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Denver Restaurants: A Few Ideas/Opinions

  • r

I dine out rather frequently but haven’t found the time to write up much lately, so I’m not sure how many of these to include in one post. There always seem to be people looking for metro-area recommendations, and I’m happy we have so many solid independent restaurants. I’ll try to throw together some Boulder/Northern ‘burbs ideas in another post too (or you can beat me to the punch and start one). Please add to this so I’ll have some new ideas too.

El Taco de Mexico: Do yourself a favor and drop by the counter here on Santa Fe for a cabeza (beef cheeks) burrito or an order of chilaquiles or frankly anything that happens to land in front of you. You won’t need lots of it, but bring cash since they don’t accept anything else. We took bets on whether a gregarious friend from SF could make the methodical señoras smile, and he got all of them but one. Don’t expect to be so lucky, but do expect to eat very well for precious little green.

D Bar: Not just about desserts, as even I’m surprised how much I like their savory items. Flatbread pizza with tomatoes/goat cheese/pepperoni, crunchy panko-topped mac and cheese with a simple side salad, tiny Kobe sliders with baby fries, and luscious Medjool dates with the suggested Late Harvest Syrah pour (2 oz is plenty). It is a bit annoying how you can’t get most of the “fancy” desserts until 6:00, even on the weekends. Their classic cake and shake with Manjari frosting (after the chocolate and not the Eurovision singer) is always available and their pastry case is usually enough to boggle the mind.

Olivea: Huge improvement over Aix, both in how they’ve opened up and brightened up the space and in how they serve food you actually want to eat. Outstanding items were the chocolate caramel tart with sea salt (I doubt you could go wrong with any of Yasmin’s desserts) and a salad of sorts of Valencia oranges with purple onions, fennel, and olives. I sadly didn’t think their prosciutto platter or their duck mousse were the best in show, and I would probably run over my own sibling (and yours too) for amazing versions of those.

Osteria Marco: Speaking of cured meats like prosciutto, it’s hard to beat the ones here. I picked up a to-go order for my wine group of bresaola, ciccioli, coppa, prosciutto, capra ricotta, the god-like burrata, roasted red peppers, and ciabatta bread and they threw themselves on it like a pack of wild dogs. It literally survived less than 5 minutes and I swear every adult in the room would’ve picked up the cardboard containers and licked them if no-one else had been looking. I had an unbelievable happy hour deal there of meatball sliders, cheese & truffle oil Panini, and lemongrass-flavored cocktail for 15 bucks.

LoHi Steakbar: I was here on their second day of biz and thought it was a nice space with friendly servers that was clicking fairly well. If I get a craving for a big hunk of meat (burger, steak frites) but don’t want to put a second mortgage on my house, I can’t imagine a better place to land. Martinis with a spoon of caviar? Yes, please!

Sketch: Just snacks and hooch, kids, assuming foie gras au torchon is your kind of picnic treat. Go get the boozy Amarena cherries and chocolate with their recommended glass of Rutherglen red (assuming they still have that vino). Then go nuts and pick up some locally-crafted ice cream at nearby Sweet Action!

Park Burger: This summer a friend and I happened to walk in on the day they added sliders to the menu and they said we were the first to order them. We had already started with juicy burgers of our own and a shared order of sweet potato fries, but come on--we had to try the sliders too! I must express a preference for the mouth-feel of the sliders, as everything’s cut to fit on a tiny bun so you don’t have one gigantic tomato slice and piece of lettuce moving about. The chocolate peanut butter shake didn’t win me over, but you need room for those sliders anyway.

Rioja: They are tough to beat, especially at brunch. My better half’s beloved breakfast burrito isn’t on the current menu, but he didn’t seem too disappointed with his lovely platter of steak, polenta, and eggs (which I managed to sneak only one taste of between bites of ethereal Dungeness crab cake crepes). The dinner classics are, of course, the artichoke tortelloni and the pork belly appetizer. I’m of the opinion their veggie lunch chips should always be on the menu—they’re that good. I wonder if they always source them from Panzano. I thought I saw a bread baker there stirring pumpkin one morning but when I walked by realized it must have been sweet potato for the chips, as there was a bowl of them in front of her.

