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To talk about tacos, Manny Barella must first discuss hamburgers. “People worry so much about the toppings of a burger instead of the flavor of the meat,” says the executive chef of Bellota, the Mexican eatery that opened inside the Source in RiNo in October 2020. (A second location, in Boulder, was slated to debut in June.) “I find that in tacos, as well. Here in America, they want to put on a multitude of toppings instead of making it simple. In Mexico, we have the tortilla and the meat, then salsa, onions, and cilantro,” Barella says. “I want the meat to speak by itself.”
Barella’s meats don’t just speak—they sing, serenading taste buds with pitch-perfect flavors. From the carnitas—more like a sweet, rich pork confit thanks to the Coca-Cola, condensed milk, and fat that sink into the meat while it’s cooking—to the habanero- and achiote-marinated cochinita pibil, one could easily ditch the tortilla and make a meal of the protein.
We wouldn’t recommend skipping the tortilla on what’s become one of Bellota’s surprise hits, though: the shrimp taco. While working at the venerable Boulder fine-dining restaurant Frasca Food and Wine, Barella learned to use every part of his ingredients. So, when he opened Bellota in 2020, a stroke of crustacean creativity inspired him to toast discarded shrimp shells and fuse them with butter. He then brushes that shrimp butter onto flour tortillas, grills them until crunchy, and stuffs them with shrimp, Chihuahua cheese, and tomato crema. The result is a delectably briny, shrimp-on-shrimp, gooey bite that will forever change your perception of seafood tacos.
The chef’s fare is already attracting national attention—Barella was nominated for a 2022 James Beard Award in the Emerging Chef category—even though he is keeping his sights set on local domination. “If we’re going to make Mexican food and call it Mexican food, I want it to be as close to Mexican as possible without catering to the American palate,” Barella says. “I joke, but I’m also serious: I’m taking over Denver, one taco at a time.” We gladly surrender. —Allyson Reedy
Fetien Gebre-Michael and Yoseph Assefa are getting Denverites hooked on the cuisine of their homeland. The company started as a catering business in 2014 and expanded to a food truck a year later, but Konjo began reaching its largest audience in 2019 when it debuted a stall at Edgewater Public Market—and promptly spawned cravings for spongy injera, stir-fried chicken, lamb, and beef, and vegan sides. Tempted to join the newfound fans but a little intimidated by how to dig in? No worries: We asked Gebre-Michael to give us a primer on some of Konjo’s most popular offerings. Rule number one? “Your utensils are your hands,” says Gebre-Michael, whose family emigrated from Ethiopia to Colorado when she was three years old. “Traditionally, you eat with your right one.” —Patricia Kaowthumrong
1. The plant-based gomen with dinich (garlicky braised spinach and potatoes) and tikel gomen (curry-scented cabbage with carrots and potatoes) are tasty sides that bring balance to plates already bursting with flavor.
2. Konjo’s chicken tibs is spicy and packed with umami, thanks to bold and aromatic ingredients such as berbere (a house-made seasoning of more than 12 spices), jalapeño, onion, and tomato. At the end of the cooking process, Gebre-Michael stirs in kib’eh, or clarified butter, to give the stir-fry a rich, saucy texture.
3. The food stall team makes injera using teff, a small grain that grows in the highlands of Ethiopia, from scratch every morning and sells about 500 sheets of the fluffy, tangy pancakelike bread each week.
4. Many Ethiopians who practice Orthodox Christianity—about 43 percent of the population—abstain from eating meat and dairy on Wednesdays and Fridays. So Konjo is well-versed in making hearty and delicious vegan entrées, such as miser: crimson-tinted lentils cooked with loads of berbere, onions, and garlic.
Editor’s Choice: Top O’ The Night
From cocktail hour to late-night bites, here’s how to eat and drink your way through four editors’ choice winners in one evening. —Patricia Kaowthumrong
This past December, McLain Hedges and Mary Allison Wright resurrected their beloved Yacht Club bar (which was open inside the Source in RiNo from 2014 to 2019) at 37th Avenue and Williams Street. The casual, coastal-themed decor goes perfectly with a menu of beach drinks, boozy shaved ices, domestic brews, and natural wines. The selection of loaded hot dogs might seem jarring, but don’t question genius: Just pair the Wharf Rat cocktail (pictured) with the Lorraine, a frank crowned with cheeseball spread, celery rémoulade, and pickled peppers, and revel in the unusual-but-delicious coupling.
