Maybe don’t answer this out loud, but come on, how much does lunch with your co-workers suck? This one’s on a diet, that one’s a cheapskate, another one’s got the palate of a toddler, and by the time you finally reach an agreement, it’s too late for anything but drive-thru burgers anyway. Enough’s enough. Follow this guide to your best bets for lunch in 18 Denver neighborhoods big and small -- from hotspots to hidden treasures -- and you can eat like a boss instead of whatever you’ve been doing...
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Hong Kong Barbecue (address and info) What you’re getting: “Roast product,” for starters
Federal Boulevard cuts through a patchwork of neighborhoods known for their Mexican, Vietnamese, and Chinese holes in the wall. This is one of the holiest -- and is for meat worshippers, we mean that in every sense of the word. The display case filled with glistening roast ducks, pig heads, and so on stands as a shrine to the cult of the carnivore, and the mixed-meat sampler’s an appetizer that eats like a meal. Balance it out with fried rice and water spinach in spicy pickled tofu sauce, which tastes even funkier than it sounds (in a good way).
The atmosphere: sunny yet sophisticated. The Mediterranean-inspired menu: earthy yet clean. The wine list: on the leaner, food-friendlier, lower-alcohol side. If Gozo were a person, you’d be trying to date it. Pastas are especially luscious, whether tossed with butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, and brown butter or preserved lemon, spinach, and bread crumbs.
El Chingon Mexican Bistro (address and info) What you’re getting: Especial del día
Radiating modern warmth in a century-old casa, this family-run, chef-driven charmer turns out tostadas de carnitas and smothered burritos with panache, but daily specials are what set it apart. From grilled shark tacos, to chorizo with curtido and chile aioli, to killer tortitas de carne (basically flattened meatballs), you’ll always find something new to brag about to your lame dollar menu-eating officemates later.
To be clear, this classic dish of chicken simmered with potatoes in a velvety sauce of Parmesan, ground walnuts, and yellow chiles is what you’re getting the first time you visit this way-underrated Peruvian place. The second time you’re getting parihuela -- a tomatoey seafood stew like cioppino, only spicier. The third time, follow some ceviche with a steak-and-veggie stir fry called lomo saltado. And the fourth? Fine, go for the buffet. But don’t say we didn’t warn you when you split your pants in front of everyone back at the office.
Never heard of Central Platte Valley? It’s what the cool developers these days are calling the stretch of riverfront between North Union Station and LoHi. Never heard of Carbon? Well, don’t go around admitting it publicly, because the just-opened successor to Paris on the Platte is the next big thing, not to mention the most fun you can have on a workday without getting fired. Along the counter stands a row of taps filled with coffee, kombucha, wine, beer, and batched cocktails, all of which you can mix, match, and tailor with syrups, salts, herbs, and other flavorings to your heart’s content. The equally customizable menu ranges from the “pizza in a cup” with pepperoni and brioche holes inspired by The Jerk, to sandwiches built on donuts from Carbon’s pot-themed next-door sibling Habit Doughnut Dispensary -- aka your new late-night must-stop for the munchies.
Congress Park (tie)
Dae Gee (address and info) What you’re getting: You mean besides galbi and bulgogi, right?
This is a Korean barbecue joint, so yeah, you’re getting piles of meat with all the fixings. But you shouldn’t stop there -- the fried chicken dumplings, lacy savory pancakes with zucchini or mixed seafood, and tofu with kimchi deserve a place on your table too. Here’s where you should stop -- at home for a nap. Because if you eat all that, you’ve done enough good work for one day.
The bánh mì-esque Japanese BLT with juicy fried chicken and thick-cut bacon will rock both your socks off, as will the lobster roll, served upright in a cylindrical pretzel. And the sesame chicken over a matcha-infused waffle is an instant classic. But the cake takes the cake. After all, we included Glaze’s concentrically layered Baumküchen as part of your ideal last meal -- and for all you know, this could be it. Better make it count.
This low-key, grown-up gathering spot doesn’t get its due for consistently well-crafted contemporary cuisine. You’ll never meet a bread spread you don’t want to smear all over your body here, be it the super-smooth chicken liver pâté with grilled ciabatta, or the richly tangy whipped goat cheese in a jar, offered separately or as part of a smart mezze sampler, with hazelnut falafel, house pickles, and more. Either is plenty for lunch, but if you’re looking for trouble -- and you probably are -- get the Swedish meatballs or the excellent cheeseburger too.
Chili Verde (address and info) What you’re getting: Enchiladas, enfrijoladas -- basically anything smothered
Intense mole, creamy walnut-based nogada, smoky salsa morita, and of course green chile: this relatively upscale haven on downmarket Federal Boulevard specializes in the cookery of Puebla, considered Mexico’s gastronomic capital for its complex dishes featuring a diversity of sauces. Not that you have to know that with your brain to appreciate it all with your mouth, from the chips to the churros and everything in between.
