10 Colorado Restaurants to Try Before You Die

10 Colorado Restaurants to Try Before You Die

CultureJanuary 19, 2015

There’s food, and then there’s food that makes you reevaluate your life. These 10 new Colorado restaurants specialize in the latter.

Mercantile

1701 Wynkoop St, Denver
(720) 460-3733

It’s a market. It’s a restaurant. It’s actually both, and if you die without going there, finagle a deal at the Pearly Gates for another chance at life. Mercantile is the second restaurant from chefs Matt Vawter and Alex Siedel at Fruition. While they use many of the same locally sourced ingredients from their namesake Fruition Farms in Larkspur, they’ve put a new spin on things with their hybrid restaurant/store in Denver's Union Station, where shelves of house-cured charcuterie, cheese, and homemade jams, oils, and spice kits line the walls. Plus, they've got a breakfast pastry program that'll melt your face off to round out their proprietary provisions.

But if you can pry yourself away from perusing their market selection, their saffron-lobster bucatini will make sweet love to your taste buds. Matt makes it happen by blooming saffron in the pasta water, yielding a delicate, vaguely saline, honeyed flavor that balances perfectly with a tangy tomato sauce and buttery lobster. They also do a crazy play on pasta carbonara; instead of pasta and cream sauce, Mercantile’s version is served with a cheese rind broth, toasted farrow, homemade crispy lentil and sprouted quinoa granola, crispy guanciale and a poached egg that comes together in an impossible combination of nutty richness and texture that's executed with more thought than it takes to launch a chimp into space. Blow your own mind by finishing with the pan-seared scallops with Cochon 555 pork belly croutons and celery root, or the octopus a la plancha with potatoes bravas and herb aioli. Because of word count limits, we'll simply describe it as “seeing God, flavor-wise.”

Speaking of the man himself, we're about to use his name in vain … try the goddamn croissants. Matt has been working on the recipe for over a year, and the result is something exquisitely chewy and buttery on the inside, but so perfectly flaky and toasty on the outside that it explodes everywhere upon first bite: a surefire sign that it'll kick any other croissants' ass that crosses its path. Long story short, go to Mercantile. It'll make you a better person.

Chef's Favorite Restaurant: “Old Major, Cholon or Fruition.” - Matt Vawter, Chef de Cuisine

Los Chingones

2461 Larimer St #102, Denver
(303) 295-0686

Los Chingones, as it were, is not for pussies. Maybe it's the fact that the city of Denver won't let them display their name outside their restaurant because it’s Spanish for “The Badasses.” Maybe it's the fact that they're working on a hot sauce that contains the aphrodisiac cobra blood. Or maybe it's the fact that their concept is based around catering to adventurous eaters who reject complacency when it comes to Mexican food.

Case in point: their Mexican fundido with homemade rattlesnake chorizo. And while rattlesnake might strike fear into the faint of heart, the way Los Chingones prepares it is impossibly light, both in flavor and mouthfeel, lending itself swimmingly to the fundido. It comes with an extra layer of baked cheese on top for added textural whimsy. The surprising depth of flavor of the snake rattles perfectly with their infamous Pop Rocks margarita, which ignites a sugary explosion in your mouth with every sip; it's impossible to drink one without smiling.

We'd be idiots if we didn't continue on with the unexpected-Mexican theme; so we're also going to strongly suggest you try their confit octopus taco, primarily because a) who else has the balls to put octopus on a taco, and b) because it's ungodly good. It's served with a blood orange reduction, pasilla salsa and crispy parsnips, which come together in an ultimate orgy of citrusy saline crunch. But Los Chingones isn’t all rare meats and snake blood — their garden guac is a vegetarian’s wet dream. Featuring charred corn salsa, toasted pumpkin seeds, cilantro and cotija cheese, it's a refreshing take on guacamole that's crisp and alive with the delectable balance of creamy avocado and the fleshy bite of toppings.

All this is made infinitely better by the fact that they never freeze anything; their entire menu is prepared fresh daily. Los Chingones also has an awesome rooftop patio. It’s open, modern layout and massive bar make it an awesome place to impress your Tinder date, or meet a substitution for said Tinder date if said Tinder date resembles Chris Farley. Go to it.