Panzano: Check out their happy hour specials and order a mushroom crepe all to yourself. Don’t let anyone else even put an evil eye on it. Guard that baby for five seconds until it’s gone. Then order another one. They still have one of the best breakfasts in town, including a $15 “power breakfast” option where you get a belly-busting amount of food with coffee and juice. You cannot help but smile when Champagne hollandaise is on your plate, can you?

Fisher-Clark Urban Deli: People rave about the Spanish sandwich, but the hot pastrami is undoubtedly my fave. Last time I was in I had a custom turkey packed with goat cheese, roasted red peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, and chipotle mayo on focaccia.

Bones: Have had many amazing noodle bowls here (pork udon with poached egg, kai shiru with clams/corn/sausage/coconut broth/bok choy, chilled soba with shrimp on one occasion and crab on another, ramen with lobster/edamame/miso broth). If you have a loved one feeling under the weather, bring them back one of these piping hot bowls of aromatic noodles and you will be their undisputed champion. I have found that their salads have an excellent “goodies-to-greens” ratio, meaning you’re not left with half a plate of plain arugula after all the accompaniments are gobbled up and can therefore enjoy every bite. I would expect to get maybe two candied Marcona almonds at most places, but between a good number more of those and the goat cheese, pickled onions, and Asian pear slices on their bibb lettuce salad, I didn’t run out of any treats.

Man, I haven’t even yet mentioned Izakaya Den or TAG or Fruition or Lola or Sherpa House or Sushi Sasa or Vesta or…

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      1. re: rlm

        What a great round-up. Thanks rlm.

    1. We are relocating to Denver (natives) after a 10 year stretch in the Phoenix area. Can't say that the food scene here has been inspiring but it's all in what you find. I'll miss simple things and simple food such as Flancer's, Bola Thai, Patsy Grimaldi's and more foodie places like Zink, Rokerij and the lamented Mosaic.
      Looking forward to places like Zaidy's, La Cueva, Ship's Tavern, Elway's and My Brother's Bar.
      Will be in the Valley as business requires so will keep up to speed on Chowhound so keep the reviews coming.

      1. Wow, that is a great list.

        I just finished mentioning a sort-of negative experience I had at Bones, but your comment about getting take-out soup on a cold night (or when a loved one is under the weather) is a great idea.

        I think their noodle bowls are a little long on broth and a little short on protein in my experience, but perhaps I have been there on a couple of off nights (they happen) or perhaps my expectations aren't fair (Asian isn't my bailiwick).

        That said, they did seem to do a brisk carry-out business, and at your suggestion, I might add to it.

        And like others said, thanks for posting this list. Wow.

        1. I have to respectfully disagree about Olivea, at least the food aspect anyways. I agree that the space is utilized much better than Aix was, and I hear great things about Jasmine's desserts. However, I left that place feeling like I spent way too much money on a mediocre Dinner (and I only spent around $120 for two). Nothing I ate was memorable, and believe me when I say I am the type that likes to sample everything. I too eat around quite a bit, and I completely agree with your other recs, especially Osteria Marco, Rioja and Bones. Olivea on the other hand is not a restaurant I am rushing to get back to anytime soon.

          6 Replies
          1. re: bensop

            Well, rlm gave Olivéa a bit of a mixed report—and I agree with her about that; I had a couple of terrific dishes, a couple of iffy ones. But I haven't been since it (presumably) exited shakedown mode so I'd be curious to return. When were you there, bensop—recently or early on? And rlm, when were you there last?

            1. re: tatamagouche

              My list was intended to be ideas--capsules of places I've eaten in the past year, often multiple times. Not everyone will have the same experience or the same tastes. I went to Olivea in July and had two outstanding items and two that were a little disappointing to me. I have not been back yet because there's always new places to try as well as the stand-bys where you know you're going to get great chow. There was enough going on at Olivea with two talented chefs that I want to check it out again.

              I'm just excited we have so many options in this area and it's getting better all the time. If we get out there as diners and consistently fill seats on, say, a Tuesday and order the stuff like goat and rabbit and foie when it's offered up, maybe we can finally shake this cow-town reputation.

