Enjoy comfort food, fresh fish or fine dining in these Denver restaurants, or go spicy with Asian and South American food
ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro
Food-infatuated Denverites secure a seat at the chef’s counter to witness chef-owner Lon Symensma’s culinary magic, which unfolds in an exhibition kitchen that struts Southeast Asian dishes of the kind that make you drop your jaw. Symensma’s presentations, the food equivalent of mosaics, remind you of museum art, each plate beautifully composed with impeccable ingredients. The soup dumplings spilling with sweet onions and melty gruyère are as good as it gets, a punch of flavours that explode like rockets in your mouth. The kaya toast with coconut jam and a jar of custard-like “egg cloud” requires you to demand that your heart be still.
• 1555 Blake Street, +1 303 353 5223, cholon.com. Mon-Fri 11am-2pm and from 5pm daily. Mains from $13
Stunningly prepared seafood dishes take centre stage at this exuberant north Denver shrine to Brazil, with its aromatic thumps of garlic, ginger, dendê (palm) oil and chillies, most of which penetrate the mind-altering stews bobbing with scallops, shrimp or bacalhau, a dried and salted cod. Chef-owner Tony Zarlenga pairs his flavour-bombed marvels, which also include feijoada (black bean stew, the national dish of Brazil), with an unparalleled rum roster that trumpets nearly 100 bottles in the adjacent – and equally ebullient – Rum Room, which throbs to Brazilian beats.
• 4408 Lowell Boulevard, +1 303 480 1877, cafebrazildenver.com. Tues-Sat 5pm-10pm. Mains from $16
El Taco de Mexico
No sojourn in the Mile High City is complete without at least one trip to this taqueria, which turns out the city’s best green chile stew, a savoury, spice-smacked nod to Denver’s unapologetic obsession with the dish. The open kitchen is commanded by unflappable women whose conversations – always in Spanish – are muted by the thud of cleavers that come down on pieces of meat, which are quickly turned into street tacos, or tucked into flour tortillas draped with that magnificent green chile and specked with coriander and onions. The fearsomely spicy salsa is an object of true beauty, too.
• 714 Santa Fe Drive, +1 303 623 3926, eltacodemexicodenver.com. Daily 7am-10pm (11pm Fri and Sat). Mains from $5
Tom’s Home Cookin’
The queue at this purveyor of comfort food in the Five Points neighbourhood often starts long before the doors swing open, but the Southern-inspired platters, served in colossal heaps in boxes, more than make up for the wait. The board changes daily, and while you’ll probably want one of everything, the copper-crusted fried chicken – if it’s available – flies me to the moon. So, too, does the andouille sausage and chicken gumbo, the meatloaf and the stewed collard greens, and for a flourishing finale, peach cobbler channels every sweet tooth’s fantasy. Get an extra one for the road.
• 800 East 26th Avenue, +1 303 388 8035, @TomsHomeCookin. Mon-Fri 11am-3pm. Cash only. Mains from $12
Vietnam Grill is more than a pho parlour, although you’ll always encounter a procession of pho aficionados slurping noodles from steaming broths. But my advice is to forgo the pho (for that, point your chopsticks to Pho 95) and explore the funkier offerings on the ambitious menu of more than 150 dishes. There’s a bloodied, deeply crimson soup, for example, bobbing with pig’s feet, stellar pork-stuffed chicken wings, or playful bánh khot, custardy, rice-flour “cupcakes” that brim with pudgy shrimp, toasted coconut flakes and ribbons of spring onion. Its strip mall setting isn’t particularly appealing, but the interior, bedecked with white table linens illuminated by soft lighting, makes it one of the few Vietnamese joints in Denver that’s conducive to a couple’s outing.
