Feature

Best New Restaurants

With nearly 30 restaurants in the running, we whittled the list down to the best eight eateries in the Mile High City. 

December 2010

It’s been quite a year, Denver. As far as we can tell, the, um, sluggish economy hasn’t stopped new restaurants from flinging open their doors—and thank goodness for that, because our local dining scene is more vibrant than ever. If anything, many of the new places in town reflect a refreshing price consciousness and menu accessibility that had previously fallen away. You’ll find bargains at eateries like the dainty Middle Eastern–focused Arabesque or dialed-down, hearty fare at Euclid Hall. Of course, this list still offers choices for fine dining—namely Shanahan’s Steakhouse and ChoLon, but most of the eight restaurants that made this year’s cut fall squarely in the middle. So no matter what you’re craving, check out the metro area’s most promising new spots. Ready, set…eat!

Ondo's Spanish Tapas Bar

At Ondo’s, a year-old Spanish restaurant in Cherry Creek, chefs Curt and Deicy Steinbecker are finally doing the tapa justice. No meal here should begin without an order of the classic tortilla Española (a wedge of egg-and-potato omelet served at room temperature) or the patatas bravas—perhaps Spain’s most famous bar snack—fried potato wedges dredged in a spicy, roasted red pepper sauce. From there, the salad tossed with Manchego cheese, Serrano ham, and cherry tomatoes offers bright acidity that cleanses the palate before going back for more. Our one concern is that the restaurant sits in a difficult location—a subterranean space that doesn’t offer much ambience—but we believe the Steinbeckers, and Ondo’s remarkable food, have staying power.

Where To Sit: If it’s not busy, the space can feel cold, so ask for the snug two-top that’s closest to the bar.

What To Order: Croquetas de jámon, albondigas en salsa, ensalada de Manchego y Serrano 250 Steele St., 303-975-6514, ondostapas.com

Arabesque

The first time we tried to visit Arabesque, we drove right past it. The building it occupies on Boulder’s Walnut Street looks bank-like from the outside, but once you head inside, you’ll find a cozy, sun-lit space that has a community coffeeshop feel. Grab a table, sip a cool glass of water (subtly flavored with rose water), and study the small menu written on the chalkboard. When your server returns, order the curry oil–drizzled chicken shawarma and the sampler platter—a classic smorgasbord of hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, and tangy stuffed grape leaves. The Arabic bread, though, is the true star: It both lightly wraps the tender chicken into a sandwich and comes alongside the sampler platter. Order extra, and then rip off hunks of the freshly baked, puffy rounds to scoop up the lemony hummus (studded with whole garbanzo beans) and smoky baba ghanoush. The flavors are so pure and comforting that when you get up to pay the check, you’ll want to thank owners Manal and Saib Jarrar as they cook in their small, open kitchen.

Where To Sit: If you visit during a rare slow moment, sit at the sun-drenched table in the corner by the windows. Otherwise, grab any seat you can.

What To Order: Lentil soup, chicken shawarma, Mid-East sampler platter 1634 Walnut St., Boulder, 720-242-8623, arabesqueboulder.com

ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro

It was big news when New York chef Lon Symensma announced he was leaving the Big Apple to open his first signature restaurant in Denver. And yet, some foodies remained hesitant—concerned that Symensma was coming to town to educate local diners on the finer points of Southeast Asian cuisine. Truth is, Denver diners do not appreciate being told what to eat. But then ChoLon opened, and misgivings fell by the wayside. Within the beautiful, modern space there’s nary a New York attitude. Instead, there’s a generosity and accessibility that extends from the service to the menu. When trying a new dish—take the kaya toast with coconut jam and soft egg that’s wildly popular in Southeast Asia—there’s an immediate connection and a sense of fluency. Likewise with the soup dumplings: Even if you’ve never had them before, after one bite you immediately understand this is comfort food. This is, in fact, our favorite way to experience ChoLon—through the small bites menu (available from 11 a.m.), which will delight, surprise, and satisfy you with each dish.

Where To Sit: At the chef’s counter for a birds-eye view into the kitchen.

