Ohana Island Kitchen
Owners Regan and Louis Colburn, the latter of whom is a Hawaiian native, oversee this fast-casual, 20-seat, picnic table lunch spot in LoHi that commands long lines for its aloha spirit, most evident in the joint’s poke bowls punctuated with sashimi-grade cubes of ahi tuna mingling with scallions, sesame seeds and ribbons of scallions. But there’s more to the menu than poke: bento boxes with slow-cooked pork, rice and Japanese pickles; grilled Spam musubi sheeted in nori; and sliders mounted with Kalua pork, crunchy slaw and a swipe of Sriracha aioli.
When food trucks go legit and morph into storefronts, you get a cool concept like Ohana Grille, a self-described “Hawaiian fusion” restaurant that blends the local street foods of the Big Island with Asian, American and European influences. The pretty Edgewater restaurant, which fronts Sloan Lake, serves a limited lunch menu, but come dinner, the syllabus comes full circle with dishes like Maui beef sliders layered with orbs of grilled pineapple, Spam fried rice crowned with a fried egg, a grilled Hawaiian pork chop streaked with pineapple-mango chutney and panko-crusted mahi-mahi glossed with garlic butter.
This downtown Denver poké shop (there are several additional locations scattered throughout the city) fills its Hawaiian-inspired bowls—small, medium and large—with steamed white or brown rice, fresh greens, or any combination thereof and then builds layers with liberal scoops of silky, sushi-grade tuna, spicy tuna or salmon dressed with soy, yuzu citrus spicy aioli or wasabi shoyu. Fistfuls of vegetables, including onions, carrots, avocado, corn and tomatoes, along with textured toppings that seesaw from fried onions to tempura flakes, finish the colorful combinations.
Nobu Matsuhisa, one of the world’s most sought after sultans of sushi and sashimi, recently opened a Denver outpost of his New York-based flagship. The Cherry Creek showstopper, tricked out with stone accents, reclaimed teak, Japanese cut-out screens and a 14-seat sushi bar, parades beautifully displayed slivers of fresh fish, coupled with five styles of Wagyu beef preparations, lobster tacos, lamb chops, noodles and more. The voluminous wine list is nothing short of epic.
The ramen craze had already peaked before renowned chef Jeff Osaka opened his ode to noodles, but this playful RiNo slurp shop, located below street level, has swagger and staying power, unleashing a deeply rich tonkotsu with chashu (thin-sliced pork), the best version of Japanese fried chicken in Denver, bacon fried rice studded with vegetables and whimsy bento boxes.
Eschewing trend-setting fads, Domo is an exquisitely adorned Japanese restaurant in Lincoln Park that specializes in the countrified cuisine of northern Japan. The dining rooms, with their tree-stump seats, rustic woods and farmhouse folk art, are conducive to community-style gatherings, while the beautifully meditative garden is an idyllic respite for canoodling couples, especially during cherry blossom season.
Land of Sushi
This lovely Japanese stalwart in Centennial remains one of the top spots in the city for remarkably fresh—and strikingly presented—raw fish. But there’s much more to the menu than tuna, salmon and shrimp slid onto rolled rice: rich halibut collar, soba noodles, miso black cod and Colorado lamb chops also grace the extensive roster, which is bolstered by a solid selection of warm and cold sake, Japanese beers and playful cocktails. Don’t miss the specials board—and, when it’s in season, the glorious monkfish liver, otherwise known as the foie gras of the sea.
Since the day this jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring shrine to Japanese cuisine opened in 1985 in Platt Park, diners have waxed poetic, often waiting for hours on the sidewalk to snag a coveted seat in the stunningly appointed space. And it’s easy to see why: Owners and brothers Yasu and Toshi Kizaki source impeccably fresh fish from Japan and then masterfully create painterly mosaics that are as breathtaking to eat as they are to ogle. If you can score stools at the sushi bar, you’ll get dinner and spectacular knife skill theatrics.
