My Least Favorite Question

Back on that "sea food" diet

Back on that “sea food” diet

When people meet me for the first time and find out what I do, they generally ask one of two questions: “What’s your favorite country?” or “What’s your favorite restaurant?”

Travel is a topic I could talk about all day (and in case you’re curious, the answer currently is 1. Thailand 2. Israel 3. Turkey). For some reason, though, “What’s your favorite restaurant?” really irks me. Colorado has thousands of restaurants. Chicago has more than 7,000. With numbers like that, I don’t know how anyone could possibly have just one favorite. Food depends on mood. Sometimes you crave Mexican. Sometimes you want something quick and easy. Sometimes, you want trendy, other times you want to run out for a bite in sweat pants.

If you ask me that and I give you a blank stare, it’s not because I’m not a real foodie. Trust me, I eat out plenty. And it’s not because I haven’t thought about it – in fact, I’ve put way too much thought into it. I’m happy to give you some specific direction if you give me some criteria for what you’re looking for (ie. a casual restaurant, a date-night spot, a hidden gem, an Asian hole in the wall). But if you’d just generally like to know some of my reliable staples, here’s a non-exhaustive list I will add to as I find places deemed worthy:

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Denver

Farm to Table Goodness – Mercantile

Voted Best Restaurant in Denver 2015, Mercantile is always reliable (and always busy so make a reservation). It’s a good example of Denver’s farm-to-table small plate movement in the revamped Union Station, which is one of the hottest areas in town. It’s right next to Terminal Bar, which is great for pre-or-post drinks and be sure to save room for Little Man ice cream or boozy shakes from Milkbox (also in Union Station), which is one of my biggest restaurant scene hacks because the line at actual Little Man is ridiculous.

Fusion Confusion – TAG

Troy Guard is hands-down my favorite chef in Denver. He likes putting pop rocks in everything from drinks at Chingones (but they got rid of my favorite thing on the menu, the kale fundido, so I haven’t been back in awhile…) to hamachi at TAG, which is yes, sushi with pop rocks. It sounds strange, but it’s sensory experience he calls “continental social food.” The menu also includes approachable small plates like kobe sliders and duck. Now I know what you’re thinking, I don’t trust many places that are billed as “international” or cross-genre either, but the man knows what he’s doing. It’s located in Larimer Square, which is the cutesty historic district that’s great for date night (think strings of lights everywhere).

Famous Chefs – Acorn

The Source burst on the scene a couple years ago as a hip warehouse conversion full of graffiti and grit turned local market that’s representative of the greater food hall trend around the country (Avanti is Denver’s other big one, which has a great rooftop). Anyhoo, one of the Source’s two flagship restaurants, Acorn, is damn delicious. Also small plates (sensing a trend yet?), I have dreams about those creamy shrimp and grits and rich meatballs. They are owned by the folks behind Oak on Fourteenth, one of the best restaurants in Boulder, and recently opened fast-casual Highlands concept Brider, which awesomely delivers all the way to Cap Hill.

Oldie But Goodie – Cuba Cuba

Cuba Cuba’s been around for awhile yet still remains a bit under the radar and yet never goes out of style. For the best pitcher drinks in Denver, let me introduce you to the deliciousness that is jalapeno mango sangria. Wash down the chimichurri skirt steak with a side of fried plantains, and it’s smiles all around. Set in a pair of conjoined baby blue houses, the ambiance is as adorable as the food is craveable.

Trendy Brunch – Sassafras

Your down home brunch, Sassafras is a whole bunch of calories, but your sweet Southern grandma wouldn’t have it any other way. Literally everything on the menu sounds good from a whole section of grits to fancy benedicts with Cajun leanings. Pair it with an adult milkshakes, and you’re in for a solid start to the day. Be prepared to wait upwards of an hour, but it’s worth it.

Under the Radar Brunch – Providence Tavern

Providence Tavern happily surprised me as it looks like any old neighborhood bar from the outside. With an address at 5280 though, they were destined for Denver greatness. Elevated pub fare with almost never a wait, truffle grilled cheese is calling your name.

Ethnic Brunch – Lena (Peruvian)

Lena is one of those restaurants that should be busier than it is, but I’ll never complain about no wait at brunch. They opened my eyes to a number of new dishes, the standout being rabanada, a Brazilian-style French toast crusted in plantain chips and cocoa powder you can wash down with bottomless guava, blood orange and passion fruit mimosas. Duh.

Authentic Japanese – Domo

Domo makes me happy simply for how random it is. Hidden off the side of the highway, their Japanese gardens and karate studio/museum are unreal and crazy cool. Some people go for ramen, but I prefer their Wankosushi menu, which allows you to choose from either three or five sashimi dishes prepared in various ways plus seven side dishes (similar to the banchan that come with Korean BBQ).

