Photos by Ruth Tobias
From Broadway to Airport Road, the eastern stretch of one of the nation’s longest continuous streets has always been known for its, shall we say, rough-and-tumble charms. We hope and trust it always will be. Granted, for the past five years or so, a new wave of eateries has been building steadily. But rather than diminishing East Colfax’s gritty, eclectic landscape, they tend to blend right in, from Über Sausage to Voodoo Doughnut to Humble Pie to the upcoming Thai-style ice cream shop MilkRoll Creamery. Now, with bordering neighborhoods like Congress Park and Park Hill heating up, we thought it would be a fine time to take a leisurely tour of the ’Fax, checking out recent arrivals and revisiting lesser-known gems. (Scroll to the end for links to 17 other pet picks.)
It's a bare-bones tight squeeze if ever there was one, but this hole-in-the-wall is worth your while for otherwise hard-to-find Honduran treats that make for a neat change of pace. The enchiladas come flat like tostadas, not rolled; the tacos fritos come rolled like enchiladas, not flat; the baleadas resemble American quesadillas; and the pastelitos (pictured) — meat pies stuffed in this case with ground beef and rice and topped with grated cheese — evoke empanadas. In short, everything here is comfortingly familiar, yet nothing's quite the same, which is all part of the fun.
11703 E. Colfax Ave., Aurora; 720-642-9044
Chocolatier Phil Simonson parlayed his reputation for inventive confections — including stellar garlic-infused truffles and pretzel-pomegranate toffee — into this turquoise-toned jewel box of a City Park cafe, where he pushes boundaries even further with savory-sweet combinations like lemon chicken over chocolate linguine in vodka cream sauce and a meze platter featuring white-chocolate baba ghanoush. (Pictured: relatively tame but delicious Gruyère-stuffed dates, wrapped in bacon and drizzled with chocolate balsamic.) A full bar that pours everything from chocolate porter–espresso floats to blueberry juice–colored bubbly (really) is the finishing touch.
2504 E. Colfax Ave.; 720-536-5037
Thai food isn't a Mile High forte, but at their humble new Hale storefront, Kyla Love and May Saevang are doing their part to change that. The Mama Tom Yum, a house special, brims with green-lipped mussels, fish balls, shrimp, squid and other morsels of seafood, as well as egg noodles and hard-cooked egg halves; the green curry shimmers with spice; and the fried tofu wedges hold their fresh, springy texture even when plunged into housemade sweet-and-sour sauce studded with crushed peanuts. So far, so (very) good.
4122 E. Colfax Ave.; 303-658-0751
To the Wind Bistro
Though a cult fave, this fiercely original yet laid-back City Park kitchen run by Royce Oliveira and Leanne Adamson goes overlooked all too often due to its blink-and-you'll-miss-it location. So don't blink, or you won't be able to sample the likes of pastrami salad with beer mustard and rye croutons, rockfish over lentils in cocoa-nib vinaigrette or pineapple upside-down cake with pecan Florentines.
3333 E. Colfax Ave.; 303-316-3333
An oasis of quiet on a chaotic block, this Cheesman Park sushi bar puts a premium on modern presentation — wooden boxes, dry ice, color-changing lights and all — that charms as much as the careful preparation pleases. Izu's one of the few places in town you'll find box-pressed hakozushi (pictured top), as well as goofy trifles like sushi "pizza" and cheesecake "xangoon." But you'll also find technical prowess in traditional items to give Denver's Japanese destinations a run for their yen.
1528 E. Colfax Ave.; 303-284-7981
Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant and Bar
East Colfax is essentially Denver’s Ethiopian Restaurant Row, and while the menus at the humble fixtures (including the beloved Queen of Sheba) are practically interchangeable, we frequent each for different dishes. At Lucy, it’s the misir wot, or red lentils stewed in a tangy berbere-spiked sauce (pictured above at the far left), that stirs our cravings — though really the whole vegetarian combo is satisfying in spades.
7401 E. Colfax Ave.; 720-465-9883
For around $10, this crayon-bright Colombian cafe turns out ever-changing lunch specials (maybe bistec, maybe thick, slurpable spaghetti with chicken, above) complete with rice, potatoes, salad and soup like the oh-so-comforting corn- and potato-based ajiaco, plus a side of invigorating salsa verde. At that price, you may as well throw in a glass of blended lulo juice (like citrus, but funkier).
5922 E. Colfax Ave.; 720-379-3808
Sassafras American Eatery
Expanding on the Jefferson Park original, this daytime haunt on Capitol Hill boasts a Bourbon Street vibe, a full bar and a decadent Southern menu that ranges from beignets and po' boys to Natchitoches meat pies and BBQ mac 'n' cheese with pulled pork and fried pickles (pictured). Wash it all down with a chicory-coffee milkshake or a French 75 — or both, in keeping with the staycation atmosphere.