• 1015 South Federal Boulevard, +1 303 936 5610, facebook.com/VietnamGrill/info. Thurs-Tues 10am-10pm. Mains from $10
There are plenty of pedestrian wiener slingers on Denver’s asphalt, but Biker Jim, aka Jim Pittenger, is the city’s bona fide frankfurter gigolo, pumping out a slew of exotic, grilled sausages, from reindeer and elk to wild boar and rattlesnake. Regulars – and there are lots of them – order their dogs crowned with onions soaked in Coca-Cola and a squiggle of cream cheese fired from a caulking gun, but when it comes to toppings, the possibilities are endless. But don’t stop there: sides such as charred cauliflower, fried green tomatoes and deep-fried macaroni and cheese deserve their legions of fans, as do the ice-cream sandwiches.
• 2148 Larimer Street, +1 720 749 9355, bikerjimsdogs.com. Thurs-Sun 11am-10pm, Fri-Sat 11am-2am. Mains from $6
Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar
Fact: Colorado is a landlocked state. Myth: the absence of an ocean means an empty net. For proof that this city swims with the sharks, sail straight to Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar, with two locations in Denver and four altogether in the state. Within the polished living museum of aquatics, which sources its sustainable seafood from coastal fishermen, is a glistening ice bar stocked with bright, briny, shiny oysters, shrimp, clams, king and Dungeness crab and Maine lobsters. Caviar, along with made-to-order clam chowder and a seasonally conscious fish scroll that might proffer Alaskan halibut, Bristol Bay salmon or grilled Gulf prawns, round out the nautical eats that are bolstered by clever cocktails, offbeat wines and excellent craft beers, mostly brewed in Colorado.
• 650 South Colorado Boulevard, +1 303 756 6449, jaxfishhouse.com. Mon-Fri 11am-2pm, daily from 4pm, Sunday brunch 10am-2pm. Mains from $13
Call them what you like – foodniks, foodies or gastronauts – they all clamour for chef Max MacKissock’s innovative cooking. His cutting-edge New American style trumpets ingredients from the restaurant’s own one-acre farm, and MacKissock, who thinks way beyond ordinary culinary boundaries, transforms just about everything he touches into a showstopper. You can order à la carte, but I highly recommend splurging on one of his tasting menus – a four- or seven-course symphony of dishes that can be paired with wines. A spectacular cocktail menu – easily one of Denver’s best – elevates the bar to new heights, and the globe-trotting cheese cart is a lovely ending to a sublime dinner.
• 1500 Wynkoop Street, + 1 303 623 2665, thesqueakybean.net. Tues-Sat 5pm-10pm; Sunday brunch 10am-3pm. Tasting menus from $55
Chef Frank Bonanno has an empire of restaurants in Denver, but my favourite is his Larimer Square osteria, a rollicking homage to thin-crusted pizzas, housemade salumi and cheeses and suckling pig, the latter of which is served only on Sunday night. Sashay down the wide staircase, past the ever-present throng at the bar sipping cocktails and slip into a booth to consider the marvel that’s the Carbonara pizza splayed with an egg that spills a river of yolk over the crisped pancetta. Then again, you can simply graze on pulled pork, bresaola and lonza, all of which are made in-house, as is the unassailable burrata.
• 1453 Larimer Street, +1 303 534 5855, osteriamarco.com. Daily from 11am. Mains from $10
Chef, owner, farmer, butcher, cheesemaker and forager Alex Seidel’s gift to locals – and everyone else who takes pleasure in food – is this Capitol Hill jewel, barely bigger than a thimble, but a place where strangers become friends, bonding over just-picked beets, turnips and seasonally inspired vegetables sharing space on the plate with centrepieces of wonderment: Colorado lamb loin, roast pork, steelhead trout, duck breast, or pan-seared diver scallops dusted with cured foie gras powder. Seidel’s menu changes on a whim, thanks to his intense focus on fresh ingredients – but this is where you want to celebrate, well, anything, including just an exquisite dinner out.
• 1313 East Sixth Avenue, +1 303 831 1962, fruitionrestaurant.com. Daily from 5pm. Mains from $24
Lori Midson is Cafe Society Editor for Westword, in Denver
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