The 15 Most Essential Food Experiences in Denver
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If you resolved to eat the very best Denver has to offer, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve gathered the city’s very best bites, the ones you absolutely, positively must eat, so that your 2023 will be extra delicious. From long standing favorites to exceptional newcomers, these are the top food experiences you must have in Denver.
Pita and hummus at Safta
There are plenty of tasty bites to be had at five-year-old Safta—we certainly wouldn’t kick the pomegranate braised lamb or harissa chicken out of bed—but tops on the stellar menu might be the pita and hummus. The wood-fired pitas are so freaking fluffy they could double as pillows, and the hummuses you dip them in are all lick the bowl worthy. Whether you opt for the savory lamb ragu with crispy chickpeas, the buttery mushroom topped with chives, or the straight tahini sprinkled with Aleppo pepper, you’ll swear it’s the best hummus you’ve ever had.
Pizza at Redeemer Pizza
There’s a lot of great pizza to be had in Denver; from New York style to Detroit to Neapolitan, you’ll find pies to satisfy your regional cravings. But for something uniquely delicious, you’ve gotta go to Redeemer. The part sourdough crust is slow fermented for three or four days before being topped with prime ingredients like local Elevation Charcuterie soppressata and pickled Pioppino mushrooms, then crisped up in the 600-degree electric deck oven. Pick up a slice at the back alley window or settle in with a glass of The Sauce, an IPA collab between Redeemer and Diebolt Brewing Company.
Ice cream at Right Cream
The best ice cream in Denver started with pandemic-era pint delivery, morphed into parking lot drops, next scored a couple of RiNo pick-up windows, and, come February, will be serving out of the little shop adjacent to Denver Beer Co.’s South Downing location. That’s where you’ll want to grab pints of whatever ice cream wizard David Right has on-hand, especially if the iconic Cookies & C.R.E.A.M. with crunchy Oreo toffee and almost too salty caramel swirl is available. Or opt for one of their dealer’s choice sundaes—with wild mix-ins like horchata spiced shortbread crumble and fresh sherry whipped cream, you’re bound to discover a new favorite.
Five Points & Aurora
With a system that replicates NY water, the bagels they’re churning out at Rosenberg’s are the real deal. From everything to cinnamon raisin, they’ve got all the classic flavors, available as a sandwich or with your choice of cream cheese smear (but never toasted—they’re fresh and perfect as-is). The only thing that can improve upon this kind of bagel perfection is opting to get yours topped with their house-cured lox (and maybe some tomatoes, onions, and capers too).
Buns and dumplings and noodles, oh my! Denver may not have its own Chinatown like some bigger cities, but that doesn’t mean we’re lacking in stellar Chinese cuisine. Want proof? Bring a group to this popular spot for dim sum feasts. The roving carts are back in business, ready to serve up plate after plate of goodness, plus their entire dim sum menu is now available to go too. Don’t miss the pork and shrimp shu mai, fried shrimp dumplings with mayo (yes, just dip it!), and salt & pepper squid.
Not even a pandemic could stop the oldest bar in Denver from continuing its legacy. Former patrons Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady may be a bit confused by the new set-up if they wandered by today, but after sipping some whiskey, they’d probably settle in just fine. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the much loved, must try burger: the JCB, properly oozing with jalapeno cream cheese.
Goldsmith and Hampden South
A staple of Den-Mex cuisine, the Mexican Hamburger is a genius combination. A beef burger served inside a flour tortilla with refried beans, smothered in green chile and topped with melty cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes. You can find versions of this comfort food mash up all over town, but the crew at both La Fogata locations nails it. No surprise since this family owned spot’s been in business for more than 30 years. The burger has that fire-grilled flavor, their pork-studded green chile is some of the best in town, and bonus—it pairs perfectly with their house margarita.
Biker Jim Pittenger’s original hot dog cart quickly became a Denver destination after he began slinging dogs in 2005. Soon, his collection of carts began to grow, with people all over the Mile High seeking out the line up of exotic sausages. Flash forward to 2011 and the opening of his Ballpark neighborhood brick and mortar. Whether you stumble upon a cart or head to his flagship store, you’ve gotta start with a Jim’s OG, the elk jalapeño cheddar topped classic-style, aka with caramelized onions and cream cheese shot out of a caulk gun.
You’d be hard pressed to find a Denverite who doesn’t name this small, counter service spot among their Mile High favorites. This is no frills dining for sure, but it doesn’t take long for the aroma of roasted chiles and slow cooked meats to make the world suddenly seem a little brighter. The chile relleno burrito is probably the most recommended meal in town, but oh, their carnitas. And their cabeza. And the asada... just know that the answer is always yes when they ask if you want it smothered and with onions and salsa.
Highland and West Washington Park
Waiting for a table at Uncle’s OG location in the Highland neighborhood is pretty much a Denver right of passage. Now with a second location of owner Tommy Lee’s noodle haven and easy to-go options, you don't necessarily have to wait for a piping hot bowl of goodness, but you happily would. Especially after one taste of the iconic spicy chicken ramen, with Uncle’s signature springy noodles, and tender, rich soft egg yolk spilling out into the sesame broth. Add a spicy bomb (aka roasted pepper miso paste) for even more kick.
Chef and restaurateur Tommy Lee’s skills don’t stop at ramen. Lee opened Hop Alley in late 2015, bringing bold flavors set to a hip hop soundtrack in what was once Denver’s original Chinatown. The best way to experience this spot is with a group willing to share, because you’re going to want to sample everything on the menu. But one dish that’s been a standout from the beginning and remains on the menu today is the la zi ji, bites of fried chicken nestled among dried red chiles and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Pair it with the bone marrow fried rice ‘cause you’re going to need something to sooth your tastebuds. Unfortunately, Hop Alley is closed in January for renovations.
Denver’s former culinary reputation as a steakhouse town lives on at this mid century throwback that’s been serving up classic fare off Colfax since 1958. The retro vibes remain totally intact, with its sunken bar and strong martinis. Their signature item, boasted about right on the sign out front, is the sugar steak. The magic is in the house made, sugar-heavy rub caramelized on the grill—and don’t even think about trying to order your sugar steak well done. This preparation is only available on marbled cuts (the ribeye or NY strip) prepared rare or medium rare. Follow these rules for a must try carnivorous Denver experience.
Flashback a few years to when Bo Porytko was making the most exciting food in the Mile High at the restaurant he co-owned in RiNo, Rebel Restaurant. While that spot’s no longer around (RIP), Porytko is back slinging super creative eats out of the kitchen at Middleman on Colfax. His offerings change often, so it’s best to keep up with his latest on Instagram but one staple is the chips & dip, aka small deep fried potatoes paired with “whatever dip [he] feels like making.” Don’t even ask the server what it is. Just get it.
When the James Beard award winning team behind Boudler’s Frasca announced they’d be bringing a new Italian concept to Denver, the anticipation was high. And Tavernetta lived up to every wine and pasta lovers’ dream when it opened in 2017. There is no wrong move on this menu, but there’s something about settling in to their sleek yet cozy lounge and ordering a perfect Negroni and one of everything on their happy hour cicchetti (“small snacks”) menu that just feels right in every possible way.
Is it helpful for us to tell you to order everything on Annette’s menu? Probably not, but the good news is that whether you order the burger on house-made English muffin, the beef tongue and marrow toast, or the weekend brunch-only kolaches, you can’t go wrong. Everything is delicious on chef/owner Caroline Glover’s menu, which is probably why she took home the James Beard Award for best chef in the Mountain region this past June.
Allyson Reedy is a Thrillist contributor.
Colin Wrenn is a Thrillist contributor.