What To Order: Kaya toast with coconut jam and soft egg, soup dumplings, green papaya salad with tamarind sorbet, stir-fried Brussels sprouts with ground pork and mint. 1555 Blake St., Suite 101, 303-353-5223, cholon.com

Shanahan's Steakhouse

There’s something about a steak dinner that drums up a sense of occasion—even if it’s just another Tuesday night and there’s nothing in particular to celebrate. There’s the pomp and circumstance of a weighty wine list, tantalizing cuts of prime beef and decadent sides, and dedicated service that makes you feel like a VIP. On all of this, Shanahan’s delivers. And this is a relief because the multimillion dollar restaurant got off to a rocky start, ditching its original chef just weeks after opening. But now, under the guidance of executive chef Keith Stich, there’s the growing sense of polish that you expect at a steak house. (For more, see page 146 for a full review of Shanahan’s.)

Where To Sit: The half-round, elevated booths lend a view of the dining room while also feeling comfortably snug.

What To Order: Kobe beef carpaccio, Wagyu rib-eye filet, diver scallops with tarragon-lemon sauce, creamed spinach. 5085 S. Syracuse St., 303-770-7300, www.shanahanssteakhouse.com

Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen

If you try to compare Euclid Hall to Rioja or Bistro Vendôme, chef Jennifer Jasinski’s other restaurants, you’re going about things all wrong. Euclid Hall is a departure for Jasinski—and she’s loving it. The restaurant is a beer hall (albeit a fancy one), with a vast, well-curated suds list and a hearty menu lined with items such as poutine (gravy-drizzled fries and cheese curds), schnitzel, and hand-cranked sausage. These are cold-weather eats that demand a to-hell-with-the-diet attitude and a meaty pint of IPA. And yet, while the food has masculine qualities, Jasinski has softened the edges, sneaking in a bit of refinement that lightens, brightens—and even makes—each dish. Take the griddled cheese sandwich: Jasinski pairs the aggressive funk of Camembert with the soft, supple flavors of Colorado peach preserves. On the flip side, she takes the classic pairing of chicken and waffles, and punches up the flavor with tart, acidic buttermilk sourdough waffles. There’s a yin and a yang to each offering—and the best way to find it is to dine with a group and order a whole mess of dishes to share.

Where To Sit: For a view of the open kitchen, but still a sense of tucked-away coziness, ask to sit at table 31 or 32—minibooths nestled along the south wall.

What To Order: The works (house-made sausages, pickled vegetables, mustards, and bretzel bread), roasted duck poutine, funnel cake–fried bananas. 1317 14th St., 303-595-4255, euclidhall.com

Cafe Aion

When the news broke that Dakota Soifer, a veteran of the Kitchen and Meadow Lark Farm Dinners, would open his own place on the Hill in Boulder, the dining community waited anxiously. Here was a chef who understood the importance of local, seasonal, and letting the ingredients drive the dish. When you eat Soifer’s food, you understand that commitment. The dishes taste as they should: fried cauliflower is reminiscent of the crunchy, earthy vegetable it is, and even the warming spices and apricots of the Moroccan pork don’t mask the flavors of the meat. Dipping sauces aren’t afterthoughts either; instead they’re punched with bold ingredients such as smoked paprika, cumin, or saffron. The stripped-down space, like Soifer’s cooking, is rustic and comfortable, and we simply can’t get enough.

Where To Sit: The horseshoe-shaped bar offers good views, but a four-top provides the best table space for an abundance of shared dishes.

What To Order: The menu changes on a whim, but try to taste the fried cauliflower with saffron yogurt, house-cured meats and accoutrements, fried chicken, and vanilla ice cream drizzled with olive oil. 1235 Pennsylvania Ave., Boulder, 303-993-8131, cafeaion.com

The Village Cork

While we’ve frequented the Village Cork since it opened in 2001, we’re elated that owner Lisa Lapp recently expanded her wine bar to include dinner service. And she couldn’t have done it without the talents of chef Samir Mohammad, who came aboard in January. What he has done with a makeshift kitchen (one convection oven and two butane burners) is mind-boggling. Each evening he turns out a roster of 10-plus seasonal dishes such as velvety butternut squash soup, pommes frites that will change your outlook on fries (these roasted fingerlings arrive with salted, crackly skin and a lusty lemon-herb garlic aïoli for dipping), a cozy, perfect-for-a-cold-day lobster pot pie, and delicate pumpkin-chai panna cotta. Mohammad’s menu changes weekly, if not daily, but there’s always an excellent veggie trio often anchored by a fluffy, pungent blue cheese soufflé. Of course, you can still order traditional wine bar fare such as the warmed Brie with apples and roasted garlic or an antipasto plate, which showcases locally cured meats. Our advice: Start with those, but stay for dinner.