              1. re: rlm

                Amen to that. May 2010 bring us more Southeast Asian, South American, and tapas.

              2. re: tatamagouche

                I went to Olivea a few months after it opened, I want to say Sept. As I recall we shared a few apps, a charcuterie board, a flat bread, and a squid salad and something else. For a main course I had Steak or Pork chop ( it was that unmemorable) and the wife had sea bass (I think). We skipped dessert because we were full. Its not like anything was bad, although the flat bread was borderline. I just felt as though my meal should have been half the price (kind of like Aix made me feel at times). It had nothing to do with prices, size of portions or service. I just know that I could have gotten a better meal at so many other places for the money I dropped on Olivea.

                With all of that being said, I would go back, but not for a full meal. I would do cocktails and small plates there in the future.

                1. re: bensop

                  I usually check out a new (to me) place solo at the bar first and try to hit their happy hour if they have one so I can gauge whether I want to come back with the better half and/or friends and drop more $ there. Sometimes it's a matter of figuring out what they do best and when to stop by. A place that is over-priced and disappointing at dinner might just have a killer weekend brunch or unique, hand-crafted cocktails.

                  1. re: bensop

                    Speak of the devil...Here's a pic and write-up on Westword's Cafe Society blog today on Olivea's dreamy chocolate and fleur de sel caramel tart with milk chocolate gelato and nougatine crunch:

              3. So here's a few more ideas...

                Sushi Sasa: I’m never overjoyed when I look at the bottom line on the bill here and realize my sake-clouded mind probably didn’t need to make me order all that monkfish liver, but I don’t really have buyer’s remorse either because everything is so fresh and well-balanced and leaves you with a pleasantly full tummy and a goofy grin. I like Sushi Den and Izakaya Den as well, but I’d rather not deal with the insane crowds at Sushi Den when I can typically walk over to Izakaya and get the same sushi plus their amazing panzanella salad with crab without a huge wait (if any). I do wish Izakaya would bring back the yellow curry soup they had when they first opened. They curiously had a Colorado corn soup on the menu last week. I’m not sure who is harvesting corn this time of the year (my guess is it’s frozen), but as I am a complete freak for a good corn soup, I had to order it anyway. Whatever you do at any of our sushi havens, make sure you get some premium Wakatake sake at least once. I love that Sasa announced new late-night hours, as this metro area needs more places that aren’t trying to whisk you out the door and roll up the sidewalks by 10.

                Lola: I like their newer space in the Highlands so much more than their old tiny space on Pearl. We discovered their Sunday afternoon happy hour where they have a live band playing and cheap eats like chicken tacos, ceviche, the ubiquitous table-side guacamole, barbacoa sliders and the like (which can be washed down with sangria—the white being better than the red, although it’s not on the HH menu). I will say that I still don’t think any of the “fancy-pants” tacos at places like Lola, TAG, and Centro come close to matching up to the real deal you can get at Pupusas, Tacos y Salsas, El Taco de Mexico, Tacos Jalisco and the like.

                TAG: Like others have expressed, I too was more impressed with the chef’s nine75 when it first opened and Zengo when he was in command of the kitchen than TAG, particularly since the bang for the buck was much better (although they do have a pretty good happy hour that starts early and features sushi and tacos). I’m thinking those old price points couldn’t possibly come back though given the swanky interior finishes at the new joint. The downstairs bathrooms accessible only by elevator are a little annoying--mainly the first time you’re bumbling about trying to find them after swigging a few pear mojitos and boozy peachy goodness at the bar. I still enjoy his food and I’m rooting for this place to succeed. The piping hot French onion soup dumplings are the best thing I’ve had there so far, although the butterfish and pork belly apps are also quite good. I still haven’t been for a proper dinner.

                Sherpa House (Golden): Charming house (except for the tub in the bathroom—be forewarned) and large patio with posters pimping the local “craft microbrewery” Coors. Be advised that even though their menu indicates you can have dishes prepared to the level of spice you’d prefer, the samosas are pre-made and come out rather mild (though with a lovely flaky exterior). That’s not the case with the channa masala when requested hot—it was almost more than I could handle and the extra punch of flavor still didn’t make it taste any better than the one served up at Tibet’s in Louisville. Their various incarnations of naan are superior to many places though and they hold up longer at room temperature. My better half had the enormous bowl of combination thukpa (veggies, lamb, yak, and beef) on both trips, which he likened to Little Lamb’s full-flavored hot pot broth. I had the chicken bindaloo with no special spice level requests on the second trip and it came out on the bland side. Next time I hope I can split the difference between having my tongue seared off and being understimulated.

