When other publications pick restaurants in the “Denver-Boulder Corridor”—you know, that place you drive through on your way from downtown to the mountains—you’re lucky to get a few chains at the Flatiron Crossing mall. Well, we here at YS pride ourselves in knowing our scene, and our staff has come up with 25 mouth-watering masterpieces from local culinary hot spots, all well inside the yellow.
Cupcakes from Tee & Cakes, a Boulder-based cupcake bakery, wedding and custom cake shop, coffee and espresso stop and retail apparel store. Photo by Ed Corcoran.
1. Molecular Tasting Menu
O’s Restaurant, Westminster
Recently, we’ve written at length about the ingenuity of O’s chef Ian Kleinman, particularly in the context of his molecular tasting menu. What more can we say? Plenty. Our palates have been challenged time and time again with the likes of macadamia nut air, candied fennel, Mexican fried ice cream, crazy wontons, floating truffles and homemade bubble gum. It’s not just the uniqueness of flavors that impresses—it’s the combination of traditional preparations like roasted pork tenderloin with unabashedly bold accents such as yuzu gelée. Each weekend, Kleinman offers his molecular tasting menu, mixing new flavors with a sci-fi twist that dazzle each time. While some might see the cuisine as brazen, we see it as trailblazing, bringing what Ferran Adrià and Wylie Dufresne have introduced back East to a Denver audience. Perhaps we were also caught up in the showmanship; nothing creates dinnertime entertainment quite as well as liquid nitrogen used tableside to create a palate-cleaning sorbet with frozen olive oil garnish. While it probably will never be the future of food, we give full credit to Kleinman for being one of the most creative chefs in the state.
2. Gruyère Cheese Soufflé
The Empire Restaurant, Louisville
While most of us cook-at-home types struggle to keep our soufflés from caving in, Chef Jim Cohen is busy thinking of ways to make the fluffy pastries shine above everything else on his menu. What more do you expect from a James Beard best chef nominee? We admit we are partial to Gruyère, which may be why we’re suckers for this delectable starter. Or it’s simply because it’s a perfectly fluffy and savory appetizer with just the right amount of the slightly sweet and salty Gruyère to make the taste explode. Either way you look at it, it’s pretty damn good.
3. Organic Butternut Squash Cannelloni
When you praise a restaurant’s vegetarian dishes two years running, people might wonder about the meat offerings. We could praise any number of Colterra’s meat-inspired entrées, but it’s the vegetarian dishes that put them on top. In this case, house-made cannelloni pasta rolled around a butternut squash mix composed of cream, slow-cooked mushrooms, parmesan and salt. It’s a delectably thick, creamy and tasty filling. However, carnivores are not forgotten: they do offer a braised lamb cannelloni a few times a week on special.
4. Tea-Brined Pork Tenderloion
Dushanbe Tea House, Boulder
When it comes to tea, the Dushanbe Tea House shines. So we expect nothing less than greatness when we order the Tea-Brined Pork. This Lapsang Souchong-brined tenderloin is as tender as they come and juicier than a Wagyu steak. Paired simply with roughly chopped new potatoes and a smattering of bias-cut carrots, the highlight is obviously the pork—marked by a smoky-rich sauce courtesy of the marinade’s high-quality black tea. Pair this with a cold bottle of vodka or a slightly sweet cocktail and the meal is made.
5. Atomic Peppers
Waterloo Icehouse, Louisville
Everything is hotter in Texas! But, you will never understand how Texans like hot until you try this tasty appetizer. Unlike the typical frozen then deep fried poppers that dot so many menus, these tasty finger foods are actually homemade. Food just seems to taste better without freezer burn. Funny how that works, isn’t it? Not only that, but Waterloo fire-roasts the jalapenos before stuffing them with the requisite cream cheese. Something about the smooth spread with a hint of tang that perfectly compliments the pepper’s zing. Then, just when your tastebuds don’t think they can stand any more, they wrap it all up in bacon which, as you know, makes everything tastier (see No. 24). The end result is an explosion of flavor themes with a healthy side of fire.
8. Frico Caldo
Sometimes, simplicity is best. This five star restaurant has made a name for itself with its fancy fare, but for us, nothing beats this basic appetizer. A dish can be overworked, but here Yukon gold potatoes are smashed and fried with butter, onions, nutmeg and a little grated Piave cheese, then served with speck (cured ham) and cilantro vinegar. Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson shows the great chefs don’t just know how to impress with their skills, but when to show restraint.
