Denver has lots of great Mexican restaurants, a few good Latin American restaurants, and not many South American restaurants. But Fogo de Chao, which opened this summer, would be a great restaurant on any continent. Here are Denver's ten top way-south-of-the-border restaurants.
Aji Latin American Restaurant 1601 Pearl Street, Boulder, 303-442-3464. Aji bills itself as a Latin American restaurant, and its menu is a postmodern fusion of Peruvian, Mexican, Argentine, Cuban, Brazilian, Salvadoran and Caribbean influences, in varying degrees of authenticity. Although little on Aji's menu makes much classical sense, a lot of it is very good, offering a güero-friendly Trip-Tik of Latino nouvelle, a reiteration of ingredients and flavors that present Central and South America as a single place, possessed of a single, over-arching culinary gestalt.
Buenos Aires Pizzeria 1319 22nd Street, 303-296-6710. The menu at this understated Argentine pizza joint lists thirty types of pizza, each as unique as a snowflake, and not one bearing a single slice of pepperoni. Hearts of palm? Absolutely. Corn? You bet. The salty Crudo features prosciutto and sun-dried tomatoes; there's sliced oranges, pineapple and shredded coconut on the Tropical. And shredded hard-boiled egg adorns about half of the offerings: Apparently the Argentine people were the first to discover that hard-boiled egg (both whites and yolks) lend a weird, wonderful, almost nutty flavor to a slice.
Cafe Brazil 4408 Lowell Blvd., 303-480-1877. For years, Cafe Brazil has been the go-to spot for Denverites looking for a taste of South America. Unlike most of the Brazilian restaurants in this country, it isn't a churrascaria -- but rather a proper Brazilian (and Latin American) restaurant that offers all the greatest hits of a canon that spans several countries. The space is casual and often crowded, the service friendly, and the food stands as a good survey of all the influences (Spanish, Italian, French and indigenous) that have made South American cuisine one of the most interesting ethnic culinary diversions to come along. Bonus points for the new rum bar. $$-$$$
El Chalate, 8115 East Colfax Avenue, 303-333-0818 At El Chalate, a stripped-down Mexican and Salvadorian pit stop on East Colfax, you'll often be welcomed by a young girl who likes to practice her English. She flits around the dining room, stopping to chat with patrons, while the attentive waitstaff hustles from table to table dropping off heaping plates of pupusas, stuffed with queso, chicharrón or both, and served with both a mellow tomato sauce and curtido, a tart slaw of carrots, cabbage and oregano. The joint does a steady takeout trade, especially on weekends, when you'll often see a line stretching out the door with people jonesing for the tamales de pollo.
Empanada Express Grill, 2600 East Street, Unit G, Golden, 720-226-4701. This small South American joint that got its start as a cart isn't remotely fancy; its narrow storefront space contains just a few worn tables and a glass case filled, oddly, with perfectly folded men's shirts that sell for $15 each. Still, where else in town can you can dress a man and feed him corn cakes swollen with black beans, shredded beef, plantains and cheese? The arepas, empanadas (impossibly puffy and lighter than air) and cachapas (corn pancakes with blackened surfaces paved with white cheese) are just as addictive. Empanada Express Grill has no liquor license, but the fresh fruit juices - cantaloupe, passion fruit, pineapple, coconut, papaya, guava and mango - are vast improvements over the sodas in the fridge.
Fogo de Chão 1513 Wynkoop Street, 303-623-9600. Fogo de Chão is not a place that any mortal man could visit with any regularity while actually remaining mortal, without ending up just flat dead from a meat overdose. Zeus, perhaps, could eat here three times in a week. James Beard or Escoffier could've probably managed four in their portly heydays. But for the rest of us mortals, the occasional trip to this Brazilian churrascaria and temple of skewered meats ought to be plenty. Wear your big-boy pants, bring a credit card (because it ain't exactly cheap), and settle in behind a couple of caipirinhas for some of the best meat and service in town. $$$$
Limón 1618 East 17th Avenue, 303-322-0898. Small and weird and uncommon and devilishly crowded at its peak is not a standard recipe for wild restaurant success. But in Limón's warm storefront space, owner/chef Alex Gurevich has singlehandedly sold Denver on authentic Novoandino cuisine -- a combination of modern Peruvian flavors and classical French technique that's complex, comforting and delicious all at the same time. And Limón's success hasn't been hampered by its south-of-the-border-cool cocktail list, either.
Los Cabos II 1525 Champa Street, 303-595-3232. Peruvian food is some of the strangest, most delicious stuff in the world, a mish-mash of centuries of cultural influences thrown together onto one plate. Spanish conquistadors, Arabs and Moors, explorers bringing spices from India, Italian cartographers, historic Creoles, African slaves and Asian immigrants -- they've all added a little to the rich history of Peruvian cookery, and you can taste all of that (or most of it, anyway) at Francesca Ruiz's friendly, unassuming Los Cabos.
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Red Tango 5807 West 38th Avenue, 303-420-2203. Owner Jose Acevedo watches the front of the house, standing post behind the short bar, overseeing service and talking soccer and food with his regulars. In the back, chef Ulises Santiago and his crew cook up seasonal menus from Latin America, changing the globe-trotting lineup several times a year. This casual, comfortable place has been on a slow build, winning customers by word of mouth, keeping them with friendly service and excellent food.
Sabor Latino 4340 W. 35th Ave., 303-455-8664. Sabor Latino's feel-good ambience makes this decades-old northwest Denver joint easy to love. The dining room is comfortably rustic, with an atmosphere that hangs somewhere in that inviting, tender middle ground between aging white-tablecloth class and neighborhood eclecticism. The menu is half Mexican standards and half greatest hits of Central and South American cuisines (some holdovers from the original owners and location on 32nd Avenue); almost all of it is very, very good.