While Sushi Den cemented the reputation of brothers Yasu and Toshi Kizaki, this lively izakaya—located next door to Sushi Den and the second restaurant in their trifecta—only made their stronghold on Denver’s Japanese scene more concrete. Like Sushi Den, the aesthetics reach dazzling heights (especially if you’re seated on the rooftop patio), but unlike Sushi Den, where raw fish takes center stage, Izakaya Den turns out sushi, plus a parade of innovative small plates punctuated with global ingredients. Sake is the preferred beverage here, and the list is concretely comprehensive.
The third restaurant from Yasu and Toshi Kizaki, which resides across the street from Sushi Den, is a bustling robata that delves deep into slow-grilled, skewered meats cooked over binchotan charcoal, a prized Japanese oak that ignites everything from chicken hearts and Wagyu beef to lamb tenderloin. The menu also trumpets a collection of fantastic ramen bowls and a wok-seared, chile-jolted pork dish (Buta Kimchi) that might be the city’s best hangover cure. At the very least, it diminishes the thud of a pounding headache.
Don’t expect anything pedestrian from this highbrow head-turner in LoHi that turns sushi on its skull. Here, against a contemporary backdrop of artistic accents, custom-made furniture and a sultry backlit bar, talented sushi pros, wielding sharp knives and the skills to go with them, dispense first-rate fresh fish that mimics art. The sushi and sashimi combinations are a big draw, as is the omakase—a multi-course parade of bites chosen by the chef. Along with sake, beer and wine, the bar swaggers a strikingly deep Japanese whiskey collection.
SOKO Sushi & Sake Bar
Wedged into a cluster of restaurants on the 16th Street Mall, this downtown Denver homage to Japanese cuisine (with a few Korean and Japanese dishes stamping the menu for good measure) features a pleasant atmosphere in which to satisfy your seafood specimen cravings. The $10 lunch deal is a steal, and the Monday-through-Saturday happy hour offers discounts on sushi, cocktails and beer. And while plentiful portions of sushi are the primary draw there, the unlikely star is the tonkotsu ramen, which will bowl you over.
Part bar and part restaurant, this pulsating Korean joint, located in an Aurora small mall accentuated with international restaurants and markets, is scattered with booths and tables, some with built-in barbecues. A parade of banchan (Korean side dishes), plus plenty of soju to keep conversations animated, kicks off a meal here, and while standards like bulgogi and seafood soup with noodles dot the expansive menu, it’s the Korean twice-fried chicken—crisp-skinned, juicy and paired with a dipping sauce that simultaneously spicy and sweet—that keeps the crowds clamoring for more.
Seoul Korean BBQ & Sushi
The appeal of this modest, bright-lit spot that attracts a posse of revelers lies in its repertoire of tried-and-true Korean staples: bowl after bowl of pre-meal side dishes called banchan; bulgogi and bibimbap; and marinated meats and vegetables grilled at the table. Sip soju while you explore the daunting, leather-bound menu, and you’ll likely encounter a lot more treasures, including a spicy soup floating with scallions and shredded brisket, or chilled soymilk noodle soup. There’s sushi, too, but the Korean dishes steal the show.
There are multiple outposts of this super-popular temple to Korean cuisine, whose name translates to “pig.” And it’s all too easy to pig out here, thanks to the unlimited barbecue, offered both at lunch and dinner. In addition to the do-it-yourself meats (brisket, pork belly, beef, chicken or pork bulgogi and beef short ribs), which are paired with rice and side dishes, the menu also features a swell of starters, including pan-fried seafood pancakes, chicken dumplings and steamed tofu mingling with sautéed kimchi, pork and garlic. If you want to eschew the all-you-can-eat barbecue, you can also order main dishes from a la carte section of the menu.
The whopping salad bar—a gigantic spread of greens in every guise, plus cheeses, asparagus, heart of palm and vegetable-focused sides—is, on its own, spectacular. But while this behemoth, all-you-can-stomach Brazilian churrascaria in LoDo fulfills the needs of vegetarians, make no mistake: Meat—loads of it—is at the heart of the matter. Gauchos bounce from table to table with well-seasoned chicken, various cuts of beef, lamb, sausages and ribs, all on skewers, and your only job is to eat until your belt buckle spontaneously combusts.
