Readers and restaurateurs always want to know what the selection process entails. It's as simple as this: Staffers make secret visits to places recommended by readers, co-workers, letter-writers, restaurant owners and employees, friends, business associates, neighbors and bums. We check out every place we've heard of or driven by, and we do it from the day after the last Best of Denver issue comes out to the week before the current one. I'm blessed (and cursed) to be the main taster for the food-and-drink section, and I keep a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, a box of Alka-Seltzer and a bag full of plastic food-storage containers in my car year-round for that very reason.
From January to June, things really heat up. That's when I spend one whole day each week, from morning to night, doing nothing but driving from place to place. I order the item in question, take as many bites as necessary, scribble a few notes and move on to the next spot. Sometimes the contest is so close it requires a repeat visit. That was the case with Senor Burrito, at 12 East First Avenue, which puts out a fine, huge burrito ($4.25) stuffed to the limits with spicy marinated pork, refried beans and rice. Sometimes, though, it's clear from the first bite that the item is a loser. The burrito ($3.75) at Rancho Grande, 10890 East Dartmouth Avenue in Aurora, looked like a bag lady's purse, all open and loose with half the contents--dried-out beef and too many squishy refried beans--falling out.
Ethnic restaurants are the toughest to judge because there are so many of them, especially Chinese. Little Shanghai Cafe, at 460 South Broadway, was a contender; it whipped up an extra-enormous portion of super-spicy orange beef ($9.95), with big chunks of tender meat coated in a sauce that wasn't overly sticky-sweet and had lots of orange slices. But the egg rolls ($3) tasted like three tiny rolls of paper towels soaked in grease--soggy, soft and falling apart. On the other hand, the egg rolls ($4.95) at the Vietnamese Little Saigon, at 201 Steele in Cherry Creek, were real contenders: Rice paper had been wrapped tightly around chicken, pork and black mushrooms, then the packages were deep-fried to a beautiful golden color and served with a fiery fish sauce. Saigon fell, though, with its tom boc thit ($13.95), an overpriced entree of four shrimp encased in undercooked ground pork and rice paper. And while the pho ($4.95) at Cafe Saigon, 9400 West Colfax, was good--a beefy broth strong with star anise and choking with meat and vegetables--it wasn't great like the pungent pho at winner Pho Duy, 945-G South Federal, which, unlike most Vietnamese spots, makes little else besides the soup.
Even more hotly contested than ethnic foods are pizza and burgers. Both garner the most phone calls and recommendations, and both seem to offer the highest number of duds. The pies that came closest to glory were from Bonnie Brae Tavern ($7 for an eight-inch), at 740 South University, Valente's ($10.45 for a twelve-inch), at 6995 West 38th Avenue, and Gaetano's ($5.50 for a ten-inch), at 3760 Tejon Street. Bonnie's was the best of the three, with plenty of cheese, a sweet sauce and a firm crust with crispy edges. While Gaetano's was stingy with their garlicky sauce, Valente's poured on too much of a good sauce and cooked its pie way too long (the bottom half was nearly burned).
At least the pizzas were passable, which is more than I can say for many of the burgers. At Jackson's Hole, 1520 20th Street, I had to eat the burger ($4.99) with a fork, since the patty was so juicy the meat soaked right through the bun and turned the whole thing into a burger-stew-on-a-plate. The big, soft buns at The Parlour, 846 Broadway, put their burger ($5.50) ahead of most, but the meat was tasteless; the burger ($5.45) at Rodney's, 2819 East Second Avenue, while ordered medium, arrived so rare it was a health hazard, and I had to send it back. The kitchen threw the burger--lettuce, tomato, cheese and all--back on the grill and turned it into something the new hockey team could use for practice. And then brought it back to me.
Where raw fish is concerned, it's not a question of cooking skill but cutting and packaging it on top of rice--and the flavor of the rice can make all the difference. At Kobe-An, 85 South Union Boulevard in Aurora, the rice fell apart and lacked the vinegary undertone that sparks up the fish. The rice at Sonoda's, 3108 South Parker Road, had the right balance of sweet to sour and the fish was top-notch, but the two times I visited, their California roll was mushy and bland.
Special delivery: I had the chance to check out Sonoda's again during the July 16 benefit for the Volunteers of America Meals on Wheels program that gets food to people with AIDS. This time I was happy not just with the California rolls but with the whole event: About 125 people shelled out $25 for an all-you-can-eat-and-drink fest that took place in art galleries along Wazee Street and points nearby. Artwise, there was something for everyone, the food was great (sushi was particularly welcome on the 95-degree day), and the event was so well-organized and well-executed that it was a shame more people didn't get involved. Each gallery hosted one or two restaurants or caterers; participants wore badges that gave them access to such wonderful treats as the lavish spread by City Spirit Cafe, which laid out tabbouleh, jalapeno-studded cream cheese, caper salsa and a generous variety of cheeses, bread and fruit, all paired with a just-made sangria. My favorite, though, was the lasagne by White's Catering; a little salty from hefty chunks of sausage, it had a marvelous coating of cheese that went well with the red wine. The Wynkoop Brewing Company provided a peach shortcake with all the whipped cream you could carry, but I still had room for the dessert offered by Tattered Cover LoDo: I never turn down an opportunity to stuff my face with ice cream from Josh and John's, especially if their ultra-rich butter pecan is involved.