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Top New Restaurant: Alma Fonda Fina

Alma Fonda Fina's spread of dishes
Photo courtesy of Shawn Campbell

Johnny Curiel wants to be seen and heard. That’s why an eight-seat chef’s counter is the centerpiece of his first restaurant, Alma Fonda Fina, which opened in LoHi in December 2023. “If I’m going to do traditional Mexican food that is my heart, my story, my everything,” he says, “I have to be able to see the guests, and I have to be able to tell the story of why we’re here.”

That story starts in Curiel’s native Guadalajara, Mexico, where he fell in love with the culinary traditions of his homeland while working at his father’s restaurant. Although Curiel grew up in a household of chefs, he isn’t serving family recipes at Alma Fonda Fina. Instead, he draws inspiration from those recipes and uses techniques from his tenures with TAG Restaurant Group and Richard Sandoval Hospitality—which led him to cook in dozens of restaurants in Colorado and across the United States—to craft elevated variations of the food he grew up eating.

For instance, Curiel raises the bar on birria, a comforting stewed meat served at the eateries his family frequented after church every Sunday, by using a tender braised Colorado lamb shank—instead of the more typical goat or beef—nestled in a pool of adobo-pepper-zinged broth. And the restaurant’s frijoles puercos, a dish of refried beans and chorizo, customarily, that Curiel’s mother makes for him in Mexico, features house-made Mexican chorizo, creamy white bean purée, and smoky-tangy chile de árbol salsa verde. “I just wanted something that was super close to me to be part of the menu,” he says. Snag a reservation for a bar stool at Alma Fonda Fina’s chef’s counter and you can be super close to the sights, sounds, and smells of Curiel’s cooking, too. —Patricia Kaowthumrong

Read More: Alma Fonda Fina Is Modern Mexican Cuisine at Its Finest

Top Chef: Carolina Zubiate

Portrait of Carolina Zubiate
Photo courtesy of Brittany Teuber

Carolina Zubiate has had quite a year. Besides winning the Hispanic Restaurant Association’s Hispanic Top Chef competition and working as a line cook at North Park Hill’s Yuan Wonton, one of Denver’s hottest spots for Asian dumplings, Zubiate hosts in-demand pop-ups featuring her native Peruvian cooking. We caught up with the busy chef to talk about overcoming trauma and about chifa nights, aka the reservation you didn’t know you needed. —Allyson Reedy

5280: You’re Peruvian, but you’re known for making dumplings at Yuan Wonton. How’d you get into Asian food?
Carolina Zubiate: I worked at a Peruvian restaurant in D.C., and [the food] involves a lot of different fusions—Japanese, Latin American, African—so I was always intrigued by different cuisines. I never went to culinary school, so I wanted to learn different cuisines so when the day comes that I’m able to open something, I can go back to the creativity and things I’ve learned from different chefs.

What brought you to Denver?
Something traumatic happened to me [in the kitchen] in D.C. Moving to Denver, where I had friends, was my way of staying in the restaurant industry. I didn’t want to become a victim. But moving—that doesn’t happen in Hispanic cultures. You stay with your family or you move together. So that was very hard for me. You have to put yourself first at some point.

How did you meet Penelope Wong, owner of Yuan Wonton?
I did an all-women dinner with her and Ngoc [Nguyen, Wong’s sous chef], where we were paired with women sommeliers. That was my first time working with them, and Chef P is so talented, so we stayed in touch.

Can you tell me about Yuan Wonton’s chifa nights?
Chifa is a Chinese-Peruvian dinner. It’s mainly Cantonese Chinese food, because there’s a huge population of Chinese people in Peru. I shared that with Chef Penelope, and it was her listening to me. Before we knew it, I shared one or two dishes, and the rest was her cooking her family’s food. The best way I could describe it is it was our ancestors meeting for a meal, and it was so special.