                3 Replies
                1. re: rlm

                  First off, thanks so much for the terrific reviews. I have been out of the loop with the Denver food scene (but do get back "home" fairly regularly), and you are making me eager to get back and try some of these places.

                  In regards to TAG, were you saying that they serve French Onion Soup Dumplings? As in the Shanghai style soup dumplings (with the soup inside the dumpling)? If that is the case, I am very excited about that. I spent a lot of my Vancouver vacation searching out Soup Dumplings (with mixed success), and think French Onion soup dumplings sound wonderful.

                  My wife and I's first date was at the original Lola's, so that place still has a warm place in my heart, but we haven't had a chance to get to the new spot.

                  Have had a couple great meals at Sasa, and think it is a great addition to the Denver food scene. Like you said, it isn't cheap, but it is a good value for what you get (incredibly fresh fish prepared with great care).

                  1. re: Booger

                    They're sorta like that, but not quite. Served sorta escargot style. Photo in blogpost below. I agree with rlm completely: they're the best thing I've had; the other apps I tried, though rather pricier, lacked a little. I'm hoping it's still just in shakedown mode, b/c obviously Guard really can be all that.


                    As for Lola, I think it's got one of the best brunch menus going, but I'm never quite as interested in the dinner menu.

                    I gotta say one of the places that impressed me most this year was Fuel. I knew Bones would rock, expected good things of LoHi and Park Burger—but this place was a total surprise.

                    1. re: Booger

                      TAG's dumplings didn't remind me of Shanghai-style dumplings because of all the cheese. It really is like having a little blast of French Onion soup going off in your mouth.

                  2. The Fisher-Clark Urban Deli got an enthusiastic writeup in this morning's Denver Post Food Section. The menu sounds good but according to the review, it's for the serious sandwich lover so be prepared to both wait and pay.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: mandycat

                      Thanks for the link. I'm in the camp that thinks higher quality food is worth paying and waiting for, although I've never had to wait that long at Fisher-Clark. Serrano ham and Manchego cheese with fresh-baked bread costs more to source and prepare than Hormel, Velveeta, and Wonder Bread and they're better for you in the long run than processed garbage.

                    2. Awesome post... I'm currently deciding between a girls' weekend trip to Denver or to Boulder. This list certainly makes me think Denver would be a good choice (since good food is one of our prerequisites for picking a location). Thank you!

                      18 Replies
                        1. re: LurkerDan

                          What does everyone think of the recent 5280 issue of the Top 25 restaurants in the Denver area? There is some beautiful photography in the hard copy so you should definitely pick up a copy, although the run-down is here:
                          I absolutely agree with Frasca being #1, but I'm not sure why Rioja is so far down the list. I have not been to all 25, although they've all been on my radar. If I could get someone else to pay my mortgage for a month then maybe...

                          1. re: rlm

                            I find it interesting that TAG made neither that list nor Shaw's list of the 10 Places to Eat Right Now. Guard must be seething.

                            1. re: tatamagouche

                              I would be upset too if in his shoes since he's not even mentioned in a sidebar in the Post (although TAG is in 5280's under Nose-to-Tail Dining). Tucker does say "Many of the city's most talented chefs and restaurateurs aren't represented here..."


                              1. re: rlm

                                True, but that's got to be small consolation since the subject is "Most Important" (an awfully subjective category in any case).

                                As you know, I actually haven't been wowed, but it's time to check back. I don't question the man's serious talent.

                                That type of article is great for conversation-starting. Naturally we all have our own lists in our heads—I agreed with about half of Shaw's list.

                                1. re: tatamagouche

                                  I just realized Deluxe/Delite isn't mentioned in the lists either.

                                  I guess it's a good problem to have that we are getting so many new places added to the mix that it's becoming harder to come up with a definitive list, but we shouldn't forget the guys and gals that brought us to the dance either.

