Eat This Now: 30 Essential Denver Dishes

By Ruth Tobias  |  January 23, 2017

If tradition shapes the landscape of more established food towns, change remains the defining feature of our still-young dining scene, marked less by local custom than freewheeling creativity. Whether they're new stars or old faves, these 30 Denver-area dishes all capture the city's culinary dynamism right now. Of course, we’ll be updating the list regularly to best reflect the Mile High zeitgeist.

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Frogs' legs karaage at Mizu Izakaya
    Honestly, it’s a toss-up, since the weird and wonderful cream pork kimchi served at this LoHi Japanese haunt also counts among the most exciting dishes we’ve sampled in recent weeks. We’re giving the slight edge to these nimbly fried nuggets of juicy, soy-marinated frog meat accompanied by eggplant, shishito peppers and togarashi aïoli, but do yourself a favor — order both. 

    1560 Boulder St.; 720-372-7100

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    CBD donuts at Glazed & Confuzed
    As the counter crew of this Southeast donut destination will assure you, you won’t fail a drug test after eating these babies. But the 20 milligrams of cannabidiol they’re infused with just may give your sugar high, well, an oddly relaxing twist. Owner Josh Schwab hopes to make them a permanent part of his lineup, but he’s making no promises, so get ’em while you can in flavors like dark chocolate, Key lime and salted honey-caramel (pictured).

    5301 Leetsdale Dr.; 303-524-9637

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Riccio di mare at Il Posto
    If sea urchin as served at sushi bars — in all its naked orange glory — makes you squirm, relax: It’s a whole other animal in chef Andrea Frizzi’s hands. Blending it with cream and transferring it back to the shell through a whipped-cream canister, he softens its briny pungency to velvety, bisquelike effect. Focaccia streaked with lobster roe soaks up every last drop.​

    2601 Larimer St.; 303-394-0100

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Pork heart Bolognese at Bar Dough
    It started out as a dare. Last fall, Cooking Matters centered its No Kid Hungry campaign around a competition among local chefs to cook with challenging ingredients. For Max Mackissock and Blake Edmunds, that meant pig heart, and the weekend special they came up with proved so special indeed that it’s now on the regular menu. Their original version (pictured) was one of the most memorable things we ate in 2016; the current take contains a different pasta, but its sumptuousness remains the same.

    2227 W. 32nd Ave.; 720-668-8506

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Veal sweetbreads at 12 @ Madison
    Velvety, earthy, creamy, toasty: that’s this polished dish of veal sweetbreads with wild mushrooms, garlic and herbs in a nutshell (or rather on ciabatta).  

    1160 Madison St.; 720-216-0190

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Faisan a la pibil at Que Bueno Suerte!
    Capturing the elegance and complexity for which Mexican cookery is finally getting credit, this star of Vicente Sosa’s inaugural menu sets crisp-skinned, roasted pheasant in a vibrant swirl of epazote–black bean sauce and pan juices tinged with citrus and achiote. 

    1518 South Pearl St.; 720-642-7322

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Apple-Brie ice cream and plum–red wine sorbet at Frozen Matter
    OK, we're cheating a little bit by suggesting a two-scoop order at Joshua Gertzen and Geraldine Kim's fab Uptown creamery. But these flavors just go too well together not to, with their mouthwatering tartness and savory zing. Get 'em on a cone, and it’s like sampling a whole wine-paired cheese platter — fruit, crackers and all — in a single bite. ​

    530 East 19th Ave.; 720-600-6358

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Smoked brisket at Meadowlark Kitchen
    At a glance, the simplicity of the menu could deceive you into thinking this RiNo cult favorite sticks to bar snacks. But look again. There's a sophistication and intricacy to everything Joshua Bitz prepares  — including this hickory-smoked brisket, which he makes over the course of four days and serves by the half pound in a merlot-marrow demi-glace with freshly baked cornbread.  

    2705 Larimer St.; 303-953-1815

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    King salmon at Wild Standard
    Talk about provenance. Thanks to an Alaskan fisherman he befriended during family trips, Bradford Heap now gets line-caught Yakutat Bay salmon shipped to Boulder overnight. The menu specials he makes with it change daily — but the gorgeousness of their main ingredient does not. Get yourself a piece while the getting’s good (at least through March). 

    1043 Pearl St., Boulder; 720-638-4800

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Porchetta sandwich at the Denver Central Market
    The Central Market has proven to be a hotbed of super-sandwiches, from Culture's grilled cheese and The Local Butcher's Italian beef to Silva's tuna salad and the ice cream–stuffed kouign amann from Izzio Bakery and High Point Creamery. Right now, we're nuts about SK Provisions' Roman sandwich, delivering marvelous sliced porchetta sprinkled with cracklings and olive oil on a chewy roll.