320 E. Colfax Ave.; 303-831-6233
Shish Kabob Grill
Despite the name, we’re partial to the vegetarian fare at this ever-reliable Syrian-run counter joint in Capitol Hill. The falafel's as juicy as meatballs and bright with sumac, while the tender, spanakopita-like pastry called fatayer bursts at the seams with spinach and feta.
1503 Grant St.; 303-837-8800
Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery
Clint Wangsnes jumped on the fast-casual bandwagon early, and he's driven it effortlessly ever since. While showing off his fine-dining chops in dishes like 72-hour French onion soup, bacon-wrapped meatloaf and chicken adobo (pictured), he's also created a welcoming environment for all ages and walks of life — and a neighborhood once starved for high-quality yet family-friendly options loves him for it. (Full bar service is another plus.)
4990 E. Colfax Ave.; 720-550-7665
The Soul Kitchen (fka Kirk’s Soul Kitchen)
When James Beard award-winning soul-food expert Adrian Miller singles you out for praise, you know you’re doing something right. As it turns out, this cheerful family-run joint is doing everything right: juicy pork chops just touched with pink and smothered in velvety gravy (pictured above). The creamiest of mashed potatoes studded with bits of red skin. Tender cabbage redolent of bacon and lots of spice. And then there are the hot wings: firm and juicy and fried in a batter that stays crunchy even under a blanket of fiery, vinegary pepper sauce. Dynamite.
14107 E. Colfax Ave., Aurora; 720-474-1996
Solera Restaurant & Wine Bar
Goose Sorensen's Euro-Mediterranean locale has long stood a shining exception to the grungy rule of Colfax, and to this day it remains a sure bet for trysts among sophisticates. Exemplary cheese and charcuterie boards, tapas both classic and contemporary, signature paella and weekly specials like all-you-can-eat mussels on Tuesday and five-glass flights on Wine Wednesday are half the draw; the other half is sheer atmosphere, cozy inside and out on the garden patio.
5410 E. Colfax Ave.; 303-388-8429
Pupusas, tamales de elote and sopa de pata are the hallmarks of any Salvadoran kitchen, and this sunny two-room cafe and market delivers them all to the regulars surrounding the flat-screen TVs that are forever streaming soccer games here. But it’s the promise of budín de banana — with a creamy texture somewhere between bread and pudding — that keeps us coming back. Sometimes it’s fulfilled, sometimes not, so call ahead if your heart’s set on the stuff.
8115 E. Colfax Ave.; 303-333-0818
You can't even call this place a counter joint — it's just a counter, with an order window and a few stools. But it sure does serve a mean pupusa with even meaner hot sauce. And as the name would suggest, the tacos are no afterthought either, real-deal pastor being a highlight. So order a mix and head out to the streetside tables to chow down in (relative) comfort.
8890 E. Colfax Ave.; 303-322-1354
We consider this Leña sibling the essence of East Colfax today: sometimes chill, sometimes rowdy, super-casual yet savvy too. Here, you can catch the game while knocking back PBRs and fried pickles, or you can people-watch on the patio over rosé and beet salad, followed by pot de crème (pictured). Prohibition's got all the makings of a Cap Hill standby either way.
504 E. Colfax Ave.; 303-832-4840
Nevería La Mexicana
Artisanal it isn’t, but this bustling little ice cream parlor does offer naturally flavored syrups for its sno-cone-like raspados, pictured above. We like the tamarind, whose honeyed-and-sour intensity mellows as it swirls with the lechera (sweetened, condensed milk) drizzled on top.
9509 E. Colfax Ave., Aurora; 720-858-7127
Fiction Beer Company
The problem with libraries? They don't serve booze. This literature-themed brewery is the solution, with shelves of books to borrow while you kick back with a beer inspired by them — starting with the signature Old Bums and Beat Cowboys pale ale (an allusion to Kerouac).
7101 E. Colfax Ave.; 720-456-7163
Bonus bites from previous stories
Kitfo sandwich at Axum Restaurant (pictured above)
Katsu fries at Tycoon Ramen and Sushi Bar
Turkey tails at Guadalajara Authentic Mexican Buffet
Pan de pollo salvadoreño at El Tamarindo
Cheddar Goldfish ice cream at Ice Cream Riot
Yam mash at The Goods Restaurant
Fried chicken at CoraFaye's Cafe
Colorado lamb burger at Chow Urban Grill
Sugar steak at Bastien's Restaurant
Tacos de longaniza at Taco Mex
Tacos de discada at 7 Leguas Mexican Grille
Ice cream sandwich at Nuggs Ice Cream
Garlic dip at Phoenician Kabob
Chimi dog at Steve’s Snappin’ Dogs
Enzo's End pizza washed down with free shots at PS Lounge
The Juan at Torta Grill
The Franklin at Atomic Cowboy's Denver Biscuit Company