Denver has its ham and pepper omelets; the Rocky Mountains, their fried bull testicles. Colorado can claim its own green chile, as well as plenty of home-grown meat and produce. But beyond the well-trodden menu items, there’s a wide world to discover of essential local restaurant dishes.
Will you find 11 foods like the ones we recommend here in other states, regions, countries even? Of course! But to try them in Denver and at this particular crop of restaurants and food trucks is to experience recipes on a level by themselves. There are many other delicious bites to be had, of course, at many other worthy destinations. But these 11 dishes stand out within the current dining scene.
Basque(ish) Cheesecake ($12) at The Greenwich
“We both agreed we didn’t like cheesecake, but people (expletive) love it,” said Justin Freeman, head chef at The Greenwich. For his and pastry chef Luke Miller’s nod to New York cheesecake on their menu, they took a turn toward the custard-y Basque style with a version all their own.
“To me, classic New York cheesecakes tend to be a little crumbly, dry and overbaked,” Miller said. So he decided to add a whole lotta eggs and cook it at a lower temperature, creating a cake that closer resembled creme brûlée, complete with the torched top.
And then he added the magical drizzle of olive oil and sprinkling of sea salt: “I tend to like throwing some savory components on there, especially with the sweeter desserts,” Miller said.
Biased, he knows, Freeman thinks their cheesecake slice is arguably the best dessert right now in Denver. We tend to agree. It’s also the type of treat that’s easier to leave to the pros. “It’s not the easiest thing to make, and I definitely set off my fire alarm (at home) when I was brûléeing the top, but it’s manageable,” Miller said.
3258 Larimer St., thegreenwichdenver.com
Chili Wontons ($9) at Yuan Wonton
Before she was slinging dumplings from her own food truck, Penelope Wong was a 20-year private club chef, leading the kitchen at the Glenmoor Country Club in south Denver. Tired of the typical Cobb salads and club sandwiches, she began introducing more variety to her members-only menus. And Wong’s now-famous Hong Kong-style chili wontons were one such wildly popular departure.
They’re classic in preparation — pork and shrimp steamed and wrapped in light egg dough, doused with a sauce she first learned from her father, including Szechuan hot chili oil and Chinese black vinegar. They’re served seven to an order, topped with crispy garlic, shallots and cilantro. And they haven’t come off the truck’s menu since 2019, when Wong had left the country club and decided to feed the masses with this more personal endeavor.
“We change our menu every single time we go out for service,” she explained. “The only thing that remains constant are the wontons. And the decision to do all the dumplings that we do, all handmade, was to fill a void that I personally felt was missing in Denver. There’s a lot of nostalgia in it for me… and making dumplings is really about family and community.”
Multiple locations (food truck), yuanwonton.square.site
Aebleskiver (part of a tasting menu for $150) at Beckon
These bite-sized Danish pancake puffs are about as adorable as a dish can be. In Denmark, they’re often served as dessert around the holidays. But Duncan Holmes, the culinary mind behind Denver’s first true chef’s counter, has incorporated this sweet bit of his cooking heritage into a high-end tasting menu (which will set you back around $150 a head).
The aebleskivers come out warm at the beginning of the coursed meal, accompanied by toppings such as crème fraîche and caviar. Served like this, they’re a pillowy base for piling up flavors. At his other restaurant, Call, closed for now, Holmes dusted the griddled sourdough puffs with powdered sugar and served them with seasonal fruit compote.
“They became something that made us unique and that people came to see us for, and that was always the idea behind anything we did: craveable, memorable food,” explained Beckon’s Allison Anderson. “Fast-forward through a couple years and a pandemic, Call now sits on a shelf somewhere, but we still have aebleskiver as part of Beckon’s menu in our caviar course. A nod to the good old days and a reminder of where we came from.”
2843 Larimer St., beckon-denver.com
Lobster Spaghetti ($39) at Olivia
Somewhat of a cheat when it comes to unbeatable dishes, this one has five ingredients that are hard to turn down individually, let alone on a single plate. And while many local restaurants serve nearly perfect Italian-inflected pasta, this is one to order, under any circumstance, at least once.
“It was actually a completely different dish right before we opened up Restaurant Olivia, and I turned it into Lobster Spaghetti a few days before opening,” chef and co-owner Ty Leon explained. “I wanted to take the flavors that everyone loves and turn it into a dish: truffle, lemon, lobster and parmesan. Spaghetti was just begging to be the pasta shape to pair with it.”
His favorite part? “We cure Meyer lemons in salt, sugar and spices until the skin is a very dark yellow and the pith is soft. It adds a very bright and salty flavor to the dish that I love. We also garnish with lobster butter to add a final lobster punch to the dish.”
290 S. Downing St., oliviadenver.com
My (Expletive) Burger ($15) at Misfit Snackbar
Bo Porytko has been known to buck tradition in his kitchen. His versions of a “cheeseburger” have included a deep-fried bao-bun burger and a grilled burger-stuffed pierogi.
“But they’re not really burgers,” Porytko admits. “A burger should just be meat, cheese, sauce, with the only additions allowed being tomato, lettuce, onions and/or pickles. You have to play within those certain confines.”
So one constant on his ever-changing menu at this walk-up food window is a satisfyingly classic take with double-beef patties, American cheese, caramelized onions, secret sauce and slices of dill pickle.
“It’s funny ’cause I don’t get serious about tradition often — and honestly, I’m not even sure I don’t think this is all horse hockey,” Porytko said. “But I think this is the way I judge and want to be judged by a burger.”