                                  BTW, the link someone posted in the Denver Post comments to the Health Dept report on Super Star Asian made me queasy (even though I haven't eaten there in quite some time).

                              2. re: tatamagouche

                                Wasn't TAG given a somewhat poor review recently in 5280 for the service? They liked the food but slammed them on service.

                                1. re: margemayhem

                                  Yup. As I recall, our meal was awkwardly timed as well.

                                  1. re: tatamagouche

                                    Congrats to Fruition's Alex Seidel--one of Food and Wine's Best New Chefs of 2010!

                                    1. re: rlm

                                      Denver Mag noted it was the first local winner since someone in 03. That surprised me a little—MacKinnon-Patterson never won?

                                      1. re: tatamagouche

                                        LMP won in 2005. Denver Mag is incorrect. Unless they are not considering Boulder to be part of the Denver metro area. Lots of people don't want to claim us BoCo ruffians. :)

                                        1. re: rlm

                                          That must be it. A Tweet said "Denver" specifically. Personally, when it comes to food I as a Denverite want to include Boulder! Too much good stuff to shun it.

                                          1. re: tatamagouche

                                            Bryan Moscatello at Adega was the last (and only) Denver chef to be honored by Food & Wine as Best New Chef. Lachlan and James Mazzio were both named Best New Chef while working in Boulder.

                                            1. re: Pastajohn

                                              James Mazzio must've been before my time. Who/where is he?

                                              1. re: tatamagouche

                                                James won the award in 1999 as chef at 15 Degrees, now defunct. He has bounced around a bit since. Triana, Cucina Colore, Via, Chef Jam, Le Chateau, Icehouse Tavern, Neighborhood Flix, Soon to open Olive Oil at Tipsy's - a liquore store somewhere in the SW Denver hinterlands.

                                                Cucina Colore
                                                3041 East Third Avnue, Denver, CO 80206

                                                1. re: Pastajohn

                                                  PastaJohn - thanks for letting me know about Olive Oil! We need better restaurants in Littleton - I am so excited to go to Tipsy's and try it out! (and if you ever drive on c-470, you can't miss Tipsy's! Off of Bowles exit and just huge!)

                                                  1. re: annissam

                                                    There also have been a couple of Aspen-based F&W Best New Chefs, but that would be wa-a-a-ay out from Denver. Still, means that Colorado isn't totally ignored. In addition to those mentioned above, Joseph Wrede, who owns or partners in the Old Blinking Light (Highl\ands Ranch), was named one of the Best New Chefs for his Joseph's Table in Taos.

                                                    Old Blinking Light
                                                    9344 Dorchester St Ste C-104, Littleton, CO 80129

                                                    1. re: ClaireWalter

                                                      Some updates:

                                                      Euclid Hall: As wonderful as you'd expect something from the mind of Jennifer Jasinski and Co. to be. Had a couple of strong beers including a Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron. I will shamelessly admit to not only ordering the highly-recommended pickle sampler and Weisswurst sausage with Bordeaux mustard along with duck poutine but subsequently splitting three desserts: car bomb float, funnel cake fried bananas, and the insane waffle/salted butterscotch ice cream combo.

                                                      Fuel: Finally made it here on a day off since it's not really in a convenient area you'd just happen upon. Lamb wrap had a bit more hummus than necessary and wasn't that spicy considering it included harissa. Fireworks didn't go off, but would like to go back since so many people with good palates seem to love it.

                                                      Mangiamo Pronto: Across from the Oxford Hotel, this is a great place to stop in for a breakfast Panini or omelette with a side of hashbrowns and a latte. Décor and concept reminds me a little of Amante (they have wine and booze and a happy hour too). Lunches have been a little less successful, although their radicchio coleslaw is fresh and unique and one of the sandwich winners was stuffed with ribeye and provolone. The tomato melt was supposed to include roasted tomatoes but they were ice-cold and therefore flavorless. It was also served sans the promised spinach, although they re-made it when this was pointed out. Have only tried a couple of pizzas (Margherita and a special pizza of the day) and they’re not what I would order again. Goat cheese and red peppers? Good. Goat cheese and green bells? I’ll pass.