What’s next? More chifa?
I would love my own space. I want to find something where I can do a ceviche bar pop-up a few nights a week. There’s nothing like that in Denver. I want to share that here, and a chifa night is one step closer.

Top Coffeeshop: LaTinto Café

Pouring coffee into cup
Photo courtesy of Amanda Villarosa

There are few countries with richer coffee cultures than Colombia, which is almost always one of the top three producers of the world’s favorite beverage. That caffeinated way of life is on full display at South Broadway’s LaTinto Café, a mural-bedecked, exposed-brick retreat that opened in spring 2023. In owners Jorge and Carmen Aguirre’s homeland, tinto refers to black coffee, but to Denverites, the word is now synonymous with specialty coffee beans imported from independent Colombian farms and roasted fresh in Colorado.

The Aguirres don’t just serve liquid pick-me-ups, though. Their pastry case is full of South American treats: The pastel Gloria, filled with caramel sauce and guava; the pan de achira, bread that tastes a little like cornbread without the crumbly consistency; and acemas, wheat rolls made with panela (unrefined whole cane sugar) all go great with a strong cup of drip. —Lindsey B. King

Read More: 25 of Denver’s Best Coffeeshops

Top Deli: Blackbelly Market

Charcuterie board from Black Belly Deli
Photo by Joni Schrantz, courtesy of Blackbelly

Denverites, rejoice: Blackbelly took over the former home of Il Porcellino Salumi this past March, bringing an outpost of chef Hosea Rosenberg’s 10-year-old meat-centric market and restaurant in Boulder to the Mile High City’s Berkeley neighborhood. While the original Blackbelly location will continue to focus on using whole animal butchery to yield chops, steaks, and other cuts, the Denver iteration will center on curing salumi for both locations. The Berkeley shop has a fast-casual eatery serving breakfast and lunch and a deli stocked with fresh and cured meats, cheeses, and pantry items. We suggest curating a charcuterie and cheese board using this advice from head butcher Kelly Kawachi. —PK

Meats: Blackbelly offers 20 to 30 types of house-made salumi, including earthy coppa and well-marbled soppressata. Kawachi suggests choosing two whole-muscle varieties, such as gently sweet bresaola and prosciutto, and one option with a kick, such as nduja or chorizo. “The whole-muscle meats are good, but they’re not spicy, so I like to choose a spicy one,” she says.

Cheeses: Complement your charcuterie with three cheeses that have different textures and flavors. Kawachi’s picks include a three-year-aged Gouda (firm and nutty) and a Swiss Chällerhocker (creamy and salty). “I also like to put a soft cheese in there for variety, like some kind of Brie or Camembert,” she says.

Add-Ons: Pile on the sweet and salty accoutrements and round out your board with sliced bread or crackers. “I like to have some kind of nut, a jam or fresh fruit, a pickled vegetable, and mustard,” Kawachi says. Blackbelly stocks Primo, a locally made line of jarred preserves with flavors such as raspberry habanero designed to partner with charcuterie.

Pairing: When buying wine, get a bottle with the same origin as the meats or cheeses on your spread. “I don’t like sweet [wines], so I tend to go for something dry and acidic,” Kawachi says. “But it really depends on what you’re feeling.”

Top Dessert: The Cake Bar

Photo by Sarah Banks

Angie Wells is changing how people think about vegan and plant-based food, one cake cup at a time at the Cake Bar. After her in-home cake operation exploded during the pandemic, Wells saw the former Make Believe Bakery space for rent and knew it was time to get a brick-and-mortar shop of her own. Not only was she jazzed about the 625-square-foot space—located next to vegan/vegetarian restaurant City, O’ City in Capitol Hill—but she also couldn’t wait to send the hundreds of people picking up her strawberry crunch cakes to a location that wasn’t her house. Wells moved in this past August and sells the custom cakes that first encouraged a line out her front door, along with vegan croissants, cookies, kouign-amann, and macarons from 20 Colorado vendors.