3401 E. Colfax Ave., misfitsnackbar.com
Paris-Brest ($13) at Annette
Chef Caroline Glover seeks out desserts that are 1. fun and 2. seasonal. So on her menu at Annette Scratch to Table in Aurora, you’ll find slices of pecan pie, homemade scoops of ice cream and ice cream sammies in flavors like salted buckwheat, white chocolate chip and cinnamon. But wait, it gets better.
“I wanted one dessert that people could share, one that was decadent, and (that) we could get creative with the flavors when the seasons changed,” she said. “Paris-Brest is perfect for that! Also super easy for cooks to make since we don’t have a pastry chef.”
Super easy? She’s being modest, of course. But the pate a choux and cream combo is deceptively straightforward. Some of Annette’s iterations as the seasons change include rhubarb and anise, peach and dulce de leche, and raspberries with lemon mascarpone.
2501 Dallas St., annettescratchtotable.com
Pho Banh Mi ($16) at Pho King Rapidos
“When we started our food truck, we wanted to create something that showcased our love for our culture and food,” explained owner Long Nguyen, “and though we love the Vietnamese food you can find in Denver, we knew that our interpretation of it would be different from what’s already available here.”
The pho-style brisket on Nguyen’s updated version of a banh mi is made in three phases. First, a 24-hour dry-rub, next a 4-6 hour smoke and, finally, a sous-vide of the meat for tenderness. It’s piled onto the French bread together with traditional banh mi toppings — mayo, cucumbers and pickled vegetables. Then Nguyen adds in a combination of fresh herbs and lettuce, his house bbq sauce to complement the smoked brisket and some crunchy jalapeño sticks.
“The banh mi, in general, is a dish that historically was created from multiple cultural influences, and it tells a story of those influences,” Nguyen said, “from the French baguettes, to the Vietnamese herbs and then now here with us, adding our own influence and layer to the story.”
Multiple locations weekly, pkr-denver.com
Posole ($17) at La Diabla
While Vietnamese pho restaurants are easy to come by in Denver, Mexican posole places are not. José Avila decided to change that last year when he opened a bar dedicated to his childhood comfort food, and to mezcal. At La Diabla, Avila serves his homemade posole broth heaping with hominy, meats and fixings, plus three different chile sauces for a variety of flavor profiles.
And while bowls are priced similarly to a large pho — rather than a side of soup at a restaurant — you can expect to fill up and even take home leftovers. On Thursdays, there’s even two-for-one bowls, just like the Mexican tradition. That and other daily specials, plus flights of unique mezcals, makes La Diabla feel like an instant institution.
“We kind of had to do our homework,” Avila said, “and change the (idea) that Mexican food (doesn’t) go beyond tacos and tequila.”
2233 Larimer St., ladiabladenver.com
Quesabirria ($3.50-$14.25) at Kiké’s Red Tacos
Cesar Silva Gonzalez says his parents are “super protective” of their birria recipe. And rightly so; it won them The Denver Post’s March Madness Taco Bracket. But as Silva Gonzalez explains, this traditional Jaliscan stewed meat takes over eight hours to cook and includes around a dozen different spices.
The specific quesa tacos that Kiké’s has become famous for start with that complex broth or consomé and corn tortillas dipped into it, then grilled just to a crunch, with cheese melted on top. The rich, slow-cooked beef and its drippings come next, topped with onions, cilantro and lime juice.
“The reason I pushed for birria, it’s one of the best dishes my mom and dad would make when I was growing up,” Silva Gonzalez said.
5256 N. Federal Blvd. (food truck), kikesredtacos.com
Veggie Khao Soi ($16-$18) at Uncle
When Tommy Lee opened his second location of the hit ramen restaurant Uncle, he was looking for a new vegetarian ramen to put on the menu.
“Our sous chef at the time was taking a bunch of mushroom scraps and making a vegetarian chile jam, but we didn’t really utilize it for a dish,” Lee said. “That’s what led me to working on the khao soi, as chile jam is a common garnish.”
Even though the dish is typically served with chicken or beef, Lee chose “meaty” trumpet mushrooms in their place and packed in more traditional garnishes: crispy noodles, red onions, pickled mustard greens, cilantro and limes to round it out.
“My main goal was to create a dish that was delicious regardless if you were vegan or not,” he said. And the Veggie Khao Soi quickly became one of the ramen restaurant’s best-selling dishes. There’s just one problem: Khao soi is a Thai curry, not a Chinese or Japanese ramen. Lee isn’t too worried about it, though — “We just happen to use ramen noodles,” he said.
95 S. Pennsylvania St. and 2215 W. 32nd Ave., uncleramen.com
Venison Hot Dog ($13-$14) at Sunday Vinyl
Chef de cuisine Charlie Brooks says his menu at this record-spinning restaurant is about refined, craveable foods. Enter the venison hot dog: “I was playing with making venison sausage for a fall menu item and ran a test on the recipe I put together,” Brooks said. “When I tasted it, it was not really what I was looking for, but I immediately also thought that it would make a great hot dog.”
A great hot dog starts here with New Zealand Cervena venison and Berkshire pork fat. “We season it carefully, case the dogs with care and allow them to dry out overnight before smoking with apple wood chips,” Brooks said. “As with any charcuterie project, every step is critical for ultimate success.”
Atop the dog, you’ll taste a “sweet-sour-savory” pear chutney (in place of ketchup), mustard “for tang and spice,” celery leaves and crispy garlic chips. The buns, from Breadworks in Boulder, are toasted in clarified butter “for richness and decadence.”
1803 16th St., sundayvinyl.com
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