Fast Casual – Olive & Finch

Fast casual restaurants are super trendy in the Mile High right now, but Mary Nguyen was the OG. Her first spot in Uptown did so well she opened a second, even bigger location in Cherry Creek. Must-eat menu items include the D.F. for breakfast (with arguably the best chimichurri sauces in Denver) and the Bun Me for lunch. You really couldn’t go wrong with one of the flatbreads either though… basically it’s a quick bite you won’t feel guilty about.

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Other Denver Notables:

$2 Build Your Own Bloodies / Reliable Brunch – The Hornet

Fancy Sushi – Sushi Den

Fancy Thai – Alloy Thai

Legit, Non-Heavy Italian – Bar Dough

Street Thai – Thai Monkey Club

Fancy Chinese – Hop Alley

Dim Sum – Star Kitchen

Fancy Vietnamese – Cho 77

Street Vietnamese – Literally any pho spot on Federal

Ramen – Bones

Greek – Café Byblos

Crazy Fusion – Asian Cajun

Street Tacos – Pinche

Korean BBQ – Seoul Korean B.B.Q. & Sushi (Aurora)

Food Trucks – Jozi’s Kitchen (South African) and Pierogi Factory

Sandwiches – Heidi’s Deli

Oysters – Cart & Driver

Quick Lunch – Biju’s Little Curry Shop

Thin Crust Pizza – Racca’s

Best Deal – Sunday/Monday Hibachi at Mount Fuji

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Boulder

Fun Sushi – Sushi Zanmai

A staple since college, Sushi Zanmai does not only have the freshest fish in Boulder, but it’s also the most lively as the sushi chefs spontaneously bust out guitars under a disco ball. If you have a group of six or more, you can sit on the tatami mats on the floor, which make for excellent leverage to sake bomb the night away.

Authentic Italian – Il Pastaio

A strip mall gem, you won’t find any better Italian than the FOB stuff here. Owned by a husband and wife duo, come for the pasta dinner (lunch is buffet-style), and order any shape noodle with the plain tomato-basil sauce. When done correctly, sometimes basic really is better.

Hole-in-the-Wall Asian – A Cup of Peace

A totally random tea shop with a few Korean specialties, this is one of my favorite hidden gem lunch spots. The organic bi-bim-bop is served over purplish seven grain rice, which truly allows you to embrace your inner Boulderite.

Suds and Grub – Fate Brewing Company

Breweries in Denver don’t usually have kitchens, but Fate takes food just as seriously as beer. An equally good spot for either salads or BBQ, it’s cool to satiate as you whet your appetite on their awesome patio.

Splurge Meal – Flagstaff House

Craft Cocktails – Bitter Bar

A Fun Night Out – Bohemian Biergarten

Reliable Staple – The Med

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Chicago

Trendsetter – Tanta

One of the coolest chef’s tables in town, Peruvian Tanta makes you wonder how Chicago gets such fresh fish being that it’s a landlocked state. Their ceviche is to die for, but the Pisco Sours aren’t anything to sneeze at either.

Authentic Korean BBQ – Cho Sun Oak

If you’ve never had Korean barbecue, take someone who knows what they’re doing because Cho Sun Oak doesn’t like to waste their time with newbies. Always packed with locals, they turn tables fast and frantically. This is some of the best bulgogi you’ll find anywhere and they do all the cooking for you, so you won’t have to stress about overcooking the meat.

Good for Groups – Gyu-Kaku

Great for groups, Gyu-Kaku is an interesting hibachi-Korean BBQ hybrid with the bonus of s’mores for dessert. You’ll delight in ordering packages like the “Meat Lover’s Special” and cooking up your own dishes on a tabletop flame. The green tea soju is especially thirst-quenching.

Taco Me Loco – Takito Kitchen

Wicker Park has a lot of taco competition, but Takito Kitchen does not disappoint. A bit more upscale than some of the grab-and-go spots like Big Star and Antique Taco, Takito differentiates itself on incredible service. Their spicy salsa sampler is always a crowd pleaser.

Pitas – Taste of Lebanon

Mexican Sandys – Cemitas Puebla

Fancy Mex – Topolobampo

Bucket List Dining – Next Restaurant

Best Brunch – Bongo Room

Chicago Staple – Portillo’s

Duck Dinner – Sun Wah BBQ

Top Chef Restaurant – Duck Duck Goat

Lox and Bagels – NYC Bagel Deli

Pho – Tank Noodle

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Franchises (in Multiple States)

All Day Happy Hour – Postino

Healthy and Delicious – True Foods Kitchen

Legit Deep Dish – Paxti’s

Street Tacos – Torchy’s

I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot here, but feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.

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