10 Colorado restaurants to try before you die
Dish: Beet taco, shrimp taco and Tacos al pastor
Transporting yourself to the beach shouldn’t be as mind numbing as grabbing a corona with your friends at an Irish pub. You deserve better. You deserve Pica’s Taqueria. The restaurant itself could easily have been pulled straight from a rural beach town in Mexico with the vibrant turquoise and orange walls, the skull and skeleton artwork and the classical guitar music — add in a slight breeze and fresh margarita and you will have found your beach. Owner Trent Davol introduced Colorado to Pica’s after coming up short in the search for a fresh and affordable baja style restaurant in Boulder. Davol and his business partner knew that if you cooked it right and priced it appropriately, they would come. And they did. The beet tacos will challenge the culinary paradigm of any carnivore with fried sweet beets, pickled onions, cilantro aioli and a piece of salty tortilla cheese wrapped within a homemade corn tortilla that makes going vegetarian almost seem cool. The grilled shrimp tacos ignite the taste buds using chile and lime marinated shrimp placed beneath a cool and crunchy creamy lime slaw that sadly only come two to a plate. And last but not least, the Tacos al Pastor exemplify traditional vendor fare with slow-cooked achiote marinated pork and roasted with onions and pineapple then served drizzled with a tomatillo avocado salsa. We joke about finding a place of solitude, but when the stresses of everyday existence become too much, life gives us sanctuaries like Pica’s Taqueria.
Dish: Paella, Fried Cauliflower
The menu is simple. The food is simple. The flavor profiles are not. Nestled among the coffee shops and pizza venues inhabiting University Hill rests a world-class eatery merging the exotic spices and bold flavors of Spain and North Africa with the warm and casual ambiance that’s perfect for a first date. Chef/owner Dakota Soifer modeled Café Aion after traditional Spanish Taverns where food presentation is honest and straightforward and its preparation a tribute to the craft and techniques developed over centuries. Café Aion formulates each dish using the finest ingredients sourced from local farmers, ranchers and fishmongers. No tapa plate tops $13 meaning you have the opportunity to experience the finer things in life. Like the Charcuterie platter, a delicious plate labeled as small yet anything but, containing slightly sweet Manchego cheese, thinly sliced dry-cured Jamon Serrano and succulent Moroccan fruits; or the Aion fried cauliflowers sprinkled with ground cumin and salt, and served with a saffron infused wine yogurt sauce and a squeeze of lemon. From here, moving to main entrees and Aion’s signature paella seems almost irreverent but is a must. The authentic paella platter to share boasts crisp, burnt edges delivering added crunch on top of an already diverse list of ingredients that leave little to the imagination. In an age when paying more for fine dining, Café Aion proves that bold flavors and creative dishes can be achieved without the high prices and pretense.
Dish: Arctic Char Pate, Cart-Driver Pizza
In a time when pizzerias are popping up faster than yogurt shops, Basta stands alone: both literally and figuratively. Start with the location. Finding the restaurant might cost you an arm and a leg but once you get there, it won’t matter how many limbs you’ve sacrificed, it’ll all be worth it. The brainchild behind Chef Kelly Whitaker, Basta is the culinary education you’ve always wanted to pursue but instead chose art history. The concept is simple: let the customer eat and then ask the questions. Each item on the menu remains humbly descriptive lending a fun and whimsical play on original Italian names. What sets Basta apart and will surrender your taste buds are the purees and cooking techniques that Chef Kelly and his staff have acquired through experience and pushing boundaries. Take the Artic Char Pate, a long strip of subtle fish skin marinated in oil, salt and pepper then crisped in the wood-fire oven and served with sweet black garlic and fish chicharone that makes you rethink the prosaic cracker and spread appetizer. And what pizzeria isn’t complete without a colorful array of wood-fire oven pizzas? The Cart-Driver pizza, also the name of Chef Kelly’s new restaurant in the RiNo district of Denver, is a powerful combination of housemade sausage, ribini, mozzarella and chili that achieves such deep flavors that customers have no choice but to ask how to return to reality. And let us tell you, it’s not easy getting back. In an age where originality implies complexity, Basta reminds us that keeping it simple is always in style.
Dish: Brussel Sprouts, Shrimp and Grits
If you’re the type of person that fights the internal battle over healthy and decadent, Restaurant 415 won’t be doing you any favors with its eclectic menu of healthy plates, indulgent items and often times both together in a tasty trip down the path of no return. Chef/co-owner Amelia Mouton’s background in Cajun and Swiss can be partially to blame for the addictive contemporary American food blending southern comfort with fresh Colorado farm-to-table. For example, the tapa-style Brussel sprouts are one of a kind, cooked in a butter, garlic, salt, pepper and orange juice sauce then covered in a melted sharp parmesan cheese. The shrimp and grits entrée consists of sautéed kale and chard with caramelized onions, that sit on a hefty serving of butter and parmesan polenta, and covered with plump shrimp and a roasted red pepper and tomato sauce. Each dish comes complete with it’s own quixotic feeling of adventure and dashes of comfort — something you’ll see not only in the food but also in the atmosphere. From signature drinks to modern art on the walls, Restaurant 415 takes the hippie overtones out of farm-to-table and makes it the perfect destination for a reasonably priced first date, complete with kiss and all.
Dish: Spicy Chicken Ramen
Let’s play word association...ramen. Are you thinking Cup of Noodles or Top Ramen? Well stop. You haven’t tried ramen until you’ve been to Uncle. Based around the concept of a traditional Chinese ramen shop, Uncle takes authentic Asian flavors and elevates them with modern ingredients and a sleek atmosphere. Their spicy chicken ramen is a perfect example of Uncle’s ability to balance traditional techniques with novel culinary innovation. Crispy shredded chicken confit rests atop a bed of ramen in a rich sesame tahini broth that noodle experts know rarely graces bowls of traditional ramen. It’s packed with warm, spicy, flavors, that are so addicting we’re pretty sure we need a 12-step program to wean ourselves off it. Working with a local noodle company to develop the perfect noodle to compliment each of their dishes, Uncle hones in on their craft with laser focus, and the result is food that’s been perfected. From the fried brussels sprouts with nuoc cham and herbs, to their perfect steamed pork buns, to their noodle dishes (both ramen soup and non-ramen soup), everything is both refreshingly uncomplicated and irresistible. If you’ve never tasted focus, you will at Uncle because the level of attention they allocate toward perfecting their dishes has a literal flavor: soupy deliciousness.
Dish: Nose-to-Tail Plate
There are pieces of cured meat hanging from the ceiling in the dining room at Old Major. It’s a sight to behold, but it’s also a perfect example of Old Major’s nose-to-tail philosophy. Whether it’s sustainably raised seafood or locally-raised heritage swine, Old Major has perfected the art of using every part of the animal, and they’re masters at bringing out unique flavors from traditional ingredients with their seasonally-inspired menu.Their infamous Nose to Tail plate is the posterchild of that concept, and it’s a must-try for those with an adventurous palate. Featuring pork from McDonald Farms in Brush, Colorado that’s butchered in-house, the dish boasts pig done six delicious ways; confit ribs, belly, ears, ham, sausage, pork pierogies; no part of the pig is left behind in this carnivore festivus that’s the perfect balance of smoky, savory, and sweet. And that cured meat dangling from the ceiling we were talking about earlier? They just installed an in-house charcuterie room that’s air drying cured meat from local pigs as we speak, and they hope to release first charcuterie plate in early January. And with a romantic, rustic atmosphere and a wine program to end all wine programs, it’s the perfect place to sample the flavors Colorado has to offer, as well as to reaffirm your own carnivore-ism with one of the f-ing delicious plates.
Dish: Taco plate: Carnitas, Hongos, Queso a la Plancha, Pork Belly with Candied Garlic, Lengua
Pinche Tacos is a virtual wonderland of face-meltingly good tacos. Centered around the concept of a modern twist on Mexican street food, their menu is inspired by authentic flavors and spices, but it’s designed for the gringo palate. Modern techniques and ingredients harmonize with traditional ones in each of their dishes, making for tacos that’ll blur the lines between casual taqueria and fancy, “You gotta wear a tie” type of joints. For example, let’s talk about their lengua tacos (beef tongue for those of you who failed Spanish.) Traditionally in Mexico, it just gets boiled, but Pinche boils, braises, and sears it on their plancha grill which makes it tender, crispy and so flavorful, you completely forget you’re eating tongue. We’ll never forgive you if you leave without trying their pork belly taco, which gets served up with candied garlic and braising jus, or their queso a la plancha taco, topped with griddled cotija cheese, guacamole, and tomatillo salsa. Oh, and did you need a margarita to wash that down with? Good thing Pinch is well-stocked with a tequila selection that would make your Mexican grandmother blush with pride.