Work & Class, whose kitchen is helmed by chef Dana Rodriguez, a James Beard semifinalist, is one of the most popular (and flat-out best) restaurants in Denver, which probably explains the inevitable waits, a ritual that begins at the opening tick of 4 p.m. Furbished with a centerpiece community table, bar area, exhibition kitchen and chef’s counter, those lucky enough to snag a seat at the diminutive RiNo restaurant fall immediately in love with Rodriguez’s Latin-inspired marvels: blue corn empanadas hugging zucchini, squash and Oaxaca cheese; shrimp and pineapple ceviche with housemade tortilla chips; red-chile braised pork; and roasted goat. The meats are served by the quarter, half and full pound and pair beautifully with the roasted corn and poblano salad, fried sweet plantains and rice and beans.
Super Mega Bien
The menu at chef Dana Rodriguez’s Super Mega Bien, an ambitious house of experimentation inside RiNo’s Ramble Hotel, leans toward all things pan-Latin, but this is a restaurant that goes one step further, wheeling its antojitos—Brazilian coconut shrimp soup, corn and Oaxaca cheese fritters and Thai chicken wings laced with habanero—around on carts, dim sum-style, to diners who tick off their choices from a litany of a dozen or so dishes that change nightly. Plates, including roasted duck, braised lamb, achiote-marinated chicken and Oaxacan fish stew, cooked tableside, anchor the large-format portion of the menu, which is bolstered by excellent cocktails, some of which, like the Peruvian purple chicha punch, are designed for sharing.
Tucked inside a strip mall in southeast Denver, this rustic pupuseria serves wonderful Salvadoran specialties, most notably pupusas, griddled spheres of masa plumped with a variety of fillings, including cheese, shredded carrots, jalapeños, loroco (an edible flower similar to squash blossoms) and chicharrón. They’re served, as is customary, with housemade hot sauces and curtido, a tangy, fermented slaw of cabbage, carrots and chiles.
Walls of weathered brick, wood floors, funky light fixtures, giant mirrors and a large bar provide a hipster backdrop for stylish Latin-American cuisine and cocktails at this bi-level space in the heart of the trendy Baker neighborhood. Go straight for the octopus ceviche united with avocado, red onions, jalapenos and housemade plantain chips—or try a selection of the empanadas and soft corn tacos, all of which are filled with fresh ingredients and vibrant flavors.
Been-here-forever Café Brazil is easily one of The Mile High City’s most beloved food temples. Part rum bar, part restaurant, the intimate quarters evoke a sultry vibe that’s conducive to the equally lustful plates that emerge from affable chef-owner Tony Zarlenga’s kitchen. He’s a master of seafood preparations, unleashing dishes like the beguiling seafood Copacabana that involves beautifully prepared shrimp and sea scallops in a rich coconut milk sauce fragrant with garlic and shallots and ringed with vegetables.
Dreams are made of the housemade, gold-tinged empanadas at this cheerful Platt Park Argentine bakery, coffeehouse, soccer bar and café that turns out sweet and savory versions of hand-crimped pastries, plus gorgeous rounds of tortilla espanola (a Spanish-style omelet), salads, tartas, dulce de leche roll cake and alfajor, splendid little Latin American cookies. The roster of coffee drinks, poured from a towering espresso machine blessed by Pope Benedict XVI, includes a don’t-miss Nutella latte and the Argentinian-style cortado, made with steamed milk and a double shot of espresso. While the espresso machine is exclusive to the Platt Park location, the empanadas can be scooped up at multiple outposts throughout the city.
Cloth red napkins, vibrant art dotting the exposed brick walls and elegant plate artistry give this bright and airy dining room in the Ballpark District an air of contemporary flair and formality. The cooking, billed as a “farm-to-table experience,” pledges allegiance to quality-sourced ingredients, which come to light in dishes like the carrot-ginger dressed house salad with heirloom tomatoes; smoked salmon with Asian pears and yucca chips; and rack of lamb matched with beets and sweet potatoes.