    2669 Larimer St.

  • Credit: Big Red F

    Chicken-fried steak at Lola Coastal Mexican
    What’s an iconic Southern dish doing on the brunch menu of a coastal Mexican restaurant (besides just being awesome)? Culinary director Jamey Fader explains that back in Lola’s early days, when it wasn’t yet clear whether Denver diners would warm to the concept of Mexican seafood, the kitchen began experimenting with “what we called Southern-fried Mexican fare,” including this buttermilk-marinated slab of prime flat iron smothered in a chile-tinged chorizo gravy and served with home fries. Now everybody’s down with mariscos — but the steak stuck anyway, and “it is, to this day, irremovable,” says Fader.

    1575 Boulder St.; 720-570-8686

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Stir-fried bison at Thailicious
    You know you’re in Denver when there's bison in your Thai food. Stir-frying the ultimate American meat with basil and bird chiles may seem a bit gimmicky, but who’s to say it doesn’t point to the multicultural future of Rocky Mountain cuisine? In any case, the result is mouthwatering.  

    2045 Sheridan Blvd. Ste. E, Edgewater; 303-237-1235

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Mint fazzoletti at Dio Mio Handmade Pasta
    Alex Figura's and Spencer White’s pasta bar opened just recently, and it's already dishing out the hits. Every last bite of the fazzoletti comes as a delightful surprise, from the hints of mint in the "handkerchief pasta" of the lamb ragù to the sharp bursts of flavor delivered by dehydrated black olives, pistachios and eggplant–black garlic purée.

    3264 Larimer St.; 303-562-1965

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Burmese salad at ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro
    From Kaya toast to French onion soup dumplings, Lon Symensma has already introduced his share of dishes to the Denver dining canon. But it's time to make room for one more. Inspired by tea-leaf salad, this beauty starts with kale, beets, oranges and candied ginger chips in a dressing of house-fermented tea leaves; it’s then served with a deconstructed “trail mix” of seeds, nuts and mung beans for you to toss in and "enjoy all the different flavors and textures together,” according to Symensma. 

    1555 Blake St.; 303-353-5223

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    The High Class at Rosenberg's Bagels & Delicatessen
    On the road of Denver's culinary renown, the opening of this Five Points deli back in 2014 counts as a milestone. We could justify putting any of Joshua Pollack’s superlative bagel sandwiches on a list of the city’s definitive dishes. When we’re feeling fancy, though, the combination of caviar-speckled cream cheese, wild-caught smoked fish, tomatoes and red onion does the trick.

    725 E. 26th Ave.; 720-440-9880

  • Credit: Nicole Branan

    Spuzzulia antipasti at Coperta
    Everybody loves a sampler platter, but this is some next-level antipasto. Since opening in July, the kitchen at Paul and Aileen Reilly’s Italian hot spot has been turning out a spread that's as ever-changing as it is wide-ranging — from salami cotto, swordfish crudo and polenta fritters to shrimp-fennel arancini, guanciale spiedini and baked goat cheese with broccoli rabe pesto. 

    400 E. 20th Ave.; 720-749-4666

  • Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

    Charcuterie board at Fish N Beer
    Here’s another platter that illustrates just why Kevin Morrison and Aniedra Nichols’ brand-new RiNo “oysterette” is the right place at the right time. Nichols nails the fish-collar trend with her soy-glazed salmon version, whose sweetness gains contrast from both the smoked-yellowtail dip on grilled bread and the tonnato (creamy tuna sauce). Mostarda di frutta and giardiniera add sharply tart and salty accents. It’s really the complete package.

    3510 Larimer St.; 303-248-3497

  • Credit: Briana Balducci/StarChefs

    Half roasted pig's head at Rebel Restaurant
    We didn’t call them daredevils for nothing. Dan Lasiy and Bo Porytko revel in nudging diners closer to the culinary edge with their ever-changing, startlingly original creations — but this "pièce de résistance" (also pictured top) is always on the menu in one form or another. Right now, the head comes soy-glazed with a side of “brainnaise” — that’s mustard–pig brain aïoli, folks — as well as farro or lentils with turnips or squash. Grilled scallions, greens and flatbread complete the picture. (And speaking of pictures, “there is not one person who hasn’t taken one upon seeing the platter," according to Lasiy.)

    3763 Wynkoop St.; 303-297-3902

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Crispy Colorado lamb cakes at Departure Restaurant + Lounge
    Though Gregory Gourdet’s Cherry Creek smash is an outpost of his Portland flagship, it’s no mere carbon copy. Here, Gourdet makes good on his commitment to showcase local products by starting with Colorado lamb leg, which he braises and shreds with soy sauce, ginger, star anise, chile powder and Chinese long beans, folds into a dough, quickly steams and then pan-fries. The luscious, crunchy-soft result may be our favorite item on a menu full of items we love.

