef: flank, rare steak, brisket, tripe and tendon. Pausing to allow the thinly sliced raw steak, flank and brisket to soak up the beefy broth while you slurp for a while will help the meat achieve its maximum tenderness and flavor, providing a juicy and supple element, while the tripe and tendon add texture and interest to the brew. No need to add typical condiments — hoisin and sriracha — to this pho; the delectably meaty, slurp-tastic broth stands on its own without any help from the ubiquitous rooster.
Koshari at Koshari Time
1155 South Havana Street, Aurora
Denver’s only Egyptian eatery opened its doors to the public on Havana street in February 2018. Koshari (pronounced “CUSH-er-y”) is the national dish of Egypt and the star on the brief menu. It's comfort food made with lentils, macaroni noodles, chickpeas and white rice; at Koshari Time, a few spaghetti noodles are intertwined in the mix as well. On top of the mountain of fiber-heavy goods rests a ladle of garlicky tomato sauce (your choice of spicy or mild) and a tangle of curly fried onions. Though the entree is typically eaten as a vegan dish in Egypt (even the onions here are fried in vegetable oil), at Koshari Time you can order yours plain or with halal chicken or ground beef atop the carby mound for a few bucks more. No noodle too mushy, no legume too firm, everything in the garlic-imbued dish is uniformly cooked to a toothsome texture, with the fried onions adding a crunchy layer and a touch of fat for contrast. So even if tickets to Cairo are not in your foreseeable future, sampling Egypt’s national dish right here in metro Denver can serve as temporary consolation.
Green Onion Chicken at Angry Chicken
1930 South Havana Street, Aurora
Great news for all you gluten-free folks: Fried chicken can finally be an option for you — as long as you don’t mind a little kick from your chick. "Angry" is an apt word to describe the poultry’s spicy flavor; golden and uniformly breaded with a savory rice coating on the outside and with a hot and spicy jolt on the inside, this chicken lets you know right away that it ain’t the Colonel’s recipe. Of the sauces available (some of which contain gluten, so be warned), the savory green-onion sauce stood out, pairing the viscosity of honey with aromas of onion and garlic. A painstaking process of marinating fresh chicken in a blend of proprietary sauces and spices for 24 hours before being fried yields delicious results. The rice-flour coating doesn’t absorb oil the way wheat-flour breading does, resulting in a crispy outer coating that looks just like the American classic. Beneath that, the meat is juicy, glistening and zesty. While you won't be left with an oil slick on your hands, you'll still go through plenty of napkins, since the sticky sauce coats every piece. All of the chicken is made to order, which takes fifteen to twenty minutes, but your patience will be rewarded. Just don’t forget the wet naps.
Taiwan Style Beef Noodle Soup at Lucky China
2000 South Havana Street, Aurora
Long before many have hit the morning snooze button, Lucky China owner Helen Cai and her staff are already busy in the kitchen braising hand-selected cuts of beef in rich bone broth flavored with bits of garlic, ginger, soy sauce and other secret seasonings that will become the savory Taiwan style beef noodle soup dish you’ll be joyously inhaling for lunch or dinner later that day. Served up to patrons six hours after it got its start, the meaty elixir has that slow-cooked taste that can’t be forged. With a flick of your spoon, tender pieces of beef release from the bone to float among bok choy and other veggies and long swirls of delicate handmade noodles cooked to the perfect “Q” texture, a Chinese term that means chewy, springy and slightly firm. Cai, who has been making versions of this laborious dish since she was a teenager in Taiwan, has been cooking up the meaty repast alongside her kitchen staff at Lucky China since 2013. When you come for the steaming soup, bring Cai and her staff a strong cup of coffee to give them energy to keep making this distinctively tasty entree all the way into dinnertime.
Cinnamon Rolls at Dozens
2180 South Havana Street, Aurora
The question isn’t “How far would you go for a cinnamon roll?” It’s "How far would you go with a cinnamon roll?” At Dozens, the breakfast and lunch eatery on South Havana Street in Aurora, the answer for many customers is “around the world." Dozens started its Cinnamon Roll Challenge in the 1980s, after a regular customer took a picture of himself traveling with one because he loved the restaurant's cinnamon rolls so much. Dozens put the photo on the dining room wall, and other customers began bringing in their photos of memorable moments palming the cinnamon roll, too— and so the challenge was born. Among the photos (such as a bride clutching one on her wedding day), one snapshot that stands out is of two women with the confection in Australia, with the Sydney opera house behind them. Directly beneath it, there's a picture of the two women's daughters in the same location, holding up a Dozens cinnamon roll — twenty years later. The jet-setting pastry is about the size of a quarter-pounder and comes with a large dollop of melting butter where frosting traditionally sits. Your first forkful causes a waterfall of molten butter that seeps into every nook and cranny of the roll. Swirls of cinnamon are evenly distributed throughout, ensuring a flavorful bite from start to finish. It’s no wonder people smuggle these sweet snacks in their carry-ons.
Gorditas at Taqueria Corona
2222 South Havana Street, Aurora
Born of modest beginnings as a taco stand at the corner of Mississippi Avenue and Peoria Street ten years ago, Taqueria Corona is now a full-service restaurant, wedged inconspicuously between a hookah cafe and sushi bar. You might almost miss the little eatery if you aren’t paying attention. The stand is long gone, but Corona still uses the same family recipes that put the "home" in home-cooked Mexican food. You’ll feel like family as you put in your order with one of the members of the Corona family, who came to Colorado from Guanajuato, Mexico, twenty years ago. Of the many specialties is a rendition of the gordita, a popular street snack filled to bursting with your choice of tender marinated meats or nopales. After the fluffy handmade masa shell is stuffed with meat or cactus, it's further filled with lettuce, tomato, ample crumbles of queso fresco (for an extra .25 cents) and a dollop of crema. One bite of the portly delicacy will have you belting a grito for a second (or third) helping.
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The Molcajete Tiburón at Mariscos El Licenciado
10600 East Iliff Avenue, Aurora
Mariscos El Licenciado is the perfect place to dive head first into Sinoloan seafood, with the molcajete tiburón at the top of the list of many intriguing entrees. A smoldering stone bowl is filled with octopus, bacon-wrapped shrimp, fried calamari, fried chunks of tilapia and a scary-looking fish: a whole fried mojarra — spines, head and all — that hangs off the rim of the bowl like a giant lime wedge, wearing a thin cornmeal coating. The dish comes out on a wooden lazy Susan scorched from the heat of the stone; bubbling cheese and salsa verde create a symphony of sizzle and pop that continues to percolate long after it arrives at your table. Watch for bones as you dig up bits of fish, then pop that tender meat straight into your mouth or place it on a warm corn tortilla with some beans and rice. The calamari rings are coated in an addictive cornmeal crust similar to a garlic hush puppy, the shrimp are stuffed with cheese, and the tender octopus, swimming in salsa and butter, absorbs flavor from bits of garlic and green chiles in the mix. After excavating the contents of the molcajete, you might find yourself guiltily nibbling on pieces of crusty cheese baked onto the hot stone. If so, rest assured that you're not the only one.
Butter Chicken at Chutney
2740 South Havana Street, Aurora
For the price you would pay for a lifeless salad at most sit-down restaurants, Aurora newcomer Chutney serves up outright decadence in a relaxed cafeteria-style eatery. Among the variety of Indian and Nepalese street foods served here is the charming butter chicken, with large pieces of delicate meat soaked in a hot bath of buttery tomato gravy and served with a side of fragrant basmati rice. An accompaniment of housemade, lightly charred naan also comes in handy for mopping up any creamy tomato goodness left in your Styrofoam bowl. With fifteen years of experience cooking in and running Indian restaurants in the Denver area, Chutney owner Ashim Chettri focuses on serving quality street foods traditional in Indian markets and food carts — chaats, momos and palak paneer among them. If you’re looking for a new taste experience without the fuss of a traditional sit-down restaurant or want to grab something quick that's a little more adventurous than the standard takeout options, the butter chicken is definitely worth stopping for.