Farmhouse Thai Eatery
The Lakewood food scene has never been particularly notable, but with the addition of Farmhouse Thai—the city’s current standard-bearer of Thai cuisine—the suburb has been gifted a terrific restaurant that merits the pilgrimage. Modern, tactfully industrial and airy, Farmhouse Thai fuels smitten lunch and dinner crowds with exquisite curries, the housemade pastes, rich, complex and punctuated with herbs and spices. What typically passes for fried rice is an Insta-worthy showpiece that’s paraded to the table in a hollowed-out pineapple. Raw, salted blue crab makes an appearance in the assertive pok pok lao, a pungent salad, while the howlingly excellent hang le curry, abundant with pork belly and shoulder, is powered by a darkened stew of ginger, turmeric, pickled garlic, palm sugar and pickled garlic crowned with a stream of thinly sliced carrots and cilantro. There’s a bright and fresh Burmese tea leaf salad, too, tossed tableside. Pay attention to the wine list; it’s uncannily well-suited to the food.
Daughter Thai Kitchen & Bar
Tucked away on the bustling strip that’s Platte Street, this tranquil and refined restaurant-slash-bar in Highland offers a familiar setup: Thai beers, a caddy of various chiles, spice-laden curries, pad Thai, pineapple fried rice and a soundtrack that plays everything from pop to hip-hop. Still, while the staples are all here, the dish you’ll remember most is chef Ounjit Hardacre’s pungent and pitch-perfect pla-larb salad, which involves lemongrass, bibb lettuce leaves, tomatoes, ribbons of red onion and burnished and crisped frog legs matched with a globe of sticky rice and a small bowl of dressing lashed with chiles and salty fish sauce. Drop whatever you’re cooking and/or eating and go get it now.
Aung’s Bangkok Café
Traditional Thai dishes that make an indelible mark on your palate are what this serene Englewood restaurant does best: creamy panang curry with pork, citrus-jolted laab, lemongrass-scented seafood soup and aromatic stir-fries. The flavors are wonderfully balanced, and all of the curry pastes are made from scratch, but beware: if you order it “Thai hot,” you’ll need more than a bowl of rice, a beer or a Thai iced tea to quell the fire. The chef-owner doesn’t mess around when it comes to igniting the flame.
US Thai Café
A magnet for in-the-know locals, US Thai Café, located in Edgewater, seduces regulars with its tongue-numbing curries intoxicated with chiles. The snug dining quarters are bereft of any superfluous embellishments, but no one comes here for the scenery: They come for the menu’s ability to take adventurous taste buds on a thrill ride through the different regions of Thailand. There’s no liquor license, but the Thai iced tea does its best to counteract the burn.
Curry puffs. Curry puffs. Curry puffs. Those alone are worth the price of admission to this humble Thai joint located midway in a strip mall with a chaotic parking lot. Still, fight for a spot, and once you’re squarely between the lines (good luck with that), make a beeline for a table, order the croissant-like curry puffs bulged with curried potatoes and then move on to the properly acidic papaya salad, smooth green curry and pad Thai, which is exceedingly good compared to the sugar-slicked noodles most Thai restaurants try to pass off.
No matter where you’re from, the Vietnamese food from this Federal Boulevard stalwart will likely transport you to nirvana. The menu, a voluminous read, goes on for pages, making it difficult to make a decision. And because it’s nearly always full, servers might rush you through the process, so we’ll make it easy for you: Go for the Saigon Special, a mammoth plate of egg rolls, grilled pork, soft-shell crab, a forest of greens and herbs and rice paper; dip the rice papers into the container of hot water, shake off the excess, wrap everything inside the rolls and dunk them in the nuoc cham, a spicy Vietnamese dipping sauce.