Getting tired of El Taco de Mexico? Sounds like a neurological issue you should probably get checked out, but in the meantime, this laid-back Caribbean cafe nearby will cure all ills. In addition to smokin’ fried chicken, the kitchen fries up a mean plate of fish, crisp skinned and firm yet flaky even underneath a boatload of sauce that bites and kicks (but not too hard). Besides, truth be told, a little reggae and Red Stripe go a lot further toward soothing jangled workday nerves than do ranchera music and no booze.
Avanti F&B: A Collective Eatery (address and info) What you’re getting: So. Many. Things.
Sure, LoHi’s home to dozens of worthy daytime destinations. But ignoring this eye-popping, jaw-dropping new gourmet food court would be like forgetting to invite your mom to your wedding: a mistake that can’t ever be fixed. With two stories, two full bars, and a sweet terrace overlooking the Downtown skyline, it’d be a hit if it didn’t serve food at all. Yet it’s home to seven different kitchens with major cred. There’s MiJo, featuring Japanese-style comfort food from two of the chefs at Bones. And Venezuelan eats from mobile masters Quiero Arepas. There’s Pinche Taqueria spinoff Poco Torteria, Bistro Barbès sibling Souk Shawarma, and an outpost of the beloved Brava! Pizzeria. You can get cricket-crusted raw tuna at Bixo and a “nose-to-tail” squash sampler at Farmer Girl... hey, you know who else would probably love this place? Your poor mom.
Biju’s Little Curry Shop (address and info) What you’re getting: The coconut curry chicken bowl
Fuel Cafe. Cart-Driver. Osaka Ramen. Both Acorn and Comida at The Source. Etc., etc. You’d have to really suck at eating lunch to go wrong in RiNo. But this mod twist on India’s roadside cafes fulfills every noontime need you could possibly have: it’s quick. It’s cheap. It’s got great energy. It’s relatively healthful. And most importantly, the curried rice bowls burst with vibrant flavors, varied textures, and just enough heat to boost your metabolism from here to happy hour, when life starts again.
Four Friends Kitchen (address and info) What you’re getting: Green chile chicken cobbler
If this warm, colorful, Southern-influenced daytime destination were a movie, it’d be the feel-good hit of the year: you’d have to be one cold-blooded critic to hate on a place that pours you spiked sweet tea, and lets you play with an Etch A Sketch while you wait for your fried green tomatoes with jalapeño aioli, followed by the fabulous savory cobbler topped with cheese biscuits.
Since it’s technically situated within the no-man’s land between Sun Valley and Jefferson Park, the fact that this little Mexican joint feels like a place you can go to forget yourself is only fitting. Sip a margarita with a paper umbrella and catch up on your favorite telenovela (admit it, you have one) while you eat like you’ve been riding the rails, or something else strenuous, all morning: the tacos de lengua are surefire, and the bacon-wrapped camarones rellenos come doused in a sauce that will claw your throat to shreds, alongside all the rice, beans, and tortillas you need to bandage the burn. Plus: breakfast any time, including superb machaca con huevos (dried shredded beef and eggs).
True, Mary Nguyen’s breezy little bistro is just one of several superlative spots in these parts. But you already knew to hit Masterpiece Deli or Olive & Finch (also owned by Nguyen) for sandwiches, Steuben’s for comfort food, Onefold for farmstand fare, and so on, whereas this transformation of Parallel 17 may come as a total surprise. While a few traces of its upscale Vietnamese past remain, its most memorable plates are all straight-up European, from salt cod fritters to pappardelle Bolognese. Don’t tell anybody we said this, but we even dig the mocktails.
On one side, it’s a rustic-chic market stocking local, largely organic gourmet products. On the other, it’s a snug all-day cafe where the simple things in life shine, and you feel like a genius just for coming here to read a newspaper over an iced coffee and a toasted sandwich layered with tomatoes, mozzarella, pesto, and a little reduced balsamic. Which you kind of are.
One of our favorite spring arrivals just keeps getting better -- and while market specials like fried whole-belly clams and soft-shell crab piccata round out the menu with flair, its heart is in its stews, from classic Manhattan or New England chowders, to concoctions featuring mussels and saffron, cod and kale, tropical red curry with ahi tuna, even corned beef and cabbage. A snappy craft beer selection’s the icing on the, uh, seafood cake.
Literally across the street from Hong Kong Barbecue yet in a whole different neighborhood, this storefront café is equally modest in looks and mighty in the spirit of homestyle Asian cooking. The salads and curries practically sparkle; the gingered catfish exemplifies the balance between warm and cool elements; and the delicate, tender curry puffs, whether savory or sweet, are a pleasure that’s guilty only for being so ridiculously cheap.
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Ruth Tobias is a Denver-based writer who will gladly accept complaints from your co-workers at @Denveater.