    249 Columbine St.; 720-772-5020

  • Credit: Adam Bove

    Steamed eggplant at Hop Alley
    If eggplant is having a long-overdue moment in Denver, that’s thanks in part to Tommy Lee’s influence. His year-old restaurant has already won lots of accolades, and this dish in particular — which he calls a cross between a Taiwanese and a Sichuan recipe — has proven a phenomenon, juxtaposing the mild, tender eggplant with the funk and kick of Chinese bean sauce and the refreshing crunch of a sprout-and-herb salad.

    3500 Larimer St.; 720-379-8340

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    The Bambi at Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Que
    From bison ribs to pulled lamb shoulder, everything Coy Webb serves at his little smokehouse is changing the local barbecue game. But venison bologna? That’s Colorado ingenuity at its finest — and it makes for one of the year’s best sandwiches, sliced and garnished with cilantro-lime coleslaw and chipotle aïoli.   

    2387 S. Downing St.; 303-722-2226

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Citrus olive oil cake at Avelina
    The return of pastry chef Yasmin Lozada-Hissom to the Denver dining scene after a two-year hiatus has been thrilling enough, but the fact that she brought her olive oil cake with pistachio gelato, fennel praline and kumquat with her is a downright triumph. 

    1550 17th St.; 720-904-6711

  • Credit: Bonanno Concepts

    Beef Wellington at Mizuna
    Leave it to Frank Bonanno and company to revive a hallmark of old-school Haute Cuisine in ways that give it a whole new cachet. Exec chef Ty Leon offers a lighter, fresher seasonal spin, omitting the pâté and adding all sorts of side flourishes — currently sweet potato–cheddar mash and wild mushrooms.  

    225 E. 7th Ave.; 303-832-4778

  • Credit: Nicole Branan

    King crab at Mister Tuna
    When we called Troy Guard’s latest venture one of the year’s sexiest restaurants, we were thinking in part of the seductive effect this dish has on us — and everyone else, apparently, as it’s a bestseller. Turns out steamed king crab is even better with brown butter than it is with regular drawn butter, but the kitchen shrewdly sets off all that richness with tart fruit (initially peach salsa, pictured, now chopped apple) and peppery greens, plus an exotic dash of black lava salt.

    3033 Brighton Blvd.; 303-831-8862

  • Credit: Jennifer Olson Photography

    Peppers Five Ways at Work & Class
    There’s a reason this pepper platter has been on Dana Rodriguez’s menu since day one: it still electrifies. Though you know you’re getting a bacon-wrapped jalapeño, a Fresno popper, a pickle mix, grilled shishitos and pepper jam, you never know (because capsaicin levels fluctuate) just how hot any one bite is going to be — and that’s all part of the fun.

    2500 Larimer St.; 303-292-0700

  • Credit: Acorn

    Donuts at Acorn
    Steve Redzikowski and Brian Dayton have given Denver many gifts — the kale-apple salad and Across the Atlantic cocktail come to mind — but permission to eat donuts for lunch may be the most meaningful. The kitchen makes a daily batch of only 15, so you'd better make a beeline to score the flavor du jour: think Earl Grey–lemon, cherry cola, bourbon-mint and Irish coffee–Irish cream. 

    3350 Brighton Blvd.; 720-542-3721

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Chile relleno burrito at El Taco de Mexico
    Consider it a local’s litmus test: You’re not a Denverite until you’ve had one of these babies smothered in green chile. For that matter, Denver wouldn't quite be Denver without the beloved taqueria that does it best, which is why it holds special significance at a time when the nation's melting pot is getting all too stirred up. 

    714 Santa Fe Dr.; 303-623-3926

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Octopus mortadella at Stoic & Genuine
    Jorel Pierce debuted this twist on an octopus terrine he found in an Italian cookbook last year, and it struck us as an instant classic. Sure enough, it’s now a menu staple. The tentacles are steamed, studded with pistachios and coated with what Pierce calls “a light German sausage–style seasoning,” then coiled into a cylinder, chilled and finally "sliced like deli meat." Candied lemon vinaigrette adds a dash of brightness to the delicate, elegant result. 

    1701 Wynkoop St.; 303-640-3474

  • Credit: Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs/Facebook

    Elk-jalapeño-cheddar sausage with The Classic topping combo at Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs
    As with El Tac’s burrito, we know we’re stating the obvious here. But Jim Pittenger’s elk dog, smothered in cream cheese and caramelized onions, remains an enduring (not to mention addictive) symbol of Mile High cuisine.

    2148 Larimer St.; 720-746-9355

  • Credit: Pizzeria Locale

    Budino at Pizzeria Locale
    The fact that Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson’s recipe made the New York Times in 2013 says a lot. Who’d have thought simple butterscotch pudding topped with chocolate ganache and whipped cream could spark such an everlasting passion? (Note: Pictured is the version served at the Boulder flagship; the Denver branches offer it in to-go cups.) 

    550 Broadway, 720-508-8828; 3484 W. 32nd Ave., 303-302-2451