New Saigon Bakery & Deli
Just adjacent to New Saigon is this worthy sibling, a bustling sandwich shop and bakery that lures a legion of fans with its bánh mì, a Vietnamese sandwich made with a chewy baguette stacked with cucumbers, crisp pickled carrots and daikon, jalapeños, cilantro and meats, including grilled beef, chicken or pork. Along with the two-fisted sandwiches, you can sip on a boba smoothie and appease your sweet spot.
When there’s a chill in the air—and even when there’s not—devotees descend upon this pho-nominal soup parlor, where the steaming bowls of broth provide restorative sustenance. The sheer number of options is mind-blowing but independent of whether you opt for chicken, seafood, meatballs, tendon, brisket, tripe, rare steak or a combination that involves just about every protein, the result is a bowl of bliss accompanied by the requisite mound of fresh herbs, lime wedges and chiles to stir and splash into the broth.
Vinh Xuong Bakery
This duo of family-owned Vietnamese confectionaries and sandwich spots are very different when it comes to décor (the Federal Boulevard bakery is modest, while the Alameda outpost is modern, hip and spruced up with lounge furniture), but the food at both places is first-rate Vietnamese. House-baked baguettes, soft inside with a crunchy exterior, support the requisite ingredients comprising a bánh mì, while the baked goods trumpet moon cakes and a solid mix of house-baked sweets, including sublime sesame balls. The smoothies are uniformly excellent, too, and the sweetened Vietnamese coffee at the Alameda location can’t be oversold; it’s liquid gold.
Exemplary pho is the calling card of this lively Vietnamese slurp shop that turns out flavor-intensive, anise-scented broths matched with meats, slippery noodles, a mountain of fresh accompaniments (bean sprouts, lime wedges, cilantro and holy basil) and bottles of sriracha. If don’t have animal instincts, the meatless pho is deftly seasoned and brimming with bright vegetables. The convivial space is perpetually packed during the noon hour, but service is quick and there are plenty of community tables to accommodate large groups.
Residing in the Far East Center, where there’s a high concentration of Asian restaurants, Saigon Bowl stands out for its voluptuous menu touting a whirlwind tour of Vietnamese favorites. You can’t go wrong with the profoundly good pho, paired with fresh herbs, but you won’t make a mistake if you eschew the Vietnamese soup for the deep-fried soft-shell crab, seafood firepot or combination noodle bowl festooned with shrimp, chicken, pork and a greaseless egg roll. Service can be a bit abrupt (and slow), but the food more than makes up for it.
Rooted in familiar Northern Indian cuisine—chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken and samosas—Mint, located in the heart of downtown Denver, also digs a little deeper, turning out goat every which way, along with vibrantly seasoned Chettinad and Hyderabadi curries. oversee the peaceful dining room, with its comfortable banquettes and aqua-hued walls.
Mehak India’s Aroma
This elegant meet-and-eat bastion of spice-jolted curries in Cherry Creek offers more culinary courage than your standard Indian pitstop. Owned by Genesh Adhikari, a native of Nepal—and the mastermind behind the metro area’s fast-casual Zaika Indian spots—Mehak is a fine-dining destination that lives up to its name: fragrant chicken tikka masala, ambrosial lamb vindaloo and savory tandoori creations, all of them served with finesse. The hush-hush space, located below street level, is dignified and stylish, as are the cocktails, some of which incorporate Indian spices and herbs, including curry leaves.
Although the Hampden South neighborhood where India’s resides is rather bland, the cooking is anything but. Diners congregate in roomy booths or at large tables covered with white linens to feast on delectably spiced North Indian specialties: chicken tikka masala, mattar paneer, lamb vindaloo and creamy chicken korma flecked with almonds, raisins and cashews. The wine list is surprisingly deep for a curry house, and the beer selection even more so, branching out well beyond the typical bottles of Taj Mahal and Kingfisher.
