It's Worth Getting Sloppy For This Grilled Cheese Taco
1. Potato-wrapped oysters Rockefeller
In the eight years since Alex Seidel launched one of the city’s best-loved restaurants to instant rock-stardom, only two dishes have never budged from the menu. This tower of power is one of them. With a mound of lardo-studded spinach set over a Parmesan-leek emulsion, it’s basically a deconstruction of its namesake -- wrapped in potato chips. So, you know, even better.
2. The Greggers sandwich
Mmmm, meltingly braised beef tongue piled high on a baguette with sweet browned onions, roasted peppers, an intense garlic puree, and tarragon aioli… if we had a nickel for every time we’ve raved about this sandwich, we’d have… um, a lot of nickels. At least enough to get us another one.
Not only does this pan-Latin hotspot make its own tortillas, it makes them the old-fashioned way -- so that even when cut into crunchy-chewy strips, they hold up when tossed with braised chicken and a load of tomatillo salsa that turns creamy as it mixes with the queso fresco and egg yolk. The generous portion won’t seem so ample when you’re frantically scraping the empty pan for one last taste.
4. Specialty fish on an everything bagel
Even if you can’t get the infamous THC-smoked salmon (yet), you’ve got to love a place that, on any given day, will have something in the fish case -- sable, sturgeon, belly lox -- you may not find anywhere else in town to top your bagels with. Bagels so addictive, we might add, you’ll wonder if maybe that recipe’s got… um, a little something extra too.
5. Beef Wellington
You haven’t lived until you’ve tried this hallmark of haute cuisine which, granted, is so rich it will kill you sooner too. It’s worth it. Besides, Frank Bonanno’s fine-dining flagship has lightened the original slightly by omitting the pâté, leaving “only” a filet layered with truffle duxelles, wrapped in puff pastry, and baked so the crust turns golden while the core remains hot-pink and juicy.
Old South Pearl (& Other Locations)
Pineapple-chocolate. Blackberry-goat cheese. Cucumber-sesame. Sweet potato-maple. Freaking pickle. You name the flavor, this little pop shop has probably offered it at some point. Unless you name Hot Pockets-Mad Dog or something.
8. Bison short ribs
You want to see a pitmaster at work? No, you don’t, unless you also like watching paint dry. But at this Colorado-centric barbecue joint, you can see the low-and-slow process in the bark and smoke ring on the namesake beast, as well as taste it in the unbeatable, pure-flavored meat.
9. Jumbo prawns
Don’t even snark about fresh seafood in a landlocked state. How about shrimp pulled live from the tank to arrive pink and plump, head and all, at your table moments later? Is that fresh enough for you? So long as there are Cantonese joints like this dim sum institution, there will be just-deceased crustaceans to eat. (In fact, if you’re lucky enough to get one filled with roe, you’ll be eating some that were never even born)
10. House-made brioche donuts du jour
Make that “donut,” singular -- and then only if you’re lucky, because the kitchen makes a max of 15 a day and usually sells out before lunch is over. But if you get here in good time, you just might score a beauty filled with ricotta and sprinkled with five spices, or topped with malted frosting and cocoa nibs.
If all you know about goats comes from that video compilation of them screaming, good news: they’re as delicious as they are hilarious. Chef Dana Rodriguez’s slow-roasted cabrito in guajillo-chile sauce comes with a ramekin of lemony consommé so you can cleanse your palate before the next deeply rich, earthy bite gets it nice and dirty again.
12. Cheddar Goldfish ice cream
We’re gonna go ahead and let that description speak for itself.
13. Crespelle ai funghi
“Crespelle” is Italian for “crack.” Wait, sorry, “crêpes.” But close enough. Chef Elise Wiggins has been stuffing hers with juicy, buttery mixed mushrooms, and serving them in a bath of fonduta with just a touch of truffle oil since time began, and with any luck they’ll be waiting for you on a table of clouds when your time’s up as well.
With their golden-hued, braided or flute-edged, crescent- or pouch-shaped crusts serving as clues to their fillings, Lorena Cantarovici’s hand pies are like gorgeously wrapped birthday gifts -- except the rich, savory contents will always be exactly what you wanted. Think action figures instead of tube socks.
15. Foie gras
Fatty, pulverized poultry liver makes everything better, especially when Chef Matt Selby’s cooking it -- be it a seared lobe with crostini, smoked ham, and rhubarb gastrique; or a lemonade-cured torchon over French toast.
No, that isn’t some hipster chef’s wink-wink name for, like, pickled bok choy with jicama. Yes, it really is a good old PB&J -- only the peanuts are blended with almonds, the sweet-tart jam contains dates and balsamic vinegar, and the baguette they’re spread on also boasts goat cheese. OK, so it really is a good old P-AB&D-BVJ&GC.
Fancy folks will tell you they still frequent this decade-old destination for its commitment to the farm-to-fork philosophy, or its highly polished service. BS. It’s because of these damn fritters, irresistible whether featuring peas, pancetta, and mint; paprika-spiked squash and ricotta; or corn and charred onions over basil aioli.