Where To Sit: In the front room, at one of the high tables with the banquette.

What To Order: Don’t miss the vegetarian trio—the blue cheese soufflé is a showstopper—butternut squash soup, pommes frites, lobster pot pie. 1300 S. Pearl St., 303-282-8399, villagecork.com

Mangiamo Pronto!

If you’ve dined at Mangiamo Pronto!, a year-old Italian eatery on the corner of Wazee and 17th streets, chances are it’s been for lunch. That’s when the hungry work crowds descend for charred-crust pizzas in Italian combinations (we love the cotto: spicy cappicola, apricot-balsamic mermellata, arugula, and Parmesan), the zingy chickpea salad, and panini stuffed with goods such as Black Forest ham, Taleggio cheese, roasted pear, and baby arugula. Lunch here is very good, but dinner is excellent—and yet, few people seem to have made the discovery. And that’s a shame, because chef and owner Enrique Guerrero serves one of the more simple and satisfying evening meals in town. For proof, order some pasta—all of which is handmade and hand-rolled in-house. The effect is lovely, silky, and decadent thanks to combinations such as the morto with crispy pancetta, fried egg, and Parmesan butter tossed with ribbons of eggy linguine. The prices are beyond reasonable for food clearly made with precision and dedication—and the wine list follows suit. While not a fancy place, Mangiamo Pronto! is just the spot for an impromptu evening out, or even (if you dine early) dinner with the kids.

Where To Sit: During the day, grab any seat you can. At night, select the table in the back corner for the most privacy.

What To Order: Any of the fresh pasta dishes (but especially the morto or the mezzaluna), mushroom bruschetta, olive oil gelato1601 17th St., 303-297-1229, mangiamopronto.com/denver

Ones to Watch

With the end of each year comes a flood of new restaurants. This year is no different: In fact, there’s an abundance of spots we’re anxious to try out. Here’s our crib sheet for attention- getting restaurants that either opened shortly after we closed this issue or are still in the works.

Aria (Target opening: December) If anyone can make a go of Cherry Creek’s most notorious address (250 Josephine St., the former home of Papillon Cafe, Indigo, Go Fish Grille, Tula, and Juicy Lucy’s Steakhouse), it’s chef Michael Long. After all, he made Opus, his eight-year-old fine-dining restaurant in Old Town Littleton, a resounding success despite an off-the-path location. Aria’s menu will resemble Opus in terms of inspiration and technique, but Long vows to make it affordable enough for everyday dining. 250 Josephine St., 303-377-4012

Bittersweet (Target opening: December) Standing at the former site of Gary’s Auto Service on East Alameda Avenue and Pennsylvania Street, chef Olav Peterson and his wife, Melissa Severson, were able to look beyond the barren garage and surrounding parking lot. Instead, they saw the opportunity to turn the lot into a “farm in the city” with 500 feet of usable garden space. The vegetables, fruits, herbs, and edible flowers planted on the grounds will work their way into Peterson’s artisanal menu. 500 E. Alameda Ave., bittersweetdenver.com

Edge Restaurant & Bar (Opened: October 19) Chef Simon Purvis, a 20-year veteran of Four Seasons hotel restaurants, is charged with running this progressive American steak house—and making it stand out in a city already awash in steak. Look for cuts of dry-aged local beef and wild game. 1111 14th St., 303-389-3050, edgerestaurantdenver.com

The Kitchen Café (Target opening: spring 2011) As business continues to grow for the Kitchen owners and chefs Kimbal Musk and Hugo Matheson, they’re adding a third eatery to their repertoire. The space will be more publike than conventional cafe, and the dishes will be priced accordingly. 1035 Pearl St., Boulder

Lou’s Food Bar (Target opening: December) Just weeks after opening Green Russell, a bar underneath Larimer Square, Frank Bonanno is turning his sights on Sunnyside. While West 38th Avenue might seem like an odd location for him to open a restaurant, Bonanno is confident that an affordable American bistro with French influences will be a good fit. We look forward to tucking into the house-made pâtés and the mozzarella-stuffed meatballs. 1851 W. 38th Ave., 303-458-0336, lousfoodbar.com

Oak at Fourteenth (Target opening: November) Here’s a restaurant where your Manhattan won’t take a backseat to the farm-to-table menu. That’s because owner Bryan Dayton (formerly of Frasca Food and Wine) is a master mixologist, and he and chef Steve Redzikowski have devised a menu that takes its cues from the cocktail list. 1400 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-444-3622, oakatfourteenth.com