But it’s those cake cups—filled on the spot with a choose-your-own-adventure-style combination of cake, frosting, and toppings—that sell like, well, hot cakes. Think crumbled funfetti cake layered with maple-vanilla frosting, fresh strawberries, and caramel drizzle. The dessert is always plant-based and nut-free, but Wells offers a gluten-free option, too. “There’s no reason to pay into factory farming anymore,” Wells says. “You can have perfect cakes and croissants and be cruelty-free. At the Cake Bar, as long as you can have sugar, we can accommodate you.” —AR

Top Local Global Eats

Denver’s roster of far-flung cuisines is ever-expanding. Try these five spots for amazing diasporic foods. —Lindsey B. King, Ethan Pan & Geoff Van Dyke

Top Chinese: Meet & Eat Bistro

Don’t wear white to this southeast Denver strip mall joint; the seriously fiery, scarlet-hued Sichuan dishes coming out of its kitchen deserve to be eaten with gusto. The owners behind Aurora’s Dating Yumy took over the restaurant in March, but the meals at Meet & Eat Bistro still sing with spice and heat, a result of the liberal use of red chiles and Sichuan peppercorns.

What to Order: The dry-pot cauliflower is as satisfying as any meaty main: Chunky florets of the humble vegetable are tossed in a smoky, garlicky sauce with lotus root, onions, carrots, and green peppers. Served over a gas flame, the dish pairs well with the spicy, vinegar-spiked shredded potatoes, which remain a little crunchy after being stir-fried, and plain white rice.

Read More: 20 of Denver’s Best Chinese Restaurants

Top French: Jacques

Interior of Jacques restaurant
Photo courtesy of Shawn Campbell

LoHi’s Jacques is a bistro in the truest sense of the word: bustling, loud, vibrant, and very, very French. The menu leans into traditional bistro fare such as escargots, pâté, and mussels. Pair your bites with a glass of Chablis, and revel in Jacques’ ability to transport you from the South Platte to the Seine.

What to Order: Jacques’ menu changes every few months, but you’re sure to find mainstays such as baguettes with butter, French onion soup, simply but well-prepared steak, and, of course, frites. In fact, one could do much worse than making a meal out of those dishes. If seafood is your thing, try the buttery mussels.

Top Indian: Samosa Shop

Samosa held up by hand
Photo courtesy of Extractsdaily / Mitchell Peterson & SamosaShop
Portrait of Samosa Shop owner David Hadley
Photo courtesy of Extractsdaily / Mitchell Peterson & SamosaShop

David Hadley got an early culinary education from his grandma, who taught him the basics of Indian cuisine. After cooking school, working in Colorado eateries, and winning the Food Network’s Chopped, he opened the Samosa Shop as a pop-up. In January, the concept moved into LoDo’s Honor Farm, where Hadley now serves his flavorful Indian American cuisine.

What to Order: The OG Samosa with potato, peas, and dried fruit will deliver exactly what you’re looking for if you want traditional Indian flavors, but don’t miss the Secret Samosa, which Hadley fills with a rotating array of ingredients, including a killer caprese with balsamic reduction. The Kerala fried chicken sandwich and the vindaloo chicken birria tacos are the epitome of fusion food.

Read More: Chef Dave Hadley’s $5 Samosa Is Worth Every Penny

Top Middle Eastern: Urban Cafe & Restaurant

Iranian sisters Elnaz and Elhahe Azizi and their cousin, Ferydoon Asgari, opened this cozy Lincoln Park cafe in December. There they combine the fruity, floral, and nutty notes of Persian cuisine with Lebanese and Italian influences in a bouquet of dishes that range from rice plates to sandwiches.

What to Order: For lunch at Urban Cafe & Restaurant, try the spicy eggplant sandwich: slices of aubergine slicked with a chile-spiked tomato sauce and topped with mozzarella, walnuts, and basil, all tucked between focaccia. For dinner, the zereshk polo—a saffron-infused pilaf topped with pistachios and dried barberries—comes with a tasty chicken stew.

