Denver has been an incubator for fast-casual restaurants ever since Chipotle made a big splash with its first store in the mid-'90s. But the evolution of the concept has gone far beyond burritos and sandwiches. Fast and casual doesn't have to mean cheap and greasy. Quite a few eateries opened this year with counter service, menu options that can be cooked quickly or served up point-and-order style, and relaxed dining rooms perfect for families with kids, savvy urban residents on the go, or budget-minded diners looking for great food without the added expense that full-service dining entails.
In fact, so many new quick-service joints have sprung up that we've compiled our favorites in one list. Keep reading for the ten best new fast-casual restaurants in metro Denver to open in 2014, in alphabetical order.
10) Babajoon's Kabobs 1005 West 120th Avenue, Westminster 303-974-5400 Babajoon's opened in April, serving flame-grilled kabobs in the traditional Persian style and house-made flatbreads called taftoon baked in a custom-made oven. The place is bright and modern and filled with the aroma of spices, baking bread and charbroiled meats. While Denver has its share of tasty Middle Eastern eateries, this Westminster gem stands out for the freshness, unique menu and cheery service. 9) Biju's Little Curry Shop 1441 26th Street 303-292-3500
Biju's just managed to open its doors before year-end, beating a few other eateries -- a new Park Burger and Osaka Ramen -- to the punch in a new development at 26th Avenue and Walnut Street. But it didn't take long for LoHi residents to realize that the South Indian curries and chapati wraps were something new on the scene. House-made sauces with tamarind, toasted coconut and fiery bird's eye chiles add screamingly fresh bursts of flavor to the already complex and layered vindaloo, Kerala garlic beef, coconut curry chicken and other house specialties. Colors and flavors collide in both the food ad decor; rich saffron yellows and deep browns highlight both the biriyani and the art on the walls. "This is the stuff me and my brothers grew up eating," says chef Biju Thomas, and now he's sharing it with Denver.
8) Bruxie 1000 South Colorado Boulevard, Glendale 303-963-9045
After getting its start in California, Bruxie chose Colorado for its first out-of-state store, opening on South Colorado Boulevard earlier this year. "We knew we wanted to take our concept out of Orange County, and as we were thinking of cities that really appreciate good food, Denver, from our perspective, was front and center as a city that's food- and chef-centric and would appreciate our concept," explains co-founder Dean Simon; he and Kevin Mullarney partnered with Jeff Goodman and Matt Stein (who both have formidable restaurant backgrounds) to open the Denver shrine to waffles and the "bold fold" - sandwiches that sub Belgian waffles for bread and load them with interesting stuffings. "It's about well-thought-out and composed flavors that really pop and explode, and it's about creating sandwiches where every ingredient has a purpose and the compelling flavors move you to the next bite," says Stein. Those flavors could range from fillings of grilled ham, Tillamook cheddar, eggs and a vibrant pesto arugula to subtly sweet lemon-cream-smeared waffles with fresh blueberries. The restaurant also offers salads and specialty coffees.
Keep reading for seven more of the best fast-casual restaurants of 2013.
7) Bubu 1430 Larimer Street 303-996-2685
Troy Guard opened the subterranean Bubu this summer in the former home of TAG|Raw Bar on a stretch of Larimer Square known for high-end dining, not fast food. Bubu's service may be fast, but the flavors and ingredients are definitely high-end. You can either build your own bowl from a list that encompasses Pacific Rim flavors with a few Southwestern accents, or choose from several house combos off a menu packed with tempting options. Guard's signature Hawaii Five-O, an homage to his home state, with hearts of palm, fennel, shiitakes, and a choice of protein -- grilled steak, poached chicken or shrimp, tofu and raw tuna or salmon -- is typical of the options. All of the bowls can be built on rice, rice noodles or a salad of mixed greens. Add bubu -- crunchy, spice rice puffs -- to any dish for a burst of flavor and texture.
6) Cart-Driver 2500 Larimer Street 303-292-3553
Kelly Whitaker took his Basta concept from Boulder and a paired it down for this 26-seat shoebox of an eatery built inside a shipping container. Cart-Driver abandons the build-your-own option common at many other fast-casuals, choosing instead to offer a tightly-edited menu of topping combos for the wood-fired pizzas along with a small list of fresh oysters and other Italian bites -- like a tuna mousse served with house-made focaccia -- keep things interesting at happy hour and during late-night service, which runs until midnight daily. Unlike many other counter-service restaurants, you can keep your tab open at Cart-Driver, only paying once you've had a chance to sample your way through the menu or sip a couple of cocktails.
5) Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery 4990 East Colfax Avenue 720-550-7665
Chef Clint Wangsnes is serving full-service food in a quick-service restaurant, putting out polished plates by employing sous-vide methods to slow cook meats -- and onions, for a rich French onion soup -- to add depth of flavor to dishes that only take a few minutes to plate and present to guests. Almost everything is served on wooden boards, from a 48-hour short rib with creamy whipped potatoes and hoisin demi-glace to crispy-fried tofu with quinoa, veggies and chimichurri. Batched cocktails on tap speed up the line too, but once seated, you won't want to hurry. Everything on the menu is worth slowing down for and lingering over each delicious bite.
4) Hopdoddy 1747 Wynkoop Street 303-446-2337
Hopdoddy got its start in Austin, Texas; this is only the second of its burger bars outside of the Lone Star State. With so many new burger joints popping up, Hopdoddy stands out with freshness and quality. Beef -- a chuck and brisket blend -- is ground fresh throughout the day, and all of the buns, even the fluffy and flavorful gluten-free variety, are baked in-house. If you're not feeling beefy, the menu also includes bison, lamb, chicken, turkey and tuna burgers, as well as a vegetarian black bean and corn patty. Hopdoddy makes sure the bar meets the same standards, since it's the first thing you pass before you even order your food. Limoncello and triple sec are house-made, and boozy milkshakes give an adult twist to the burger-and-shake combo.
Keep reading for three more of the best fast-casual restaurants of 2013.
3) Motomaki 1600 28th Street, Boulder 720-943-2030
There's something undeniably fun about the light and delicious offerings at Motomaki, from the folks who brought you Hapa Sushi. Motomaki specializes in big rolls, Japanese flavors and Hawaiian poke. Motomaki's rolls are considerably larger than standard sushi-bar maki, with an ample amount of rice and creative fillings wrapped in whole sheets of nori. The nacho tuna roll features spicy tuna, crunchy tempura asparagus, mango salsa, guacamole and sriracha aioli. Other options include a kalbi roll with Korean-style beef, a banh mi maki with char siu pork and jalapeño cilantro dressing, and a vegetarian teriyaki eggplant roll. Poke can be ordered with traditional diced Hawaiian-style tuna or or with salmon or hamachi.
2) Protein Bar 1855 29th Street, Boulder 303-440-1028
Protein bar is another fast-casual import, this time from Chicago. The first opened in spring of this year in Boulder, but three others have cropped up in Denver since then. The healthy menu focuses on grilled "bar-ritos" stuffed with quinoa, chicken or tofu and a variety of veggies and sauces that trade in processed ingredients and fat for the latest superfoods -- think flax and chia seeds, kale, purple cabbage and Greek yogurt. Most options can be easily made vegan and even a hearty bowl of chili comes in chicken or vegetarian choices. It's a great lunch option for those busy days when you can't afford an afternoon letdown brought on by two-pound burritos or a pile of fries.
1) Sunnyside Burger Bar 3759 Lipan Street 303-534-2367
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Troy Guard scored two fast-casual eateries this year. While Bubu skews toward light and healthy bowls with Asian flair, Sunnyside Burger Bar delivers a comforting menu and an ambiance with neighborhood appeal. Burgers, as the sign says, are the name of the game here, in a relaxed setting with service that falls somewhere between fast-casual and full-on table service. Ordering is done in the standard fast-casual format: the line snakes past the bar where you can grab a beer -- perhaps from Diebolt Brewing just a few blocks away -- or cocktail before ordering from the big menu board, but servers patrol the dining room once you grab a table (numbered so you never have to tote your food around looking for a seat) in case you want to tack on to your order. Along with Guard's signature fried pickle chips, burger combos include healthy toppings like roasted beets, quinoa and kale to decidedly decadent fare like fried avocado slices and piles of potato chips. Retro touches likepimento cheese spread and green goddess dip give away Guard's fondness for the food of his childhood.