Olive Oil (Target opening: spring 2011) After James Mazzio was named a “Best New Chef” by Food & Wine Magazine in 1999, he faded a bit from view. But for the last several months he’s been enchanting sandwich lovers at Littleton’s Pickles Deli. And soon, next door, he’ll be opening Olive Oil, a rustic Italian-Mediterranean spot promising olive oil tastings, Neapolitan pizzas, hand-rolled pasta, and seafood. 5869 S. Alkire St., Littleton

Ototo Food and Wine Bar (Target opening: November) When Toshi Kizaki decided to reimagine the nine-month-old Den Deli, he didn’t waste any time. He posted a note apologizing for any inconvenience, locked the doors, and sent Darren Pusateri, his executive chef, to San Sebastián, Spain, for research. Ototo’s à la carte menu will have global influences, but during lunch will serve traditionally Japanese ramen, udon, and bento boxes. 1518 S. Pearl St., 303-777-0691, ototoden.net

Pizzeria Locale and Caffè (Target opening: late November for the cafe and early December for the pizzeria) Anyone who has dined at Frasca already knows the quality to expect from chef and co-owner Lachlan Mackinnon Patterson. The same will be true at the restaurant’s next-door siblings. Pizzeria Locale will serve Naples-style pizza fired in a 10,500- pound brick oven imported from Italy. The adjacent Caffè will function as a quick-service panini, bruschetta, salumi, cheese, and espresso spot. 1730 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-3003 and 1720 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-9464, frascafoodandwine.com

The Pinyon (Target opening: December) There’s some argument as to whether being next to Frasca’s new ventures will help or hurt chef-owner Theo Adley’s forthcoming restaurant, but only time will tell. Adley says his American menu is inspired by the “many seasons and environments of Colorado.” Plan on at least a few game-meat dishes and fried chicken. 1710 Pearl St., Boulder

Street Kitchen Asian Bistro (Target opening: late December) Mary Nguyen, owner of Parallel Seventeen, is taking to the suburbs to open her second restaurant. The eatery, which will be located at the Vallagio at Inverness, will focus on Asian street food from Japan, Malaysia, China, Thailand, and Vietnam—and we bet that even downtowners will make the trek. 10111 Inverness Main St., Englewood, 303-799-9800

TAG Raw Bar (Target opening: early 2011) Buoyed by the success of TAG Restaurant, chef-owner Troy Guard is expanding on his social food theme—and this time he’s serving everything raw. The menu will be entirely uncooked, and while there will be salads and sashimi, there will also be meat, which can then be cooked tableside shabu-shabu (hot pot) or hot rock style. The raw bar will be located in the new Walkway on Larimer Square.

On the Street

You can thank the sour economy and social media for Denver’s burgeoning— and delicious—street food scene.

Just one year ago, Denver’s street food scene was miniscule. It consisted of the burrito trucks that frequented Federal Boulevard and a handful of well-loved carts—Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs and the Thai Food Cart among them—along the 16th Street Mall. Then last October Gastro Cart, the culinary brainchild of Mike Winston, who left Table 6 to cook head cheese sliders and roast lamb tacos with kimchi on the corner of 18th and Curtis streets, appeared.

The gamble—a location on the edge of downtown and an ambitious menu—paid off, and quickly. Foodies sought out the handheld eats and spread the word via Facebook and Twitter. Gastro Cart played along, posting daily specials and urgent notes reminding patrons that the lamb bacon BLTs were selling out fast. Underneath it all, the message was clear: Denver was ready to adopt the ways of Los Angeles, New York, and Portland, where street carts and trucks number in the hundreds.

Within months, the trucks appeared. First up was the Denver Cupcake Truck from Cake Crumbs Bakery owner Denon Moore. When Sean Moore (Denon’s husband) launched the truck, affectionately named Clementine, in April, his timing—a bad economy, the effectiveness of social media, and a growing interest in street food—was impeccable.

Add to that a concept that’s brilliant in its simplicity: Here’s a vehicle where there’s no kitchen required. Each morning Sean loads the floorboards of the restored 1969 Ford Vanette with jumbo coolers, all snugly stacked with plastic tubs holding frosting-bedecked cupcakes. Before pulling out of the bakery, he drums up excitement by posting location details on Facebook and Twitter (the truck is also fit with a wireless connection and a mini laptop to post up-to-the-minute location details). At last count, the truck had 7,423 Facebook fans and 1,124 Twitter followers—all of which translates to throngs of devotees lined up with cash in hand.