Top Vietnamese: Sap Sua

chả cá lã vọng (hamachi crudo) dish from Sap Sua
Photo courtesy of Casey Wilson

At Congress Park’s Sap Sua, co-owner Ni Nguyen transforms the flavors of his childhood—he grew up in Orange County, California, as the son of Vietnamese immigrants—into upscale savory plates, while his wife and Longmont native, Anna, spearheads pastry creation.

What to Order: The ever-changing menu takes advantage of in-season ingredients, but you can always count on the bap cai luoc (charred cabbage served with anchovy breadcrumbs and a swoop of egg yolk sauce) and the ca kho (grilled hamachi collar lacquered with coconut caramel) to be delicious.

Read More: Meet the Couple Behind Sap Sua, Denver’s Newest Modern Vietnamese Restaurant

Top Local All-American Fare

OK, yes, cultures the world over have their own versions of—and claims on—these culinary traditions, but our homegrown iterations are just as good as (if not better than) any other.

Top Barbecue: G-Que Barbeque

Denverites can’t get enough of G-Que Barbeque. Case in point: Since the restaurant opened in Westminster in 2015, its footprint has expanded to include seven locations across the Front Range, including a new concession stand at Coors Field that started serving wings, ribs, and pulled pork to hungry baseball fans in the spring. Don’t miss founder/maestro of meat Jason Ganahl’s brisket, which is smoked to perfection over hickory, or his popular crispy chicken wings tossed in a different sauce each week (we like the Thai chile basil). —PK

Top Burger: Bodega Denver

Bodega Denver's burger
Photo by Sarah Banks

The inventive sandwiches at Sunnyside’s Bodega Denver draw lines of locals, who flock to the two-year-old breakfast and lunch spot for menu items like banana bread French toast with peanut butter mousse and toast stacked with fried chicken thighs and deviled egg spread. But Bodega’s smashburger stands out for its comforting simplicity: The juicy double-beef-patty masterpiece has a squishy potato bun and is layered with melty American and cheddar cheeses, dill pickled onions, and Colorado Fancy Sauce, a Thousand Island–like condiment with green chiles. Order the messy two-hander with the mixed bag of fries starter and look for a new RiNo location this fall. —PK

Read More: The Best Burgers in Denver and Beyond

Top Pizza: Dough Counter

NY slice from Dough Counter
Photo by Joni Schrantz/Courtesy of Dough Counter

Brought to you by the team that made Marco’s Coal-Fired pizza a Denver icon, University Hills’ casual Dough Counter specializes in New York–style pies and slices (whereas Marco’s serves Neapolitan pizzas). In much the same way that it’s difficult to make bagels like they do in the Big Apple, getting New York–style pizza just right isn’t easy. Dough Counter’s thin-crust pizzas, however, are about as close a facsimile as you’ll get to the real thing this side of the Mississippi. The key, of course, is the crust: Dough Counter lets its dough rise for five full days. The result is a crispy, chewy foundation for sweet/tart tomato sauce, mozzarella, and whatever else you might want on top. —GVD

Read More: Where to Find Denver’s Best Pizza

Readers’ Choice Winners

Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy is a freelance writer and ice cream fanatic living in Broomfield.
Ethan Pan
Ethan Pan
Ethan Pan is 5280’s associate food editor, writing and editing for the print magazine and 5280.com. Follow his dining/cooking Instagram @ethans_pan.
Geoff Van Dyke
Geoff Van Dyke
Geoff Van Dyke is the editorial director of 5280 Publishing. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffVanDyke
Lindsey B. King
Lindsey B. King
Lindsey B. King is 5280's editor.
Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia joined the 5280 staff in July 2019 and is thrilled to oversee all of the magazine’s dining coverage. Follow her food reporting adventures on Instagram @whatispattyeating.