Technically, you're not a Denverite until you've endured at least one trip to Casa Bonita, tackled an assortment of edibles and chugged a beer on a mountaintop. (Colorado craft beer only, of course.) But for newcomers, it's best to start your journey to citizenship off nice and easy, with these 20 contenders for the Mile High meal of champions. They all represent the city in one way or another — but unlike those other items, they require nothing but primed taste buds.
Colorado lamb sliders at Root Down
Edible Beats’ flagship is one of the most enduringly popular restaurants in the city. These babies count among its most enduringly popular dishes — and they happen to feature an ingredient that’s a point of state pride. So it stands to reason that Root Down’s lamb sliders represent Denver in a nutshell — or rather on a brioche bun, topped with a vibrant mix of aged white cheddar, harissa aïoli and mint-garlic yogurt.
1600 W. 33rd Ave.; 303-993-4200
Bison Indian taco at Tocabe
Shining a spotlight on the Southwest’s indigenous traditions, this American Indian kitchen uses frybread to hold a cornucopia of local flavors. Though the possibilities for customization are legion, the possibilities for Coloradization must start with 13-hour-braised and shredded bison, roasted green chiles and corn — which, combined with beans, cheese, lettuce and salsa, add up to a homey, hearty candidate for heavy lunch rotation.
Mexican hamburger at The Original Chubby's
Whether it caps off a night on the town or eases your recovery in the morning, this beef patty–stuffed burrito is the ultimate expression of eats to beat in a hard-drinking hub like ours.
1231 W. 38th Ave.; 303-455-9311
Cake & Shake at D Bar
Keegan Gerhardt and Lisa Bailey deserve all the kudos they get as pastry aces who craft chic and decadent masterpieces down to the tiniest detail. Yet it’s the simplest signature that has been claiming the hearts and sweet tooths of locals since day one: a rich, tender slice of chocolate layer cake paired with a frothy vanilla, chocolate or raspberry milkshake. In a word, classic.
494 E. 19th Ave.; 303-861-4710
Biscuit sandwich at Denver Biscuit Company
Along with Snooze (see below), Drew Shader’s biscuit franchise dominates the local brunch circuit, its devotees descending in constant flocks to its four locations to get their fix of the top two sellers in particular: the Franklin (pictured above), which layers Tender Belly bacon, cheddar, an optional fried egg and sausage or mushroom gravy atop buttermilk-fried chicken, and the Dahlia (pictured top), combining a sausage patty, fried egg, apple butter and maple syrup between two slices of biscuit French toast. Hard as it is to choose, rest assured that you're not likely to face a similar dilemma all day — either one is going to hold you for a good long while.
Bagels at Rosenberg's Bagels & Delicatessen
It’s not so much that Joshua Pollack transported a slice of the Lower East Side to Five Points when he built this exemplary deli on the tensile strength of his bagels a few years back. It’s that a single bite could trick you into thinking that Rosenberg’s has been here all along. (A second location in the midcentury aviation factory–turned–food hall that is Aurora's Stanley Marketplace only adds to that sense of history.)
Elk-jalapeño-cheddar dog at Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs
If you need this one explained to you, your road to residency status may be longer and more winding than you think. Any list of Denver's most defining dishes that doesn’t include Jim Pittenger’s signature sausage, smothered in cream cheese and caramelized onions, is a list written by either an outsider or a fool (or both).
2148 Larimer St.; 720-746-9355
Collaboration ice cream at Sweet Action
Like Biker Jim’s, this sensational scoop shop led the way in training the national spotlight on our fair city, and it just keeps shining thanks to its innovations in flavor. Owners Sam Kopicko and Chia Basinger have a particular knack for ice creams infused with local booze and brews: Gaijin 24886 sake, beers from Renegade and TRVE, Stranahan's whiskey — you name it, they’ll spike a small batch for a two-in-one taste of the town.
52 Broadway; 303-282-4645
Steubie snacks at Steuben's
On the resolutely straightforward menu of meatloaf, cheese fries, mud pie and other salt-of-the-earth staples that are this retro haunt’s stock in trade, these stand out as a bit of a mystery. But to get in on the open secret and make it your own, all you have to do is order them: The little nuggets of braised and deep-fried pork shoulder rolled in powdered sugar will be your go-to forevermore.
523 E. 17th Ave.; 303-830-1001
Meats by the pound at Work & Class
Be it cochinita pibil (pictured), cabrito (goat) or Colorado lamb, Dana Rodriguez’ masterfully braised and roasted meats have garnered a place in the canon of down-home Denver delicacies. Order enough for two, with a side of tortillas and another of rice and beans to complete the soulful picture.