Chef's Favorite Restaurant: “Da Lat Vietnamese.” - Troy Guard, Owner/Chef
“Go Fish Sushi.” - Luiz Ortiz, Head Chef

Acorn

3350 Brighton Blvd, Denver
(720) 542-3721

Acorn is the kind of place you take someone you don't want to talk to, only because the entire time, “Mmmmmff OH MY GOD” is the only thing you'll be able to say as bits of gorgeously prepared foodstuffs tease your mouth. Acorn is the sexy younger sibling of Boulder's OAK at Fourteenth, but while they share a kitchen centered around an oak grill and oven that infuses their plates with rich, woodsy deliciousness, Acorn branches off from OAK showcasing their fusion of Asian and Italian styles and their emphasis on shared plates and family-style dining.

Acorn's menu is rife with seasonal ingredients, as well as components that come from a host of close friends and interesting characters, including octopus from the affably named Steve the Octopus Guy, and concord grapes for restaurant regulars Dennis and Val. The former comes in what’s possibly the best preparation of cephalopod we’ve tasted. It’s braised and oak-grilled atop a piquant salsa verde with buttery white-wine-poached artichokes, piquillo peppers, handmade potato gnocchi, and smoked house-made chorizo; the smoky richness of the sausage is the gustatory soulmate of the salsa verde, which offers a bright kick to go with the briney sea creature. The aforementioned grapes materialize in a vibrant concord grape and port wine gelee that sits atop a succulent foie gras terrine that Chef Amos Watts puts in a tiny mason jar with peanut brittle and fresh grapes. If you've never had foie, Acorn's is the best intro to it you'll find; it's got a decadent, meaty flavor and a smooth, thick texture. Spread it on Acorn's ultra-buttery toasted house brioche bread — it's made with their own half butter, half other not-butter stuff recipe (and if you know anything about baking, you understand the ludicrousness of that ratio).

Don’t even breathe without trying their smoked bone marrow, a.k.a. woodsy meat butter. It comes roasted still inside the bone with a snappy, tart herb salad and pickled piquillo pepper vinaigrette that cuts through the fat with a refreshing vegetal tang. Oh, and their cocktail program, which specializes in tea cocktails, has won pretty much every important booze award there is to win, including our own, lesser-known “Alcohol Shouldn't Taste This Good Oh No I Can't Stop Drinking It But I’m An Adult So This is Fully Legitimate” award.

Like we said … your mouth is going to be doing a lot more than talking, so if you know Silent Bob or the short guy from Penn and Teller, bring him.

Chef's Favorite Restaurant: “Old Major.” - Amos Watts, Head Chef

Fire on the Mountain

3801 W 32nd Ave, Denver
(303) 480-9464

Normally, this feature is dominated by fancier fare, so what's a humble wing joint doing on here? Erasing our memory of all those other wing places (almost).

Meet Fire on the Mountain, a Portland transplant with a deceptively basic pub-style menu. Traditional Americana such as wings, burgers, sandwiches, salads and a great beer selection is their M.O., and at first glance, the atmosphere recalls something that would be at home on the Hill or Pearl Street prior to its yuppification. But when you actually taste the stuff they're serving, particularly the wings … um … holy shit. They take fresh, antibiotic-free chicken wings, fry them to crunchy-yet-moist perfection, then toss them in one of 12 signature sauces. The flavors range from familiar and delicious, to gourmet and delicious, and include the likes of ultra-tangy cilantro lime, richly-spiced Jamaican jerk, and sweet-and-sour-and-spicy-and-tangy raspberry habanero. Their traditional buffalo sauce and its spicier variants embody everything you'd want in a wing sauce: heat, butter, tang, and that unnameable addictive component that keeps you reaching for more. As for spice level? Their “Xtra Hot” buffalo sauce is so spicy that owen Craig Oberlink won’t even eat it, so put that in your knowledge sandwich and eat it.

We also face-planted into The Emma, their perfect fried buffalo blue cheese chicken sandwich, which managed to retain a rich flavor and ideal crunch texture. To keep things healthy, we also tried their buffalo chicken salad, which was mercifully devoid of fried offerings. The salad itself was more of an excuse to eat grilled buffalo chicken, but a bite with the tangy meat, sweet baby greens, gorgonzola cheese and tomatoes was orgasmic.

Rounding out our five-star pub fare experience were FOTM’s fried pickles, which come breaded with thin, crunchy panko crust and served with a spicy aioli that we were elated to find was more spice than aioli. Somehow, despite the frying and sauces and diet-ruiners, nothing at FOTM is greasy, and when you leave, you feel rather self-congratulatory for uncovering such culinary rapture at a still-unknown wing emporium.

Chef's Favorite Restaurant: “Uncle or Dae Gee BBQ.” - Craig Oberlink, Owner

Sassafras

2637 W 26th Ave, Denver (Highlands)
320 E Colfax Ave, Denver (Capitol Hill)
(303) 433-0080

At this point in our saturated culinary landscape, the concept of reinventing the egg is as likely as reinventing the chemical makeup of water — but that didn't stop Denver's Cajun-style brunch geniuses at Sassafras from doing it anyway. We're referring to their stock-in-trade: chicken-fried eggs. If you’ve never seen them, they look like fried golf balls from heaven and taste like true love feels. Crowning a base of rich smoked buffalo hash, toasted cornbread and spicy fresno chile, les oeufs are rolled in a spiced batter then fried until the whites are cooked and tender although, as if by some stroke of prestidigitation, the yolks remain runny and buttery. Let's see you do that, Denny's.

But eggs aren't the only thing they're rethinking; Sassafras also serves an incredibly savory, tangy, reimagined BBQ sauce atop their New Orleans BBQ Gulf shrimp and grits. It’s made with white wine, butter, and Worcestershire. No tomatoes were harmed in its making, so this signature sauce comes across smoky, aromatic, and delicious especially when paired with the neighboring crunchy scallion grit cake. Sassafras has even reinvented vegetarian breakfast, dispelling the notion that Cajun food is too meaty and heavy to placate vegetarian palates. You might seriously want to try their sweet potato grits punctuated with roasted Brussels sprouts, smoked mushrooms, and pickled onions with an over-easy egg to boot. This is one colorful, light breakfast dish that’s roasty, buttery and texturally diverse. While the meat of flesh, fish or fowl is MIA, it’s hardly missed.

They've also got a crazy-good breakfast cocktail selection to go along with your brunch. You could do a lot worse than the spicy Bloody Mary, which gets its heat from maniacally hot ghost chilis, piquillo peppers and a burst of fresh garden-veggie flavor. The recipe is so sinus-clearingly spicy that it comes with a sweet, refreshing and necessary cool-down shot made from basil, cucumber and lemon that muffles any spontaneous combustion in your mouth. But that's not the end of it. Get this — there's also a cucumber garnish shaped like a tiny voodoo doll ... because you know, New Orleans 'n all. Every last item on the Sassafras menu is made in-house by human hands. The homemade handmade vibe and the cottage-y decor make you feel right at home ... all that's missing is the perpetually nude roommate.

Chef's Favorite Restaurant: “The Columbine Steakhouse.” - Julia Growthers, Owner

Work and Class

2500 Larimer St, Denver
(303) 292-0700

Located inside a series of shipping containers situated in post-industrial Five Points and smartly outfitted with re-purposed industrial bric a brac like conveyor-belt tables and brake-rotor chandeliers, it's easy to see how Work and Class got its name. Their thoroughly unfussy concept centers around a prototypical blue collar lunch, except that a) that lunch is dinner, b) it's the most orally pleasurable food in the hood and c) it doesn't taste like anything remotely “blue collar.”

Work and Class deconstructs the tradition of large, composed entrees by offering up a by-weight menu of meats, sides and appetizers. That means you can chow down on whatever sized portion of whatever flora or fauna makes you the happiest camper. They specialize in seven different meats, all roasted, braised or rotisserie-d in house. Our favorite is unequivocally the cochinita de pibil, a traditional Yucatan dish made by rubbing pork shoulder with achiote chile, garlic and orange. El puerco then gets wrapped in a banana leaf and braised for hours to make the softest, most flavorful thing you could ever put in a handmade corn taco which, duh, of course they have.

The three owners' working class backgrounds in Mexico and America comes across best in their stiff drinks and their signature dish: Peppers Five Ways. From mascarpone and pecan-stuffed jalapenos to a jam made using every pepper on the menu, the plate offers five preparations of the humble capsicum family the spans continents and your entire palate. The shrimp and grits adorned with roasted anaheim and poblano chiles, parmesan cheese and garlic white wine crustaceans is another perfectly creamy/spicy/buttery example of their culinary vision.

