The Rest of Denver

By Thursday, the calls and e-mails had already begun -- the complaints, the disputes, the polite thank-yous from winners and strange, ominous silences from those shut out of the Best of Denver 2007. In the interest of democracy and spirited debate, this year we've made it even easier for you to sound off -- just click the little "comment" button on the web page and let fly. Think you know of a better African restaurant than Arada? A better sandwich place (not fucking likely) than the one I chose? I'd love to hear about it. And if you just want to get online and tell me what a dick I am for passing over your favorite hot dog, taco or cheese plate, I'm cool with that, too. The First Amendment rules. Make it your bitch.

That said, I can't believe that I've already done five of these issues (and lived to tell about it). Every year the list seems to grow longer, the winner's circle larger, the research more crippling. No lie: I ate my last official Best of Denver meal less than 24 hours before the food section went to press, and was still making revisions right up until the end. My first post-Best of Denver dinner was last Wednesday night at about eleven o'clock -- just a few hours after the paper had hit the street -- and where did I go? To Viva Burrito Company on Leetsdale, winner of Best Breakfast Burrito at 2 a.m., where I discovered that its award could already use a slight alteration. Because while I've always been a fan of Viva's breakfast burritos, I've usually eaten them when I'm sober (and hence capable of maneuvering my car through the drive-thru, finding my wallet, etc.). But now that I've been there completely in the bag, I'm even more of a fan. I was four double whiskeys to the wind with a designated driver hauling my ass around, and in that condition, a Viva breakfast burrito (which the joint wasn't technically serving at that hour, but I asked nice) was not just good, but brilliant. Viva Burrito should have gotten the Best Breakfast Burrito When You're Shitfaced award, particularly for the bacon version that doesn't actually contain bacon, but huge pieces of cured, fried pork.

Speaking of "slight alterations," I have one major correction on the Best Free Chips and Salsa. I gave the award to Los Carboncitos, which definitely has the Best Free Salsa. Just one problem: Los Carboncitos doesn't serve chips. Not for love or money. Never has, not at either location. Still, Los Carboncitos does serve incredible salsas -- four varieties, brought free to every table. They're meant to be used as condiments, slathered across everything on the menu -- except chips, of course, of which there are none. The fact that I would sit there pulling apart tortillas or tearing the ends off my huaraches in order to sop up every drop of salsa does not change that.

So, okay. I fucked up. Los Carboncitos' award should be for Best Free Salsa. As for the Best Free Chips and Salsa? Well, there are lots of good chips in town -- certainly more than there are great salsas -- but the best combo would be at Chama (see Second Helping). Still, we don't need to worry too much about that great restaurant in Belmar feeling left out; it already picked up two awards in this year's issue.

As a matter of fact, many winners were deserving of multiple honors. In the sandwich area alone, Tacos D.F. , which won two awards, could have gotten a third for Best Torta -- a beautiful mess of pork and avocados and lettuce and killer hot sauce and cheese all squished together between two halves of a great, lardy sandwich roll. Toast somehow manages to make sandwiches as good as its pancakes, which are the best in the city; Parallel 17, which won two awards, deserved another for serving the city's only deconstructed banh mi. Then there's Tonti's for stromboli, Steuben's for its lobster roll, Chopsticks for Chinese pocket sandwiches, California Bakery for piroshki...

I didn't give a Best Cheesesteak award this year, because I did not have a single cheesesteak all year that was as good as last year's cheesesteaks. If I'd been forced to make a choice, I would have given it to Taste of Philly -- but that joint has become so inconsistent that it doesn't deserve to be called the best of anything. Still, I have high hopes for its next location, which is soon to open in the former home of Java Moon, at 1116 Broadway. That's just a block away from the Westword office, so I'll be keeping a close eye on the place.

Via, which I reviewed for this issue, was in serious contention for a couple of awards beyond Best French Fries and Best Taste of Naples. The Roy Rogers (Coke and cherry vodka topped with a handful of maraschino cherries) came close for best cocktail, and the overall restaurant was neck-and-neck with Solera for Best Comeback -- losing out only because Solera's fall was so much more precipitous, since Goose Sorensen's place had risen to much more elevated heights. And while that conchiglie pasta with smoked chicken and those Maine lobster ravioli were amazingly good, if I were to have picked a Best Pasta, they would've been up against Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson's agnolotti at Frasca, Frank Bonanno's crab gnocchi at Luca d'Italia, everything on Jennifer Jasinski's pasta board at Rioja, Kevin Taylor's soft-egg ravioli at Prima. How do you pick between those? I didn't even try. But picking a Best Italian Restaurant was a cinch: Venice in a walk. Its tasting menus alone are among the best in the entire city.

Which all goes to say that this year -- so much more so than the previous four -- not winning a Best of Denver award should not be taken as an insult. Trust me, if I were doing a Worst of Denver awards list (which I have been threatening to do for some time now), it would be long and dignified and vicious, but right now this city is in such a powerful position food-wise that nearly every restaurant, chef, bartender and plate given an award this year had two or five or a dozen restaurants, chefs, bartenders or plates standing right behind, close enough and deserving enough that I could have easily given out a couple hundred more awards.

But I didn't, because best is best. And in my opinion, Denver is a big enough city, a vital enough city and a grown-up enough city to have its bests named -- en clair, and for everyone to see. There's this story I like, most recently told by Jeremy Piven, about the Dalai Lama being asked by one of his supplicants for the best chant. The Lama, he thought about it for a minute. He scratched his head. And what he finally said was that he thought it was better not to have favorites or to choose what is best and what isn't because in doing so, one limits oneself by favoring just one thing. And do you know what that means?

That's right. The Dalai Lama is a pussy.

So to all you Best of Denver winners out there, congratulations. Crack a couple of cold ones and toast to your own success in the most competitive year I've been a part of. As for the rest of you: It's only 51 weeks until the Best of Denver 2008 hits the stands. Next year, the stakes will be higher, the competition tougher and, no doubt, the winner's circle even more crowded.

Let's all get to work.

Leftovers: But first, a few words from an anonymous caller who left this message on Westword's main number last Thursday: "I just want to say I'm very disappointed by the fact that you all ask for our opinions on the Best of Denver, and then you give what you guys think and the Readers' Choice on the bottom. That's pathetic -- especially on Food & Drink. You ask us for our opinion, we vote, and then Jason Sheehan gets to write up whatever he believes is the best. His little write-up. And that's ridiculous. You guys have picked the worst people to give write-ups for. Obviously, it must be about money now and not opinions, or your readers' opinions. So I have opted probably not to use your paper anymore. Thank you very much."

Obviously, this fellow hadn't used the Best of Denver much before, because it has always focused on editorial's choices -- not just in the five years that I've worked on this issue, but also in the nineteen before I came along. Short explanation why? For 24 years running, readers have picked McDonald's for Best French Fries. Longer answer: I'm paid to be a food critic, and that means I'm supposed to give opinions. And this year, I'm ready to fight for every single award -- except half of Los Carboncitos', of course.

Let the chips fall where they may.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan