How do you choose the city's best new restaurant when nearly 250 eateries opened in metro Denver last year? That's easy: You go with your gut.
At the end of 2018, we looked back through all of the restaurants that had opened that year and narrowed down the list to a dozen that rose to the top, each worthy of much praise and repeat visits. Some were daring and challenging, such as the Wolf's Tailor and Liberati Osteria & Oenobeers, others comforting and familiar, like Chow Morso Osteria and Safta.
But one place stood above the rest, both in memory and reality. I realized that when a group of East Coast friends — from Boston, New York City and the Washington, D.C., area, all world travelers who knew a thing or two about food — were in town and had one night to experience Denver's dining scene at its best. When they asked where that special meal should be, my answer came quickly and confidently: Super Mega Bien.
I wanted the group to see this sophomore effort from Dana Rodriguez and Tony Maciag (joined by Tabatha Knop), right across from their first restaurant, Work & Class. I wanted them to experience the lively atmosphere that lands on the enjoyable side of chaotic, have their meals served on Latin American dim sum carts and in cauldrons bubbling from the heat of oven-baked stones, enjoy the warm service that gets you what you need, when you need it, without much fuss.
Above all, I wanted them to taste the food of chef/co-owner Rodriguez and experience her warmth, generosity and overflowing spirit.
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And they did! Over lamb mixiote braised in banana leaves, that hot-stone soup overflowing with seafood, and plate after plate of little pupusas, rellenos, ceviches and other nibbles, they were won over, too, and left full, tipsy and happy.
Rodriguez, Maciag and Knop chose a tricky concept and made it work. Although they nearly gave up on the dim sum carts early on, they soon were on a roll as diners gained confidence in how to organize their meal. After all, it's not that difficult: You simply point at anything that looks good; the toughest part is knowing when to stop pointing (and eating). Rather than stick to tried-and-true formulas or turn out easy comfort food for the masses, they gave Denver something wonderful and one of a kind, without ever becoming pedantic or precious.
Denver is fortunate to be in the midst of a restaurant boom in which chefs are rising to the challenge of feeding a diverse and growing population, and where restaurateurs are coming up with unique and interesting concepts to keep competition strong. And we're particularly lucky to have Super Mega Bien and a chef like Rodriguez, whose cooking is a reflection of her personal history as well as an expression of her creativity and ability to absorb and reimagine other influences.
Here's to the best!