1002 S. Federal Blvd.
Denver, Colorado 80219
Credit Aaron Le for creating the best pho in town. At his invariably packed noodle shop on South Federal Boulevard, he glides from table to table, sometimes even sliding into one of the tattered booths, to ensure that your obscenely delicious steaming bowl of pho, scented with anise, garlic, herbs and onions, is up to snuff.
Stockpiled with slippery rice noodles, tripe, tendon, rare beef, meatballs, vegetables, brisket or a combination thereof, the overflowing bowls, which you spray with lime, flame with chile paste and mound with fresh herbs like Vietnamese basil, culantro (a cousin to cilantro), rings of jalapeno and bean sprouts, are incredibly inexpensive. In fact, the biggest bowl of pho, which weighs nearly as much as a newborn baby, is less than $9, and you’ll still waddle out with leftovers for a week. By the way, Le’s infectious laugh, hugs and stories are free.
3030 E. Sixth Ave.
Denver, Colorado 80206
Barolo Grill executive chef Brian Laird is Denver’s unsung chef. He’s the guy who doesn’t dance on the tables begging to be “discovered,” litter his Facebook page with accolades about how everyone thinks he’s a culinary emperor, or strut around the city in a starched white chefs’ coat that hasn’t seen a galley in weeks. Laird doesn’t need to do any of that, because his food, a terrific board of Northern Italian hits, is so profoundly superb that it doesn’t need superfluous embellishments.
You’ll fork over a significant portion of your bank balance to experience Laird’s tasting menu – five courses paired with wines for $102 per person – but the lyrical flavor pairings that stop you mid-mouthful and make you bow in gratitude are worth whatever sacrifice you’re forced to relinquish.
7986 W. Alameda Ave.
Lakewood, Colorado 80226
Virgilio Urbano, owner of his namesake pizzeria in Belmar, would wake up at 2 a.m. and crouch over his computer to watch instructional YouTube videos of hot-blooded Italians hand-crafting burrata, determined to re-create the duly worshipped Italian cheese, oozing with warm cream, at his own restaurant.
It took several weeks of trial and error before he sent out an e-mail claiming victory. Talk about an understatement. That burrata, a luscious orb of thin-shelled mozzarella robing an impossibly creamy center made with heavy cream and stracciatella – “little rags” of mozzarella curds – deserves its own special place in culinary utopia. It’s served warm, as it should be, with grilled bread and whatever else Urbano feels like lobbing on the plate – verdant basil leaves and roasted red peppers on one occasion. It’s not on the menu – yet – but Urbano often runs it as a special. It’s wise to call ahead, just to make sure.
909 17th St.
Denver, Colorado 80202
It’s not easy to find a happy hour that focuses as much on food as it does on inebriating liquids, but at the newly designed Panzano, Elise Wiggins’ Northern Italian stunner in the Hotel Monaco, the kitchen not only spotlights sustenance; it knocks the famished off their feet with its wholly affordable, beautifully composed and flavor-bombed dishes that never suffer from shortcuts or sloppiness.
Wiggins’ bar bites, a well-rounded board of fantastic $3 and $4 edibles, include mushroom crepes with truffle oil; calamari fritti; a speck, pear, walnut and gorgonzola pizza; beef or lamb sliders; pancetta-wrapped shrimp stuffed with Medjool dates; duck liver mousse with rosemary Parmesan doughnuts; pappardelle alla Bolognese; and pan-seared organic chicken with Hazel Dell mushroom risotto. Panzano’s happy hour runs from 2:30 to 6 p.m. daily, and also trumpets $3 draft beers, $4 wines by the glass and killer $5 cocktails.
6955 S. York St.
Centennial, Colorado 80122
Phoenix restaurateur Mark Tarbell’s new dining emporium at the Streets of Southglenn, the city’s newest breeding ground for restaurants, opened late last year in a multi-million-dollar space that’s more rustically cosmopolitan than cookie-cutter suburban. The stunning digs, bolstered by a gleaming exhibition kitchen, handsome communal table, sueded bar stools (for skinny butts, only) and an enormous back wall logged with recycled ponderosa pine, are the ideal foil for Tarbell’s menu, a vintage versus modern catchall of comfort foods that Tarbell grew up with. To that end, he serves everything from pot roast and macaroni and cheese to fish tacos and seared tuna on sticky rice.
At night, Tarbell offers Blue Plate specials – chicken pot pie, beef stroganoff, and on Friday, fish sticks – but the star of the roster, day or night, is the “five-napkin burger,” which is actually two pudgy patties dribbling juices the color of cabernet and accessorized simply with American, white cheddar or blue cheese and caramelized onions. If there’s a burger of the year, it might very well be this one.
Lori Midson, restaurant critic for Colorado Avid Golfer (coloradoavidgolfer.com), lives in Denver and writes for a variety of publications.