The Rest of Denver

In my original Best of Denver 2006 list, Chama (see review) was up for something like 74 awards. Why? Because the place is just flat-out fantastic. And while the haters out there can say what they like -- scream bias because I know owner Sean Yontz, refire the rumors of our secret homosexual love affair, whatever -- might I just humbly suggest that they actually eat at the restaurant before getting worked up into a lynching kind of mood? Like Mezcal before it and El Taco de México before that, Chama tickles my taco bone (that's not a euphemism, you perverts) and stands as a kind of bad-day hedge against me throwing the typer, the wife and a couple of my best Puerto Rican party shirts into the car and running off to Ensenada when the pressures of the First World get a little extreme. Lucky for me, food has always served as a balm against ill-considered changes of address. And lucky for the Mexican border authorities, I've never yet had quite as many dollars in the ol' savings account as I'd need to get to Juarez or Zihuatanejo and set Laura and myself up in the crazy guero dope-lord style that I promised her on the day we wed.

My knowing a restaurateur is no guarantee that his restaurant will do well in the Best of Denver. Just ask Frank Bonanno. His Mizuna and Luca d'Italia are two of the finest restaurants I've had the pleasure of dining in (over and over and over again), and they got the love this year. But his Milagro Taco Bar got a nod only for its great tortilla soup; the rest of the fare doesn't rank with the town's best Mexican. And Harry's Chop House simply isn't award-worthy yet. I don't like kicking a friend any more than the next guy does, but this is business, okay? My favorite scene in the Godfather movies comes in part II, when Michael takes his brother by the ears, kisses him and tells poor Fredo that he knows everything, that he broke his fucking heart. I love that goddamn scene...

You can kiss Chapter One Bar-B-Que good-bye. It was my pick for Best Ribs until mid-March, when I discovered that Chapter One had suddenly become Chapter Two (with the "two" painted right over the "one" on the sign). And the name wasn't the only change: The barbecue now sucks. Next stop, Chapter 11.

Meanwhile, Buenos Aires Pizzeria has changed for the better. Its Cuban sandwiches earned it this year's Best Taste of Miami -- but when I stopped in to eat those sandwiches, as well as a lot of other stuff, at a celebratory lunch last week, I discovered that my backhanded Best Dinner Destination for Impressing a Blind Date award no longer applies. A few months ago, the dining room of this neighborhood Argentine restaurant was simple and spartan, in no way a match for the wonderful food. But it's since been jazzed up with more art on the walls and feels much more welcoming. Just goes to show, the only thing constant in this city is change.

There was a sad change at another longtime winner: the 20th Street Cafe, this year's Best Cheap Breakfast. Owner Ann Okuno, a fixture at the place, passed away early last week -- but my favorite breakfast bar barely broke stride. The cafe was closed for a day but open again the next, serving the community of regulars who'd come to know Okuno, her husband, Ted, and the whole family during sixty years of business.

Even without Chapter One, Denver has dozens of decent barbecue shacks -- M&D's, Yazoo Barbecue Company, Joe's West of Memphis, the chicharones-style ribs at Sabor Latino, Hog Heaven, Wolfe's, Big Papa's -- but the Bugling Bull is better. Seriously, I almost crashed my car coming back from Sedalia while trying to steer and shove an entire slow-smoked country rib into my mouth at the same time. Get down there and try the Bull for yourself. I think you'll agree.

The opening of Sushi Sasa last summer upped the ante for sushi in this town, too, suddenly making it clear that a lot of Denver's sushi restaurants have been getting something of a free ride. While the remodeled Japon, Fontana Sushi, Sushi Tazu and, surprisingly, Hapa Sushi in Cherry Creek all turned in stellar efforts this year, none were quite stellar enough to make the cut. Remember, it's called the Best of Denver for a reason -- not Second-Best of Denver or Almost-But-Not-Quite-Best of Denver. And though Tazu has a great bar and Japon does great sushi, neither are the best this year. Between Sushi Sasa and Sushi Den, this is a tough category, and competition is fierce. As a matter of fact, I was at Japon not long ago eating maki and miso, stuffing myself with fish eggs and having a wonderful time. But why was I there? Because I couldn't get a table at Sushi Sasa.

In the same vein, Kim Ba took the award for Best Vietnamese because second place was a thirty-way tie between all those other good Vietnamese joints in town except for Parallel Seventeen, which walked away with the award for Best Nouvelle Vietnamese. Le Central (which I love for reasons too numerous to list here, some of which were included in the Best of 2006) is a great French restaurant, but Z Cuisine is better. So good, in fact, that it was an easy choice for Best New Restaurant.

From the moment I first walked into Frasca, it was clear that place was a winner -- and not only did I name it Best New Restaurant in the Best of Denver 2005, but it picked up several more awards in the 2006 edition. And then there's owner/chef Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson's recent nomination as Rising Star Chef of the Year in the James Beard Awards, standing alongside such heavy-hitters as Graham Elliot Bowles (Avenues, Chicago), David Chang (Momofuku Noodle Bar, New York), Corey Lee (French Laundry, Yountville, California) and Tre Wilcox (Abacus, Dallas), and doing so proudly.

Some stalwarts from last year's list don't appear in this year's Best of Denver. Solera, for example, because it seems to be operating on a weird edge with a lot of staff changes and its chef, Goose Sorenson, bopping all over hell and creation. And since it lost its chef, Table 6 has been going through enough of an identity crisis that I'm going to wait until the dust settles there, too. And while Tamayo didn't make the cut for Mexican, last week I visited Richard Sandoval's Larimer Square stronghold again to see what's cooking there (see Second Helping).

There are many fine restaurants in Denver that didn't make the Best of Denver 2006. Some were too young, some just not good enough. That first draft of more than 300 possible winners was eventually whittled down to about 150 that made last week's issue, and I'm not going to reveal the also-ran roster. That's what the rest of the year is for. There are 51 weeks until the Best of Denver 2007, which gives me about 100 pages and 200,000 words to deal with all the good, the bad and the ugly that goes down in Denver between now and then.

Chama was a good start. I can't wait to see what happens next.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan