In Colorado, six new bucket-list eateries are pushing the boundaries of food, drink and culinary experience. We painstakingly (not) paid them a visit to find out which dishes of theirs are unmissable and how it is they do what they do.
Now serving: Admittedly inauthentic Mexican food with a creative, Deep South twist.
When it comes to Mexican food, there’s no real need to reinvent the wheel. A certain steady IV drip of corn, grilled meat, cheese, beans and salsa will do just fine. The real challenge comes in elevating that standard to a more inspired level. Food-truck-turned-empire Comida nails that challenge with the surprising revelation that Mexican and Southern food pair fantastically. Across their menu, booze-marinated pulled meats meet unusual, Southern-inspired accompaniments like sweet potato and smoked gouda mashes. Garlic potatoes, grits, carrot salsa and biscuits, also meet your mouth with masterful texture and nuanced taste. The one thing Comida does take from more traditional Mexican dining? Approachability. The spot is fun, casual and thoroughly not-precious, despite meticulous attention to presentation and sustainable, humane and often locally sourced ingredients. Not authentic by any stretch, but when food’s got this much soul, it doesn’t matter.
Eat this if you want to live: Carnitas griddled taco with sweet potato mash and pineapple habañero salsa; nachos; chorizo and escabeche gordita with garlic mashed potatoes and salsa verde; spicy serrano-marinated fish taco.
3350 Brighton Blvd. #105, Denver, CO 80216
Biju’s Little Curry Shop
Now serving: Biju’s grandma’s (not so) secret South Indian recipes.
Walking into Biju’s, you can almost taste the food before you order. The smell of masala, curry and coconut play off the vibrantly colored walls to hint at what’s to come — and sure enough, it’s a version of the complex tang and spice you look for in any good Indian place … only not a version you’d expect. What Biju’s offers is a departure from the norm — traditional flavors transformed into unexpectedly simple and casual modernisms like sliders, tacos and bowls, with a formidable rotating wine and beer selection to match. But for all its assertive flavors, Biju’s food is impressively light and uncomplicated, with none of the dairy, animal fat or fillers that complicate much Americanized Indian cuisine. All this for good reason — Biju’s background is in nutrition and competitive bicycling, so he designed the menu with the hope that it would fill you up and keep you going, even after a long, Lance Armstrong effort on the bike … or couch-bike. Whatever floats your boat.
Eat this if you want to live: Falafel sliders with cilantro-ginger chutney; vegetarian Thali bowl; the tomato-less, spicy chicken vindaloo bowl.
4279 Tennyson St. Denver, CO 80212
River and Woods
Now serving: Very alliterative crowd-sourced Colorado comfort cuisine.
Stopping by River and Woods, you get the sense that you’re walking into the largest, prettiest potluck in all the land. We say this for the express reason that R&W has made it their mission to revamp the unhappily absent sense of community and sharing dining out can — but often doesn’t — bring. This comes across first and foremost in their unusual menu design. River and Woods works an unorthodox, yet successful undertaking of crowd-sourcing the majority of their menu, meaning you’re not just eating some lofty chef’s version of what he thinks is good food, you’re eating what your peers and neighbors love most (John Hickenlooper even has a recipe on there). Add to that the multiple nooks and crannies where diners can eat and drink outside the dining room area (a chef’s table, and outdoor grill, an event tent and a refurbished trailer bar), and you’ve got one hell of a potluck … only with servers and better food.
Eat this if you want to live: Mac and cheese with mushrooms and squash, crispy duck wings with garlic sauce, miso matzo ball ramen; the babely caprese salad.
2328 Pearl St. Boulder, CO 80302
Now serving: Masterfully resourceful art-food inspired by both history and region.
Set inside a sort of mod-frontier atmosphere replete with jars of preserved local produce and books published around the time your grandma started flapping, Arcana’s reverence for history is immediately apparent. In fact, story is as important to Arcana’s menu as their relationships with farmers and their ethos of total utilization. And it’s not uncommon to find a dish inspired by the original 13 colonies, what Colorado cowboys used to eat, or what a farmer up the road was experimenting with this season. Their flavors pay homage to that love of history and relationships through rarely mastered and locally exotic offerings such as braised sunflower hearts, ground cherries, crones and salsify. Arcana aims to transform ingredients with historical value and use them as springboards to both challenge and push the culinary envelope. But it’s no old-west messhall; it’s meticulous, refined and not-unfancy. It’s an elevated new institution that can only be described as shamelessly Instagrammable, old-American art-food.
Eat this if you want to live: Pull-apart bread with red corn and leek butter; masa dumplings with guajillo chile, brussels and braised oxtail; peekytoe crab rice with sausage and chiles; smoked whitefish and haddock with pickled burdock and winter radishes.
909 Walnut St. Boulder, CO 80302
Now serving: Chinese food you didn’t know existed but suddenly can’t stop eating.
There used to be a Chinatown in Denver. You’d never know it because a band of murderous scoundrels burned it to the ground in 1880, but its memory lives on through Hop Alley — chef Tommy Lee’s take on regional Chinese fare. Excelling in refreshingly unfamiliar flavors from China’s Sichuan province, Hop Alley meets America’s palette halfway via nontraditional elements like a wood-fired grill and a killer high-end wine program that work in tandem to intensify and liven the already-assertive menu. On it, you’ll find zippy Szechuan peppercorns and unapologetic chiles mingling with cooling toppings like pickled vegetables and fresh salads in varying incarnations. This all atop artfully prepared meat, noodles and vegetables; flavors which keep you on your toes, yielding surprisingly balanced, texturally perfect dishes. They push both boundaries and taste-buds alike. Fitting revenge on murderous scoundrels, no doubt.
Eat this if you want to live: Fried chicken with chiles; ground pork dan dan mein, the custard-like savory steamed eggplant; chilled tofu with spicy sesame-chili-vinegar sauce and smashed cucumbers.
3500 Larimer St. Denver, CO 80205
Stoic & Genuine
Now serving: Fresher seafood than you’ll find on the coasts … and legendary cocktails (try the granitas).
There is a centuries-old rumor going around that you can’t get fresh seafood in Colorado — perhaps you’ve heard it. And yet, a thousand miles away from the nearest ocean, Denver’s Stoic & Genuine serves the best seafood around. We should have known — the spot’s tastefully maritime atmosphere and imaginative piscene preparations tell the story of chef Gabe Wyman’s unstoppable drive to prove Denver’s seafood myth wrong, and prove it wrong he does. Each and every day, S&G tackles the gargantuan task of importing fresh fish from everywhere there’s water — taking care to never freeze it so it can be enjoyed within 24 hours of its last aquatic breath. The star of the show is the raw bar where things like Alaskan king crab, oysters from each coast, Maine lobster, wild Mexican shrimp and a tear-jerkingly beautiful crudo program proliferat. But for those who like their seafood not-raw, S&G’s offerings stun with unorthodox preparations of octopus mortadella, tuna benedict and fish n’ chips that would make an Englishman cry real tears of joy.
Eat this if you want to live: Salmon and shellfish paella with smoked paprika-garlic broth; tuna benedict with tapenade and truffle hollandaise; the surf n’ turf (a goddamn New York Strip wrapped in tuna).
1701 Wynkoop St. Denver, CO 80202