The visionary behind Safta is Israeli-born Alon Shaya, who opened his magnificent RiNo restaurant after a stint in New Orleans, where he quickly rose to the top of that city’s dining pyramid, racking up a duo of James Beard Foundation awards. Shaya’s Denver restaurant, situated inside The Source Hotel, has also resulted in an avalanche of accolades, all of them hard-earned and well deserved. His modern ode to Israeli cooking is composed, confident and pure, his flavors precise and pronounced. Pita bread, for instance, sounds deceptively simple, but the puffed and charred pita that emerges from the wood-fired oven at Safta? It’s euphoric. So, too, is the hummus with lamb ragu, the baba ghanoush, the vibrant Moroccan carrot salad and the impossibly crisp eggplant, the spheres crested with herb-specked goat cheese and tomato sauce. The space, befitting the food, is light, airy and modern, its fixtures and furnishings a mix of communal tables, a long bar overlooking the open kitchen, art and drinkware inspired by Shaya’s grandmother and floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the Denver skyline and mountain peaks. Like everything else here, the wines, many of which are from regions that are often overlooked (think Hungry, Greece and Israel), merit praise.
The walls, papered in pastel pink, turquoise, aqua and white geometric shapes, reflect the modernistic Bauhaus design prevalent in Tel Aviv in the 1930s. The wood-fired oven, from which char-specked pita, roasted carrots and a whole Alamosa striped bass emerge, is tiled in hyper-Mediterranean blue. Turkish light fixtures and lanterns hang above the bar and potted plants and succulents, strewn throughout the dining room, give off a coastal vibe. Ash’Kara, a contemporary Middle Eastern and Israeli restaurant in Highland, is having its day in the sun, wooing diners with shareable plates like hummus, baba ganoush, saganaki flamed with Ouzo, orbs of falafel and lamb kofte matched with saffron yogurt. The menu, which also includes multi-course “feast platters,” is complemented by an arresting drink scroll starring innovative cocktails spiked with Middle Eastern syrups and spices, alluring wines, some of which are Israeli and rotating craft beers, the bulk of them from Colorado.
True to its name, this nicely decorated South Park Hill restaurant seduces patrons with its wonderfully spiced kabobs, available with grilled, black-etched chicken, beef or vegetables. Cushions of house-baked pita accompany just about every meal, some of which are elevated with the addition of a garlic dip that’s potent enough to drain the blood of vampires. The kabobs share space on the menu with a selection of fatayers, savory, Arabic-style pastries that are stuffed with feta cheese, spinach, cremini mushrooms or ground beef and baked in the oven. An uncommonly notable wine, beer and cocktail list bridges the gap between casual pit stop and dinner date destination.
When it comes to longevity, you may as well just call Jerusalem “Pita the Great.” It’s a legend, plying its nearby University of Denver students and faculty with around-the-clock plates of lightly fried, well-crisped falafel; lemon-rich hummus; meaty kabobs; beef and chicken gyros; huge combination plates; and sheesh ta’ouk, a stew of grilled chicken, onions, peppers, tomatoes and a shower of Mid-East spices. Everything, naturally, is served with warm disks of pita bread. The joint does a brisk takeout business, prices are super-cheap and the atmosphere, while simple, pulsates with energy.
Channeling the Mediterranean with its bright walls brushed the color of sunflowers and the Indigo Aegean Sea, Café Byblos, squatting in the Speer neighborhood, is sexy, fashionable and ideal for a quiet night out. The lack of a liquor license doesn’t deter from the food, a delightful canon of familiar Middle Eastern dips like hummus and baba ghanoush; refreshing salads such as tabbouleh and fattoush; and main dishes that float from lamb kabobs and kafta kabobs to marinated lamb shank and chicken shawarma.
Shish Kabob Grill
The atmosphere at this venerated Mid-East storefront in Capitol Hill looks a bit like a well-worn living room, which is to say that it’s comfortable, endearingly tattered and cozy. It’s also full of regulars that go grabby for what may be the best hummus in the city: smooth, nutty, splashed with lemon, pooled with olive oil and showered with ground sumac, a tangy spice the color of a desert sunset. As expected, the kabobs shine, as do the falafel sandwich and gyro plate.
By Lori Midson