And if by some odd chance a stiff drink would do you good after a long day at the coal mine or Apple store or whatever, do not, and we repeat do not leave without ordering their bourbon barrel aged old fashioned. Work and Class takes Tap rye whiskey aged on-site in oak barrels that live above the bar for two weeks — which completely murders the alcoholic bite — leaving you with a round, woodsy flavor that strikes the perfect balance with maraschino cherry liqueur and the tart punch of orange zest. It's not on the menu, so you have to ask a well-informed server about it. You can thank us later.

Chef's Favorite Restaurant: “Pinche Tacos, Lao Wang Noodle House and Sushi Sasa.” - Delores Tronco, speaking for co-owners Tony Maciag and Dana Rodriguez

Beast + Bottle

719 E 17th St, Denver
(303) 623-3223

Food doesn’t have to be complicated to be good, but when you utilize every part of everything that comes through your door, you’ve got a lot to work with. When farmers show up at his back door daily, owner and chef of Beast + Bottle Paul Reilly has an exciting challenge to make the simplest ingredients into the fanciest meal you’ll eat this year.

At this joint, they get off on whole product utilization and their huge menu is a testament to how fun gourmet food can be — and how delicious the odd bits that normally wind up in the garbage actually are. The space seems small, but the flood of natural light bouncing off the white tiles make this eatery feel open as the ever-changing menu, cocktail program and wine selection entice you.  For example, take the roasted squab + confit (that’s pigeon for all you foodies-in-training). It’s served with the breasts and legs confited and seared rare to crispy perfection. The breasts take on a texture of a filet mignon with the familiar crunch of foul skin and deep, delicate flavor. Since they specialize in using the whole animal, the liver is fixed into a creamy, sweet foie gras torchon that, when eaten with the tangy, orange pappadeaux sauce and graham cracker streusel, makes you wonder why you don’t spring for foie more often.

Reilly shows that he can respect a vegetable just as well as an animal with turnips three ways on this dish too. From the crunch and spice of the raw slivers, the smoky, firmness of the roasted ones and the creamy, sweet puree, it’s a marvelous feat to see a mere turnip expressed in so many ways. Beast + Bottle creates a dining experience where your culinary boundaries will be tested, and over a few bottles of wine with good friends you’ll find there’s no dish you won’t try, even if it’s just to say you’ve done it.

Chef's Favorite Restaurant: “Fruition, Il Posto, The Kitchen, and Steuben's.” - Paul Reilly, Owner/Chef

Arabesque

1634 Walnut Street, Boulder
(720) 242-8623

Comfort food comes in all spices and cuisines and is more than just food. It’s a feeling of content and and excitement for the same thing you’ve eaten a million times before because you know it’s always going to blow your mind. In Manal Jarrar’s kitchen at Arabesque, the comfort food is Middle Eastern. You can see the kitchen from the front door of this tiny breakfast and lunch spot, and hear Jarrar laughing loudly with customers as she meticulously prepares every plate as they relax next to the fireplace. It feels like home, that is if your home was full of hummus.

Everything here is made from scratch, the rose water, the baba ganoush, the baklava and chai. Nothing is served that hasn’t been made a million times by Jarrar looking to perfect the recipe. Even though the menu is small, it’s still not easy to pick your plate. Just go with the Middle Eastern sampler. Creamy, traditional hummus topped with olive oil, paprika and pickles, a pile of fresh, bright tabouli made with bulgur, parsley, red cabbage, onion and a seasonal smattering of pomegranate. You also get acidic, smooth baba ganoush that’s a great complement to the earthy, rice-stuffed grape leaves.

And finally the chicken shawarma, prepared in a perfect, garlic-laden melange of cumin, turmeric and a dash of cinnamon to make it sweet, tangy, savory, spicy. This food is tastes better when you experience it with every sense, so ditch the  fork and eat it all with a fresh pita so warm and fluffy you would put a pillowcase on it if you didn’t need to use it to clean your plate.

Chef's Favorite Restaurant: “I could never choose.” - Manal Jarrar, Chef/Owner

Cured

1825 Pearl St, Boulder
(720) 389-8096

Cured is gonna become your new favorite grocery store — and it’s not just because they’ve got the smallest liquor license in the state.  Three years ago, Will and Coral Frischkorn realized their dream of opening a gourmet shop stocked with only the finest meats, cheeses and local products they could find, then added to-go sandwiches, rotating take-home dinner options, liquor and teamed up with Boxcar Coffee to sweeten the deal.

The open space boasts stocked shelves, a coffee island and a wine room tucked in the back amongst plentiful seating. A single deli case holds charcuterie and cheeses from carefully selected artisans that you’ll stare at for hours. Before giving up all hope, you’ll find the cheesemonger has already arranged a plate of meats, cheeses, olives or sliced fruit to perfectly suit your tastes. You can eat it there or pack it home or off to a picnic. How’s that for options?

If you’re craving carbs, they’ve got all those tasty meats and cheeses available between fresh baked bread, easily satiating your desire for crusty yet chewy bread, salty and fatty meats, perfectly aged cheeses and fresh preserves and sauces. You’ll soon abandon your footlong fetish. This place is always bustling with energy, and it’s the perfect joint to meet up with friends for the afternoon, or even just lounge solo and eat some fancy cheese with your bad self.

Chef's Favorite Restaurants: “Frasca, Oak at Fourteenth, The Kitchen, and Sushi Kasa.” - Will and Coral Frischkorn, Proprietors

Waffle Lab

Roaming around Fort Collins
(970) 222-5060

Belgians have been tricking us into thinking the Belgian waffle is the boss hog of the waffle kingdom. It’s time the truth comes out. If you want a waffle that will ruin you for all others, you’ll need to find a Liege. The best place to find a Liege is the Waffle Lab, a food truck that roams around Fort Collins that constantly experiments with what can top a waffle. You’ll unexpectedly run into them at a brewery or farmers’ market, and eating one of their creations is an edible epiphany revealing what happiness really is.

Liege waffles are made with a leavened dough and Belgian pearl sugar — better known as the crack rock of sweetness. The result is a masterpiece. As if a beignet and a brioche got it on and dressed their love child in only the finest candied waffle clothes, the chewy, crunchy texture and sweet, yeasty pastry will send your dopamine levels through the roof. For the rest of your natural life, you’ll stalk the mobile kitchen like your ex on Facebook.

The Waffle Lab has between 16 and 20 waffles to choose from, including, salmon, caprese, granola or bratwurst. Their most popular, chicken and waffles, is topped with crispy chicken tenders, smothered in a creamy, mama’s recipe herb and sausage gravy and a side of maple syrup for good measure. The sweetness and crunch of the waffle paired with savory gravy and juicy, fresh chicken is enough to make your toes curl — add the rich maple syrup and you’ll need a change of panties.They also do dessert for breakfast. The European is topped with nutella, fresh strawberries, bananas and a mountain of whipped cream. Don’t worry, it’s a waffle so it still counts as breakfast. 

Chef's Favorite Restaurants: “Coopersmith’s, Bangkok Thai, Big Al’s Burgers and Fish.” - Bill Almquist and Erik Rohman, Co-Owners

Bramble and Hare

1970 13th St, Boulder
(303) 444-9110

Eric Skokan has the best farm-to-table restaurant in all of Colorado. How can we be so sure, you ask? Well, he owns the farm, all 130 acres of it, and the Black Cat next door. Bramble and Hare is a simple restaurant you don’t need an occasion to check out. It can seat 20 people in the chairs and benches draped in sheep skin (from his own herd, of course), and an ancient piano that’s tuned and waiting.

From the open kitchen next to the bar comes simple dishes made with 60 to 100 percent of ingredients that were harvested from the farm or processed just that morning. Skokan also, unsurprisingly, raises all the beef, pork, lamb and foul used in the restaurant. When they’ve carved up enough chickens for a batch of wings, they’ll toss them in an orange chili sauce that teases the taste buds with a tangy, sweet and spicy dance. The chefs at Bramble don’t get in the way of the ingredients, and that makes a dish of salt-roasted carrots topped with a pistachio, garlic and herb sauce the best thing you’ll eat all week.

Their happy hour is also pretty incredible, because they use veggies from the farm in their exciting cocktail menu. Every week is a new Skokan Special, including anything from their house-made absinthe to a mushroom and brown ale reduction martini. You’ve never tasted food so fresh and simple.

Chef's Favorite Restaurants: “Arabesque, Cheese Importers, and Basta.” - Eric Skokan, Chef/Farmer/Owner