18. Charcuterie board
Central Platte Valley
Way before cold cuts like culatello were coolatello (sorryboutthat!), this place was curing them in-house, and their expertise shows across the board (literally). The selection’s always changing, but look for speck -- like prosciutto, but smokier -- or the spicy, supple sausage called ’nduja.
19. The Noahsphere
If someone says “I don’t have a sweet tooth, but…” you can pretty much guarantee the rest of the sentence will be, “Noah French’s chocolate ball, melting under hot caramel with cake, and nuts, and marshmallows, and mascarpone, is a taste of heaven.” And though the phrase “a taste of heaven” makes you crazy, you’ll have to agree.
20. Kaya toast
Star chef Lon Symensma’s sexed-up spin on a Singaporean street snack involves coconut jam, soy mist, and an egg cloud. If those phrases mean nothing to you yet, take heart: there was a time when you didn’t know what “sexed-up” meant either.
21. Duck confit
The accompaniments are always changing (pears, walnuts, and cranberry jus one visit; peaches, beets, and a kimchi-Brie crêpe the next), but this beloved neighborhood bistro’s duck confit is forever -- the gold-skinned gold standard.
22. The Franklin
City Park, Baker, Berkeley
Built to absorb not only last night’s booze, but probably an entire weekend’s worth, The Atomic Cowboy’s most-ballyhooed biscuit sandwich boasts a jaw-breaking, gravy-smothered skyscraper of expertly buttermilk-fried chicken, Tender Belly bacon strips, and melting cheddar. Oh, and the fried egg’s optional the way failing to eat the whole thing is optional -- technically, but not really.
23. Crab panzanella
Here’s what’s in traditional Tuscan bread salad: stale bread. (OK, and tomatoes). Here’s what’s in this one: crab meat, goat cheese, pistachios, pears, candied red onions, and watercress in an apple-cider vinaigrette. (OK, and bread). In other words, here’s a rare instance of Denverites: 1, Italians: 0.
24. Elk jalapeño cheddar dog
Just because a dish made our list of local food icons doesn’t mean it’s good eating. Case in point: Rocky Mountain oysters. This sausage, however, deserves all the love that we (or anyone else) have ever heaped on it -- and speaking of heaping on it, be sure get it with cream cheese and caramelized onions.
Really, any place that makes red as well as green chile should be willing to smother your tamales, huevos, or what have you in both, melding the smokiness of the one with the brightness of the other: that’s what “Christmas-style” means. Sure, it’s a New Mexico thing, but it’s also a genius thing, so let’s all join hands and make it a Colorado thing, kumbaya.
26. Chile-relleno burrito
El Taco isn’t among the places that offer red chile, so you’ve got no choice but to get this legendary gut bomb smothered in green. Well, you’ve got the choice of no chile at all, but that’s ridiculous.
27. Dispenser’s Dozen
Central Platte Valley
Selling mind-blowing pastries alongside bodega sundries, this pot-themed newcomer is the one-stop shop you’ve always dreamed about, and it’s got the hangover helper to prove it. With your choice of six donuts -- try the insane cheese fritters, and clove-caramel brioche bombs topped with candy cigarettes -- you also get six items, from aspirin and mouthwash to actual cigarettes, to ease you through a rough day.
Cherry Creek, RiNo
If you didn’t see this one coming, you probably need to get your eyes checked.
Green Valley Ranch
Denver metro’s got more African restaurants than the Beastie Boys had rhymes, which according to them was more than Carl Sagan had turtlenecks -- so, a lot, including this laid-back Ghanaian sanctuary. Its snack of ginger-fried sweet plantains and peanuts looks like something you’d find under your sofa cushions but hey, that doesn’t stop you from eating Doritos, yet kelewele tastes exactly 1,000 times better. (Follow it with some of the city’s best fried chicken.)
30. Nose-to-Tail Plate
Who else but swine superhero Justin Brunson could convince us that pig ears should be part of a balanced diet? Though his signature pork plate is always changing (in fact, sometimes it’s not a plate at all, but a noodle bowl), ears as well as ribs, bellies, and sausages are usually part of the great big glistening picture.
31. Tres Pigs Nachos
Oh, right… the guy who rocks duck tongues at Bubu could probably convince us too. In addition to queso, pinto-bean dip, pickled jalapeños, crema, bacon, and house-made chorizo, Troy Guard’s signature nachos also come topped with deep-fried ears.
32. Pad Thai pig ears
Hey, wait… so could Jen Jasinski, Jorel Pierce, and crew. (Weed, big beers, and pig ears: welcome to Denver!) This neo-classic combines all the hot, sour, salty, sweet, and herbal elements of its noodle-based namesake with crunchy fried ribbons of ear to electrifying, yet comforting, effect.
And just as Euclid Hall changed the local gastropub game, its sibling Stoic shook up the seafood scene when it opened with a dedicated granita bar. Think Fla-Vor-Ice, but in grown-up flavors like cucumber-tarragon and lychee-sake that you put on oysters, or in a cocktail instead of sucking it from a plastic tube. (Not that you wouldn’t, given the option.)