                                                      TAG: Their bar staff has changed and my favorite Whiskey Smash just wasn’t the same on a recent visit (not even garnished), although they still have one of the best social hours with delectable and cheap sushi rolls, tacos, potstickers, and sliders. Excited to see their planned nearby raw bar when it opens.

                                                      Colt and Gray: Here’s where some of the TAG staffers ended up. They already had a talented bar staff and one of the best happy hours featuring gougeres, trotters, and bacon cashew caramel corn (featured in the latest Bon Appetit) plus one of the better bloody mary’s I’ve ever had during brunch (although anything paired with duck confit hash would still give you the warm fuzzies).

                                                      Deluxe Burger: Went back and tried the messy yet tasty truffle burger (shiitake mushrooms and truffled Swiss cheese) along with a Creamsicle shake. The shake tasted good but wasn’t super-cold, which is odd since it starts with a package the counter jockey removes from the freezer.

                                                      The Oven: Still enjoy the pizzas including the 4 Meats (sausage, pepperoni, prosciutto, bacon) when I’m feeling particularly carnivorous, but it wasn’t exactly appetizing on a recent visit watching the pizza guy wipe down everything in existence including the prep counter, bottom of the wood oven filled with “crusties,” and the pizza peel with an already-dirty rag.

                                                      Crepe Escape: Split a diced ham and Swiss crepe from this new-ish cart on the 16th Street Mall located not that far from Crepes N Crepes. Theirs are folded into a cardboard holder and made to be more portable unlike the sit-down versions you’ll get at CNC. Was nice to see one of the food carts open on the weekend.

                                                      Senor Miguel’s (Aurora): $2 breakfast burritos (different one every day) and cheap ($5-10), delicious burritos which you can get smothered in mild, half and half, or their truly scorching HOT green chile) along with supreme versions topped with guac and sour cream. They get bonus points for having a sign up in the prep area that says “Eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.”

                                                      Bull and Bush: Wedged in the middle of apartment complexes in Cherry Creek and easy to miss. If I were more of a beer than wine geek I’d probably camp here on a weekly basis if only for their reserve list. I can’t imagine spending $65 on a beer unless it came with a bottle of bubbly on the side. I was a little surprised at how many stereotypical senior citizens were dining there until I tasted the food. :)

                                                      Clock Tower Grill: The “best burger in Dallas” is a bold claim for a bar and grill in a state that worships at the altar of beef, so when they opened this outpost near the new Lincoln lite rail station, I thought it would at least be half-competent (and I guess the sliders fulfilled that, boring though they were). Huge place with tons of TVs blaring sports but was nearly deserted on a weekend during the day. My better half wanted to take me because he had a SW style burger there with guac that he wouldn’t shut up about, but I tried a bite and pointed out there are many burger joints in town offering far superior versions. Since he's tasted Smashburger's, for example, he hasn't wanted to return here.

                                                      Red Trolley: Their chocolate covered sea salt caramel ice cream is so addictive it lasts about 10 seconds after ordering (or is this just me?).

                                                      Arada: Even if you have four people, ordering one of their platters is sufficient. We split two different ones and sadly had to leave half of it since we were doing the First Friday Art Walk afterwards. They are definitely leisurely service-wise and you will often find yourself without injera to pick up your food. The doro wot (chicken) and siga wot (beef) were stand-outs. We also had lamb, steak, split peas, greens, and lentils. Not sure when I’ll be back because it’s very difficult not to hit up El Taco de Mexico when I’m in this ‘hood.

                                                      Senor Miguels
                                                      14583 E Alameda Ave, Aurora, CO 80012

                                                      2755 Dagny Way Ste 103, Lafayette, CO 80026

                                                      Red Trolley
                                                      2639 W 32nd Ave, Denver, CO 80211

                                                      Deluxe Burger
                                                      5325 E Colfax Ave, Denver, CO 80220

                        2. hey rlm, you appear to know your Denver eats!! I'm coming to town this summer and need a somewhat style-ish place for 10 gay men (!) ....is Street Kitchen Asian Bistro a good choice??? or do you strongly advise something else? ( thanks )