Williams & Graham
Dish: Sweetbreads with Caper Salsa Verde
Remember Prohibition? Neither do we, but at Williams & Graham, you can eat and drink your way into pretending you do. Modeled after a Prohibition-era speakeasy, it plays off a time where the dinner and drinks ritual was secretive thing and you had to to have a password in order to get into some of the best places. The Prohibition experience starts in their lobby, which is made to look like a bookstore. You wait a while, and a large, imposing man literally pushes the bookcases aside (now trap doors, you realize) and leads you down a long hallway into a dimly lit room where classic craft cocktails and era-appropriate food is being consumed by a lively crowd. The food is inspired by the American cuisine from the 20’s and 30’s, but it’s updated to please the modern palate. Duck pot pies with perfect flaky crust, french onion soup with oxtail, po boys, waldorf salad wraps; it’s the type of stuff your grandparents craved. But more importantly, note chefs Max McKissock and Blake Edwards, it’s food you want to eat when you’re drunk. They are a speakeasy with a world-class cocktail menu, after all. Speaking of being drunk, our favorite thing on the menu is something that you might need a little liquid courage to try: the sweetbreads, which are hardly as innocent as they sound. Sweetbreads are cow thymus, and Williams & Graham does them fried up and served with caper salsa verde, frisee, and lemon. They’re sweet, delicate, and surprisingly light, a testament to the mastery of the kitchen team at W & G. It’s definitely refreshingly unexpected; something to challenge your palate with then drunkenly brag to your friends about over one of their infamous cocktails.
Dish: Huitlacoche Agnolotti
The Populist is all about uncommon food for commoners; it’s fine dining at an approachable price. In an intimate atmosphere where guests dine at communal tables surrounded by warm candlelight, chef Jonathan Powers presents innovative, thoughtful New American dishes that are designed to be shared by the table, giving everyone a chance to taste everything. A tour of their menu reveals reinvented classics (they make a killer take on bacon and eggs), as well as more daring dishes that push you to try things you never have before. On one plate, sharp, nutty cheese is enhanced by marinated celery (our first bite of it made us wonder why we haven’t been eating celery with everything), and on another, the decadence of fois gras is balanced by the earthiness of the humble beet. When you go, get the huitlacoche agnolotti; it’s some of the most wonderfully bizarre cookery you’ll experience. Also known as ‘corn truffle,’ huitlacoche is a fungus with a rich, mushroomy flavor that’s a delicacy in Mexico, but an unfortunate rare-find in the States.The agnolotti pasta dough is made from 12% charred polenta, which gets folded into the flour, giving it a unexpected toasty flavor. The filling, huitlacoche, thyme and ricotta, is delicate and creamy. A corn stalk beurre blanc is complemented by is roasted corn, fried carrots, and grana padano, creating a balance of texture and flavor that still has us craving it weeks later.
Dish: Masala Dosa
You could get a sugar daddy to take you around the world. Or, you could go to Linger and savor dishes from every continent without dealing with the whole “You’re 80 and I’m 22” thing. Perfecting the art of blending traditional flavors with modern techniques and ingredients, Linger offers up vibrant small plates and street food that embrace a cultural and gustatory diversity that’s rarely represented on menus elsewhere.Their menu is broken up into geographical categories, each of which boasts the best cuisine from that corner of the world. Start in America with a sesame BBQ taco, head to Africa for their take on chicken bastilla with almonds, apricots, and harissa, and end in Europe with the most delicious seared diver scallops with sage pesto and butternut squash flan. But the Masala Dosa from the Southeast Asia section is easily our favorite dish from Linger. Kind of like an Indian crepe, it’s stuffed with toasty roasted potatoes, bright English peas and black mustard seeds which come together inside a crispy lentil crepe for a spicy, exotic flavor and surprisingly satisfying crunchy texture. Tamarind-date and coconut-mint chutney are served with it for dipping, taking the already colorful flavors to a level that makes us wonder why we can’t just live at Linger at eat Masala Dosas forever. Even if you’re not hungry, you should go to Linger for the atmosphere. The place is hug modern, full of retro art, and overlooks the Denver cityscape. They’ve even got a food truck on their roof. And did we mention it used to be a mortuary? Talk about romantic.