34. Oysters on the half shell
Speaking of oysters, the world’s tiniest pizzeria doesn’t merely sling killer pies -- it also shucks some mean bivalves, from Shigokus to Island Creeks, that the cooks pull from a refrigerated drawer somewhere near their feet. How effortlessly cool is that?
35. Cold Dish
As we’ve feared since we first introduced you to Hasu, its Northeastern Chinese specialties don’t seem to be playing in the Kung Pao Peoria that is Cherry Creek. So be the change you want to see in the world by ordering all the chilled, chili oil-bathed strips of tofu skin, seaweed, cucumber, enoki-mushroom “noodles,” and more that you can stand.
That’s how it’s spelled in the Twitter feed of this revered Southern lunch counter, anyway, when Wednesday’s specials are posted. And here’s how the pile of biscuits smothered in thick chicken stew tastes: OMFGINEEDMORRITENOW.
37. Neck bones
Once they’ve calmed down, you can bring your all caps-enamored taste buds to this family-run fixture on Thursdays for tender, gravy-smothered pork neck bones over rice. This here’s how soul food got its name.
38. Musical Chairs
Technically, this is a wine-dinner series designed around classic albums. But hey, an event is a thing -- and more important, as Chef Paul C. Reilly’s thing, it’s a total blast, whether inspired by the Beatles (sample course: octopus tonnato with smoked potatoes, aka “Octopus’s Garden”) or the Stones (e.g. “Paint It Black,” a dessert made with blue corn and blackberries).
39. Raw Food Night
Also a thing: trailblazing Chef Daniel Asher’s monthly, four-course raw vegan feast. Go on, say that “raw vegan feast” sounds like it's not for everyone, but then try a little squash pasta with pine nuts in saffron cream, followed by French silk pie with chicory whip. Now admit you’re ready to eat crow… which won’t be one the menu, ‘cause duh, it’s meat.
40. Sauce Sampler
From aioli to vindaloo, this longtime date-night destination was built on condiments, so swapping spit with your honey over the flatbread platter with a quintet of dips is still the best way to kickstart an evening here. Don’t miss the roasted-corn sauce, or the killer crisp chili oil made famous by sibling Ace.
When is burrata not burrata? All too often, actually: when this buttery, cream-filled style of mozzarella suddenly started trending several years ago, many a cynical kitchen slapped inferior versions on the menu just to keep up. Frank Bonanno’s lovingly house-made cheese, then, is the rare real deal.
42. Sea Dog
Chilled seafood platters for happy hour at a raw bar: obvious. Hot dogs layered with even more sausage (sliced andouille), plus lump crab, and mustard sauce on split-top buns for happy hour at a raw bar: preposterous. Also delicious.
43. Jonesy’s fries
Washington Virginia Vale
Technically, they’re Inga’s fries now. But so long as they’re loaded with Buffalo sauce and blue-cheese dressing, or Thai chili sauce, lemongrass, and ginger, they could be called Tom Brady’s Super Bowl™ fries and they’d still be as crowd-pleasing as they were at the now-closed Jonesy’s.
44. Salt and pepper quail
You know how raisins are just concentrated grapes? This is like fried chicken shrank into super-nuggets of righteous funk.
45. Sugar steak
We didn’t rank this mid-century throwback Denver’s best old-school steakhouse for nothing. (But mostly for this.)
46. Griddled tacos
We don’t always go for Mexican food that could be described as “inspired” or, worse, “chef-driven.” But when we do, we’re ordering as many of Rayme Rossello’s crispy, gooey pockets of carnitas blended with smoked Gouda and queso fresco as we can possibly stomach in one sitting. And some to take home with us.
47. Breakfast tacos
City Park, LoHi
Unless, that is, we’re going to either of Kevin Morrison’s casas for desayuno. Like Rossello, he changed the game around here with his way-gourmet approach to tacos -- and yet we’d put his crisp-browned, yet fluffy hash and creamy scrambled eggs up against the meanest short-order cook’s any day.
48. Lamb chop fondue
Three different types of cheeses, and as many types of green chiles go into the fondue that’s served in a little cast-iron pot alongside perfectly seasoned and cooked lamb rib chops. So do tequila and lots of cream. So it’s a dip you’ll wish were a drink.
49. Cake and Shake
Remember how, when you came home from school, your mom would treat you to a big ol' slice of fresh-baked, three-layer chocolate cake and a cold, creamy milkshake to wash it down with? Yeah, neither does anyone born after 1975. This enduring favorite fills the collective emotional void.
50. Chicken-fried steak
What’s the wiener schnitzel of the South doing on the brunch menu of a Mexican seafood spot? Don’t know, don’t care, so long as it’s always there, chilling in a pool of green chile-chorizo gravy alongside an Ultimate Bloody.
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Ruth Tobias is a Denver food writer who has eaten ALMOST everything on this list. See for yourself @Denveater.