2500 Larimer St.; 303-292-0700
Sushi at Sushi Den
We’re not suggesting that the Rockies should be synonymous with raw fish. But braving the eternal crush at the entrance of the Kizaki brothers’ maki mecca has been a Mile High rite of passage for decades. And once you’ve finally scored a seat at the bar and savored that first slice of salmon — proving as it does that you can, in fact, score stellar seafood in a land-locked state — you’ll fully appreciate the decision you made to endure it.
1487 S. Pearl St.; 303-777-0826
Shepherd's Halo at Fruition Restaurant and Mercantile Dining & Provisions
This bloomy-rind sheep’s milk cheese from Alex Seidel’s own creamery earns its standing as the luscious centerpiece of a savory dessert plate available at both of his restaurants, where the accoutrements change seasonally — think pear mostarda and frisée salad with pistachio vinaigrette, or olive oil–almond cake with candied almonds and red-pepper jam. Of course, at Mercantile’s in-house market, you can also purchase Shepherd's Halo by the ounce accompanied by crackers and preserves — along perhaps with one or two of Fruition Farms’ other fab cheeses and a glass of bubbly — for a snack to make any old afternoon feel special.
Lobster mac 'n' cheese at Mizuna and French 75
Speaking of both seafood and cheese, Frank Bonanno achieved pasta perfection when he brought them both together in a plate of butter-poached lobster and creamy macaroni so many years ago — and, for all the standouts he's introduced along the way, from Osteria Marco's carbonara pizza to Bones' green chile ramen, it remains his most definitive dish today. One forkful and you'll understand why (not that you'll stop at one forkful).
Artichoke tortellini at Rioja
Another pioneering chef, another pasta. Of the dishes that shaped Jennifer Jasinski’s reputation, this is the one that cements it for us: Bathed in white-truffle brodo, the artichoke mousse–filled dumplings are at once elegant and soothing, au courant and timeless.
1431 Larimer St.; 303-820-2282
Chile-relleno burrito at El Taco de Mexico
With all the excellent taquerias around here, does this Lincoln Park hole-in-the-wall really deserve to rise to the top of every ranking? There’s only one way to find out: Belly up to the counter for its green chile–smothered gut bomb. Then take a nap. After you’ve slept on it for a bit you’ll know the answer: claro que sí.
714 Santa Fe Dr.; 303-623-3926
Historians' platter at The Fort
Why should tourists have all the fun? This Morrison landmark provides a delightfully campy crash course in the chuckwagon grub of the Old West, starting with its appetizer combo of bison tongue and sausage, Rocky Mountain oysters and more. For extra credit, pair the platter with a shot of the tobacco- and gunpowder-spiked Trade Whiskey.
19192 Highway 8, Morrison; 303-697-4771
Burgers at My Brother's Bar and The Cherry Cricket
Both have counted among the city’s culinary diamonds in the Denver dive-bar rough for decades. Both are as legendary served plain as they are with toppings like peanut butter and bacon or cream cheese and jalapeños. And until you've tried them both to take a side in the ongoing battle for burger supremacy, you just can't call yourself a local. (Vegetarians included, since both offer meatless patties.)
Pancakes at the original Snooze
You should get a commemorative T-shirt for surviving the wait outside the Ballpark breakfast joint that launched a regional chain. But you won’t, so it’s a good thing the pancake flight will be reward enough. Get one sweet-potato, one pineapple upside-down and one wacky flavor du jour — done and done.
2262 Larimer St.; 303-297-0700 (among other locations)
Steak at Bastien's Restaurant or Columbine Steak House & Lounge
Denver's cowtown past lives on at these decades-old institutions. Outside, Bastien's is a roadside rotunda to blast you back to the Googie era; inside, it's a Rat Pack shrine — but above all, this City Park classic's a showcase for the ranchland original that is sugar-crusted New York strip, which never fails to hit the sweet spot accompanied by soft breadsticks, green salad, a loaded baked potato and skillet-baked fruit pie. As for Columbine, the Valverde mainstay for low-liers and longtimers comes right out of an old country-western tune to dish up the kind of super-cheap yet sprawling T-bone dinner (pictured) that reaches its apex out West.
Salted caramel–banana pudding at Post Oak Hall
You know a cult favorite by the lengths its followers go to get a taste of it. The pudding that Helliemae's candy queen Ellen Daehnick makes with her acclaimed caramel would sell out so fast when she first brought it to farmer's markets and festivals a few years back that advance orders became a must. They still are. Though Daehnick now keeps the sweet treat on the menu at her Wheat Ridge sandwich counter, she's open for business Saturdays only from 11 AM to 6 PM and regularly runs out of items, so you're well advised to call ahead. Eating any old pudding doesn't make you a Denverite — eating the one that locals plan their weekends around does.
6195 W. 44th Ave., Wheat Ridge; 303-834-7048