Top Steak House
At eight-month-old A5 (pictured), executive chef Max MacKissock gives the old-school chophouse concept a funky makeover, replacing dim lighting and wood paneling with vibrant neon and verdant plants. On the menu, lesser-known beef cuts, such as marbled bavettes and tri-tips, provide a refreshing opportunity to try something new (and delicious). Each is complemented by comforting à la carte sides, including cheese croquettes, while a roster of tropical-inspired cocktails accompanies you on your satisfying journey of steak rediscovery.
Top Ice Cream
Curt Peterson’s East Colfax sweets shop is the only place in town where you can get Philadelphia-style ice cream, which is made without eggs. The self-taught ice cream maker instead uses combinations of various milks to yield frozen treats with a rich, velvety mouthfeel. Ask Peterson to pour an espresso over your scoop of cheesecake- and cinnamon-forward Foxy Brown or habanero-zinged Honey Hotness. Espresso over ice cream is called an affogato, and it’s eye-opening in more ways than one.
House-made corn tortillas? Yep. A well-stocked salsa bar? Certainly. Juicy taco fillers such as chile-sauce-drenched barbacoa, crispy fried tilapia, and charcoal-grilled sirloin? Check, check, and check. Ten-month-old Cabrón Carbón ticks all the boxes that a top taqueria must. Plus, it’s open until 3 a.m., Thursday through Saturday—and flanked by three nightclubs (Club Vinyl, #Vybe, and Bar Standard).
Top Food Truck
Imagine a Vietnamese meal, and chances are you’ll conjure images of a grilled meat platter, a banh mi, or a noodle bowl. These are some of the beloved dishes immigrants and refugees from the country brought to America after the Vietnam War, and they’ve been filling our bellies for nearly 50 years. Long Nguyen, who owns Pho King Rapidos with his wife, Shauna Seaman, believes it’s time to add some variety to the menu. “For us coming into it and being the next generation,” Nguyen says, “we wanted to do Vietnamese food but not copy the mold.”
The couple’s almost two-year-old food truck, which mostly cruises breweries from Park Hill to Golden, has created its identity by gussying up Vietnamese staples—most notably the pho banh mi. Before smoking the brisket for four to six hours, Nguyen lets the meat sit for a full day in a rub of traditional pho spices, including star anise, cinnamon, clove, and coriander. To keep the protein tender, Nguyen finishes it sous vide, then adds ribbons of Thai basil, pickled red onion, jalapeño matchsticks for crunch, and a play on barbecue sauce that includes hoisin, dark chili powder, and rice vinegar.
Other menu items stray even further from traditional Vietnamese dishes, such as the pork belly fries with sweet Sriracha and sesame oil sauce or the chopped cheese sandwich, a Harlem classic Nguyen fell in love with while working in New York City restaurants. “We took what we love about Vietnamese food and the food we were exposed to out in New York [to make our menu],” he says. “We wanted to make it special and different, something that’s our own that we could be proud of.” —Allyson Reedy
After the COVID-19 pandemic forced Ludo Lefebvre to close his Michelin-starred Trois Mec restaurant in Los Angeles, the French-born chef decided to open his first Denver eatery. Recently, we spoke with Lefebvre about five-month-old Chez Maggy and his Franco-Coloradan fare. —Spencer Campbell
5280: You recently got your third bison tattoo. Why do you love them?
Ludo Lefebvre: For me, bison are as American as the wild Wild West. When I moved to the United States, I fell in love with the history, which is why I always wanted to do a restaurant in Denver.
What do those who are new to French cuisine have to try when they dine at Chez Maggy?
People ask me all the time: What do you bring to Denver? And I always respond: I bring butter. So I definitely recommend the escargot. It makes me very happy when people love escargot. I am from Burgundy, where the recipe for escargot was created. And when I was a kid—I don’t lie to you—I ate six dozen escargot. I love it, love it, love it.
What are your plans for Chez Maggy in the future?
I am going to start to twist the menu. I know better the vegetables Colorado has, and the meats. There are beautiful lamb chops, for example, and I’m going to serve them with fried artichoke. I’m going to keep the classics, but I’m going to be a little bit more playful now.
