Two years have passed since I began my exploration of Denver’s international food scene with the Ethniche series. Originally a monthly study of a single cuisine, it morphed into a look at individual dishes and their provenance, as well as a study of interpretations of specific preparations across various cultural groups. The series started with a quest for Hawaiian Spam musubi, and over the years I’ve even thrown in a few recipes based on finds at the city’s many international markets.
With knowledge from so many restaurants — and a little extra padding — accumulated along the way, two years seems a good time to look back at what I’ve eaten and learned. Here are the ten best dishes from the past year of Ethniche eating, in alphabetical order by restaurant name.
Goat With Rice and Spaghetti
Kin Somali Restaurant
7950 East Mississippi Avenue
A peek inside Kin Restaurant on Denver’s eastern frontier reveals a dining room that feels more like someone’s home than an actual business, and the food is equally homey and welcoming. Kin’s goat is served on a combo plate with mounds of fragrant rice and spaghetti (a holdover from Italian colonization) coated in tomato sauce. The goat itself is slow-roasted so that the vaguely curryish flavor of the seasoning penetrates all the way to the bone. Blasts of heat from a vivid green sauce, little more than a jalapeño purée, balance with cooling slices of banana — a must on any Somali platter.
1420 East 18th Avenue
Onefold somehow manages to offer the comfort of a neighborhood diner even as it presents uncommon Southeast Asian breakfast and lunch bites interspersed among more typical Colorado fare. A savory bowl of congee drizzled with chile oil stands in for oatmeal, while a simple chicken adobo wafts Filipino aromas across the cozy cafe. Thighs and drumsticks are marinated and braised in a soy-and-vinegar sauce that carries a hint of sweetness. The juices from the chicken and stir-fried vegetables soak into the pillowy white rice, ensuring that not a grain will remain at the bottom of the bowl.
Rou Jia Mo
New Peach Garden
1111 Washington Avenue, Golden
The Chinese government at one time declared that these cumin-spiced sandwiches from Xi’an were the world’s first hamburger. There’s not much truth to the claim, of course, since burgers can be found nearly everywhere (and Denver even claims to be the home of the cheeseburger). No question, though: The rou jia mo is a rare treat, and New Peach Garden does the street-food sandwich justice, cooking beef or pork (try one of each) until the meat shreds apart and sponges up a sauce evocative of both Southern barbecue and the ancient Asian spice route. The housemade rolls are split and stuffed, revealing a coiled, flaky construction equal to the croissants of any top-notch bakery. Golden is lucky to have the subterranean Chinese eatery tucked away beneath its busy main drag.
Stowaway Coffee + Kitchen
2528 Walnut Street
The Stowaway name is appropriate for this airy coffeehouse run by two globe-trekkers who called New Zealand, Japan and Australia home before setting sail for Denver. And the shakshuka served here has an international pedigree, too, with roots in Israeli cooking but a modern upgrade through jiggly poached eggs perched atop — rather than cooking in — a lake of tomato sauce made smoky with the addition of roasted eggplant. An arugula side salad, a few planks of ciabatta and a tangy ball of shanklish (a soft goat cheese) coated in za’atar seasoning makes for a hearty breakfast before a day of wandering.
Mixiote de Borega
Taqueria El Trompito
10021 East Hampden Avenue
Mixiote is a traditional lamb or goat dish from central Mexico that originally employed the skin of the agave plant as a wrapper to hold in moisture while the meat slowly cooked in a chile-laced sauce. Agave skins aren’t exactly a common commodity in Denver, so El Trompito seals lamb shanks under foil with dried herbs, then braises them for hours. The result is some of the tenderest lamb you’ll find anywhere, coated in a glossy brick-red sauce perfect for mopping up with warm corn tortillas. And in case you need a serving of veggies with your mixiote, this one comes topped with stewed nopales, adding an okra-like texture with just the barest hint of crunch.
Tarasco’s New Latino Cuisine
470 South Federal Boulevard
Tarasco’s may look humble, but the menu — heavy on the cuisine of Michoacán but with other regional surprises — strives toward alta cocina, especially with its sauces and tamales. You won’t find the mass-produced corn-masa bullets typical of many Mexican kitchens around town at Tarasco’s. Instead, the kitchen plates each tamal individually, giving it the spotlight it deserves. A flat, mole-bathed Oaxacan tamal comes wrapped in a banana leaf, adding an herbal note that eludes easy description. Even more minimalist is the sweet-corn tamal — a singular study in corn that’s the culinary equivalent of haiku: brief and to the point, but also profound.
Taste of Thailand
2120 South Broadway
Kow soi originated in northern Thailand, the home of Taste of Thailand chef-owner Noy Farrell. The dish isn’t easy to find in Denver, but Farrell has added the curry-chicken specialty to her regular repertoire since the restaurant moved to its current location from Englewood last summer. Steamed and braised bone-in chicken swims in a pool of rich, complex coconut curry, where soft noodles lurk beneath the surface. Another nest of fried noodles accompanies the kow soi, adding crunchy texture. House-pickled vegetables and toasted-chile oil round out the dish with sweet-and-sour tang and a slick of lingering heat.
The Lagunera Torta
3143 West 38th Avenue
There’s no shortage of good tortas in Denver, but Tortas ATM stands out for its commitment to street-food simplicity, with a stack of basic ingredients that add up to big flavor. A soft telera roll gets a hot-pink stuffing of cured ham shank, which is bolstered with processed white cheese, deli ham, guacamole, grilled jalapeño and a seemingly out-of-its-element squiggle of yellow mustard — putting the Lagunera in the same league as a Cuban sandwich. The riot of flavors conjures memories of school-lunch sandwiches, late-night tacos and greasy-spoon fried breakfasts all at once. In other words, it’s one badass sandwich.
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Rice Pillows in XO Sauce
Uncle Joe’s Hong Kong Bistro
891 14th Street
Shrimp and scallops are ostensibly the stars in this bowl of traditional Hong Kong flavors. But the XO sauce — made from dried scallops, chiles, cured pork and other exotic ingredients toted back from visits to China — is what gives the seafood its lush, dark coating and mystifying flavor. Little bouncy coils of broad rice noodle add a whimsical element that makes the dish a delight. Even in the heart of downtown’s tourist zone, Uncle Joe’s turns out Chinese cuisine that would fit right in to any major city’s Chinatown.
Lao Beef and Tripe Larb
Woody’s Wings N Things
6817 Lowell Boulevard
Behind the facade of what most would mistake for an all-American sports bar hides a treasure trove of Southeast Asian specialties, including Lao, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese and Cambodian dishes. The beef and tripe larb comes as a big, heaping salad of fresh herbs interlaced with strands of marinated rare beef and delicate ribbons of tripe. Mint and cilantro dominate, but a light coating of dressing adds lime, fish sauce and an unusual bitter component. Served with colorful rice crackers, the larb is a refreshing summer dish in an odd little eatery just north of hipper neighborhoods