Within weeks of Clementine’s maiden voyage, Denver chef and caterer David Bravdica launched Brava! Pizza della Strada, a mobile wood-fired pizza oven stationed at the base of the Daniels and Fisher Tower. It took only a day or two before the hand-tossed pies (there are five varieties, all made from local ingredients) garnered enough buzz to build a daily line. Brava!’s niche is quality at a price—the most expensive pizza is $7—that you’re unlikely to find at a sit-down restaurant.

In May, the Biscuit Bus—an offshoot of the Denver Biscuit Company—began selling its hot-off-the-truck biscuits slathered with the likes of honey and mustard and stacked with fried chicken and pickles. The price: $6.50. Aside from street corners, the bus became a regular fixture at the Cherry Creek Fresh Market, Stapleton Fresh Market, and Civic Center Eats (a hub of several food trucks and carts).

As Denver gobbled cupcakes, pizza, and biscuits, Josh Wolkon, owner of Vesta Dipping Grill and Steuben’s, was finishing work on an old beater, retrofitted with a full kitchen and built to run on solar power and waste vegetable oil. After a year of planning, the Steuben’s Truck hit the streets in June, peddling an American menu of cheeseburgers, fries, and Cubanos to adoring fans. (Aboard the truck, items run about a dollar less than they do in the restaurant because overhead is lower.)

Next to roll out were Pinche Tacos, Little Orange Rocket, and the Porker. At last count, there were 26 mobile restaurants in the Denver-Boulder area—with more hitting the streets each month.

Aside from a passionate interest in street food culture, what has made this trend stick is economics. Opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the best of times is expensive, but trucks carry far less risk—especially when it comes to overhead. The Moores poured $200,000 into opening (and later moving and expanding) Cake Crumbs Bakery, but only about $25,000 into getting Clementine on the road. Meanwhile, Bravdica invested $18,000 into his pizza wagon. And where five years ago it cost Wolkon more than a million dollars to build Steuben’s from the ground up, he spent nearly $100,000 on his truck (which he concedes is extremely high). “The greening of the truck cost us approximately an additional $40,000,” Wolkon says. “[But] our green efforts tie in with one of our company’s mission statements.”

On an average day, both the Steuben’s and Cupcake trucks pull in $1,000. Brava!, on the other hand, sells an average of 75 pizzas daily in the beginning of the week and 100 daily toward the end of the week. While Clementine is making a profit (which helps offset some of the bakery’s costs), Bravdica is able to pay himself a minimal monthly salary, and the Steuben’s Truck operates at a break-even level for daily sales. “Our motivation for the truck, however, has never been to make a ton of money,” Wolkon explains. “Our goals include being part of the revitalization of Civic Center Park, helping to bring a new food culture to Denver, expanding our environmental efforts, having another vehicle for our nonprofit events, marketing for Steuben’s, and fun.”

Marketing is indeed a huge bonus—especially for vendors with restaurants. While Wolkon refers to the Steuben’s truck as a moving billboard, Sean Moore says that when people taste the Cupcake Truck’s treats—which sell for $2.75 apiece—the experience often brings them into the bakery for more. “For us, the truck is a marketing tool, which is reducing marketing expenses overall and has increased overall business by 30 percent at the shop,” he says. Business is so good, in fact, that the Moores have not only launched another truck (and have yet another in the works), but they’re also reconfiguring Cake Crumbs so there’s more space for both baking and retail.

As for Bravdica, he says he began the pizza cart to promote his catering business. “I wanted the visibility—I can put a pizzeria in your backyard,” he says. “If I decide to do a restaurant in the future, I know I have a customer base.”

Like any trend, there’s always the danger of reaching the saturation point. But if the street food culture in Portland, L.A., and New York—all of which continue to grow—are any indication, Denver is a long way from reaching overkill. As Wolkon says, “I’m not sure where this will all go or for how long, but I’m happy Denver is on board and a new food culture has emerged to fill a void.”

Plugged In

Social media plays a big role in spreading the street food word. Check out some of our favorite trucks and carts here:

For a more comprehensive look at Denver’s food truck scene, check out: denfoodtrucks.com..