7. Almond Joy
Sure, the colorfully packaged candy you grab off the grocery store shelves is a delight, but we like Magnolia’s spin on the classic Almond Joy bar. They start with a layer of homemade marshmallow, then serve it atop crunchy almond nougat. For a final dress, they enrobed the whole thing in dark chocolate. Of course, the presentation is a bit more opulant than the typical convenience store candy bar: the dish is accented by a scoop of ice cream nestled in a tuile. It’s something of the dessert-lover’s dream come true, combining the comfortable satisfacion of a low-brow sugar rush, with the indulgence of a high-brow, five-star restaurant. Sometimes you feel like a munch. Sometimes you don’t. Why not both?
8. Aburi Gyu
Sushi Jianken, Longmont
You don’t usually visit a sushi house for steak, but this small plate makes for one of the best steak deals in the region. Lavishly marinated, black pepper-rubbed medallions are served with nothing more than a tasty ponzu sauce and sliced jalapenos. The beef is so succulent, you’d be remise not to order it anything but a perfect rare (let the quality of the meat shine people; there’s no need to have the Jianken chefs drain the flavor by overcooking). Every bite will melt in your mouth like a like warm caramel.
9. Cedar Plank Citrus Salmon
Woodlands Grill, Westminster
Don’t be fooled by Woodlands’ location smack dab in the middle of Forest City’s newest pre-mapped development, a type of spot that often leads to a bevy of monotonous chain restaurants. For proof, simply taste the Citrus Plank Salmon—a flaky bouquet of salmon topped with crisp breadcrumbs and served with chewy-tender barley. The dish is well thought out, and not overwrought with sauces or garnishes. It’s an indication that there is serious talent at work in the kitchen.
10. Frank’s Famous Italian
Your Butcher, Frank, Longmont
There’s a reason this no-frills deli turns into an absolutely packed lunch counter around 11 or so each morning: their Butcher’s sandwiches pack a serious punch. The USDA meat sliced to order served on a perfect roll makes every sandwich on the menu a tasty belly filler, but the Italian is the reason to make the trip. Hot ham, cotto salami and pepperoni are piled high and topped with thinly sliced provolone and Italian dressing plus a choice of veggies. It’s the type of sandwich that makes us all wish we had a little Italian in us.
11. Chocolate S’Mores
Melting Pot, Louisville
In a world of grandiose desserts, the Chocolate S’Mores is perhaps the most classic example of overindulgence. That’s good, by the way. If melting gooey marshmallow with milk chocolate isn’t enough, this dessert made tableside is flambéed then garnished with graham crackers. It’s like sitting around an open campfire except you get to dip everything from strawberries to shortbreads to an actual slice of cheesecake into a swirl of hot chocolate sauce and marshmallow cream.
The Mediterranean Restaurant, Boulder
The Med is known for a lot of things in Boulder: great date spot, the go-to restaurant for college coeds while the ’rents are in town, and consistently being one of the best restaurants 15 years running. The diverse Mediterranean-inspired menu excels in every facet, especially its wood-fired, personal-sized pizza selections. The Speziata is the spiciest version, using sautéed jalapenos and chili flakes to turn it up a notch. Mixed with olive oil, roasted garlic, grilled chicken, avocado and a perfectly flakey crust, each bite—feel free to nibble on the house-made bread offerings in between—is an absolute delight.
13. The Biscuit
Colorado is not usually considered a haven for Southern food, but there’s an exception that would make even Paula Deen turn her head: the fluffy, buttery, mountain of a biscuit at Lucile’s. It’s almost an entity unto itself, begging for a smattering of cold butter and homemade jam. Tender enough to melt in your mouth with just enough crispiness on the edges to induce a gentle crumble, there isn’t any competition in a 100-mile radius.
14. Crab Cobb Salad
Terroir New American Cuisine, Longmont
We’ve always loved a Cobb salad because it mixes so many great ingredients (bacon, eggs, cheeses) into a salad that would otherwise be a healthy item. Hey, we love to indulge during every single course. Terroir, one of Longmont’s newest culinary hotspots, has added another favorite ingredient to the mix—crab. Fresh lump crab tops this beauty of a salad served with a perfectly sweet and tangy honey mustard vinaigrette. It can easily serve as a standalone dish so if you’re planning on moving on to dinner, we suggest sharing.
15. Mixed Game Sausage Trio
Flatz Restaurant, Broomfield
It’s a new season for Flatz, and by popular demand, Colorado cuisine returns to guide the menu. Center to its creative output, Flatz has introduced a trio of sausages that showcase Colorado game, elk being perhaps the most deserving of accolades. Sure, they’re paired with expected sauces, but these homemade sausages need nothing besides a healthy appetite and eager palate. Sometimes spicy, sometimes hinting at sweet, they are the perfect example of Colorado’s homegrown culinary potential.