Love takes time, and so does great pizza. Redeemer’s dough—a living, carby blend containing 15 percent sourdough starter that gives the chewy-crispy crust an extra bite—enjoys a slow ferment in the fridge for a minimum of three days before it’s rolled out and topped with the likes of the simple (mozzarella cheese), the elegant (locally made Elevation Charcuterie soppressata), or the unexpected (sherry-and-soy-pickled mushrooms). Then, things speed up: eight or so minutes in the 600-degree electric deck oven to melt the cheese into a puddle and burnish the crust with pockets of char; a speedy slicing and delivery to your table; and finally, and quickest of all, the devouring. Chef-owners Spencer White and Alex Figura (of Dio Mio) call the style of pie served at their year-old Five Points joint New York 2.0, because it combines the best of the Big Apple’s greasy, foldable slices with the carefully crafted crust of Neapolitan pies. We call it love at first bite. —AR
When chef Charles Mani opened Urban Village Grill in Lone Tree this past October, he set out to create a place where Indian food and fine dining are synonymous, and most important, where guests are treated like kin. “When everyone has their special occasions,” Mani says, “and they want to spend time with me—those are the things that make me very happy.”
Born and trained in Chennai, on the Bay of Bengal, Mani left India in 2005 for New York City, where he worked at renowned restaurants such as Babu Ji and Badshah. He moved to Colorado in 2018 and launched his own place, Urban Village, which shuttered during the pandemic. Mani’s light, healthy, and modern takes on Indian food found new life at Urban Village Grill, where the 39-year-old chef continues to serve refreshing renditions of charred tandoori chicken, tender paneer tikka, and silky dal makhani (lentils slow-simmered for 24 hours in a tomato-butter sauce). Each plate, garnished with fresh flowers, aromatic herbs, and colorful purées, is brought to your table by a chef—often Mani himself—who explains the flavors and region from which the dish originates.
The compelling menu and sophisticated experience would be enough to delight most diners, but Mani also wants you to feel like family—and families cook together. So Urban Village Grill recently debuted an airy patio laden with seven tabletop grills, offering guests the chance to sear their own chicken, beef, seafood, or paneer slathered with traditional Indian seasonings such as malai, a decadent, cream-based sauce; hariyali, a mint and cilantro paste; and achari, a tangy pickling spice blend. Just like at a backyard barbecue, everyone is greeted with an inside joke, a thoughtful inquiry about their loved ones, or a suggestion to taste something they haven’t tried yet. “I came to this country with two bags on my shoulder,” Mani says, “and now I have a huge family everywhere I go.” —Riane Menardi Morrison
Top Hot Chicken
While many spots have opened in the past two years claiming to serve Denver’s most scorching hot chicken—the popular Nashville-style fried bird drenched in chile oil—nobody matches the fire and the flavor of this 11-month-old walk-up window inside Baker’s Trve Brewing Company. There, Fort Collins–born brothers and longtime restaurant staffers Sam and Jordan Graf bring the heat in seven blazing levels crafted with proprietary blends of chiles and spices ground by Fort Collins–based Old Town Spice Shop. But which burn is right for your buds? To find out, we used Scoville Heat Units (SHU)—the official measurement of spice that runs from zero (as in, zero zing) to more than three million (basically napalm for your intestinal tract)—to gauge the potency of each Music City flavor offering below. —RMM
On the Flammable Solid: “I eat one about once every month just to remind myself what I’m doing to people.” —Assistant general manager Steven Skinner
From Least to Most Spicy:
Made with: No spice
Expect: Classic breaded-and-fried chicken
Made with: Black pepper and allspice
Expect: A taste-bud-tickling, sweet-and-savory, Caribbean-inspired blend
Made with: Hatch chiles
Expect: Fresh green chile flavor with just a hint of zip
Made with: Cayenne peppers
Expect: Earthy, finger-licking fire that will scare most Midwestern palates but may seem mild to heat-seekers
Made with: Arbol chiles
Expect: Zesty, smoky chile spice that induces a sweat without ruining your day
Made with: Habanero peppers
Expect: Bright floral notes and a blaze that burns your tongue and your innards
Made with: Carolina Reapers and ghost peppers
Expect: Roughly 15 seconds of a delicious, deep-and-fruity chile storm before a lightning strike turns your tongue into ash
1691 Market St., 303-727-5711
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9220 E. Arapahoe Road, Greenwood Village, 720-459-7530
3636 Chestnut Place, 720-532-0937
Alexi Mandolini – The Easy Vegan
667 S. Raleigh St.
6985 W. 38th Ave., Wheat Ridge 808-640-5319
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5505 W. 20th Ave., Suite 106 (inside Edgewater Public Market), Edgewater, 720-310-5551
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3500 Larimer St., 720-379-8340
3330 Brighton Blvd., Suite 201 (inside the Source Hotel), 720-408-2444
1700 Platte St., Suite 140, 720-667-4652
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4000 Tennyson St., 303-458-1555
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630 S. Federal Blvd., 303-936-4954
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