16. Peanut Butter and Marshmallow Fluff Spring Roll
You may want to carry a fake ID when you discover this fun take on the spring roll is on the kids’ menu. Why should the little ones have all the fun? The premise is simple: peanut butter and marshmallow fluff tastes really freakin’ good together. Served Asian-style as a spring roll with a three-berry dipping sauce, this dish makes for a great snack or dessert. Just tell the server the kid’s in the restroom.
17. Veggie Calzone
Original Pizza, Broomfield
So many local pizzerias serve calzones, only to note ricotta cheese is extra. It’s enough to make a Brooklyn native cringe. Luckily, Ralf’s New York attitude comes gratis in his small pizzeria off Highway 287. He serves his Calzones the East Coast way, which is to say, huge. The balance of mozzarella and ricotta inside the crisp crust is just right. Add some mushrooms, onions, black olives, tomatoes and green peppers and you might just become a vegetarian.
18. Texas Toothpicks
Oskar Blues, Lyons
If you think an oinion ring’s an onion ring, you haven’t had Oskar Blues: thin cut onions and jalapenos are deep fried to a perfect, salty crisp before being spiced with a dash of cayenne and black pepper. They are best washed down with a house-made brew. We’re crossing our fingers that this item makes it on the menu of the new Oskar Blues that opens in Longmont this spring.
19. Hautestess Cupcake
Tee & Cakes, Boulder
Who hasn’t snuck one of those brand-name cupcake delights into a desk drawer for a midday snack? Thought so. So stop settling for a processed, packaged snack that’s been sitting on the shelves for months. Tee & Cakes, a boutique cupcake and coffee café, has developed its own version. Rich, moist chocolate cake is stuffed with a perfectly creamy filling—there’s even a spot-on take of Hostesses’ trademark frosting swirl. Cupcake chef extraordinaire Kim Hoos makes ’em fresh every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday so you are running out of excuses as to why you still are stuffing down the name-brand version.
20. Eggs Benedict
Huckleberry Café, Louisville
It’s almost as ubiquitous as pizza; Eggs Benedict dots breakfast menus from IHOP to the Egg and I. But Huckleberry does it right—freshly poached, tender eggs sit atop a crisp and never dry round of ham and a chewy English muffin. Top all that off with a creamy homemade Hollandaise that we can’t get enough of, and you have a dish to order each visit. In fact, we’d order two.
21. Gorgonzola Stuffed Medjool Dates
It’s tough to keep up with Sugarbeet’s ever changing menu (it’s one of the cadre of seasonal menus in Longmont). Each menu change provides a new favorite—on the winter version, we’ve fallen for this superb appetizer. Plump and moist Medjool dates are stuffed with our favorite cheese, zesty gorgonzola. Then these tasty bites are wrapped in Prosciutto di Parma. For those who’ve never tried the Parma version of Prosciutto, you’re missing out on a true delicacy of the region it’s named after. Parmigiano Reggiano is often added to a pig’s diet in Parma, resulting in a nutty delight that lasts on the tongue. Wrap that around a gorgonzola-stuffed date, and you’re in business.
22. Pumpkin Bar
Café Isabel, Westminster
Family-run bakeries seem to be a thing of the past, but Café Isabel continues to reintroduce Westminster to the world of from-scratch, freshly-baked sweets. Everything on its baked goodie menu is worth praising, but the pumpkin bars are uniquely delightful. Rich and crumbly, the bars smell of freshly baked pumpkin pie and give our taste buds a revealing tangle of cinnamon and spice.
Few restaurants along the Front Range serve better seafood than Tortugas. So everything on the menu tastes as fresh as if you lived on the coast. The Cioppino, an Italian-style fish stew served aside a bowl of spaghetti, is our favorite. Huge shrimps, fresh mussels, succulent scallops and the catch of the day are served in a light red broth, perfect for dipping the grilled bread its served with.
24. Roasted Beet Salad
Zamparelli’s Italian Bistro, Lafayette
Poor, misunderstood beet. It ain’t get no respect. People can get rather exercised in their opinions about anchovies, pro or con, but the beet? This poor tuber gets forgotten. So you know when people are raving about the beet salad, it’s got to be something special. Not one, but three different types (yellow and orange in addition to the traditional deep purple) encircle a central mound of frisee, shaved fennel, and green beans with a citrus vinaigrette. Just toss in some orange wedges, candied walnuts and rich goat cheese, and our respect turns into reverence.
25. Basil Chicken
Spice China, Lousivlle
You can’t visit Spice China without dabbling into its Shanghai menu, a collection of dishes authentic to China. The Basil Chicken is the standout. Served in a sizzling clay hot pot, it features bite-sized pieces of chicken stir-fried in a mildly spicy basil sauce. Just watch out for the bones—the bites are served right on them, the authentic, Shanghai way.