Denver Restaurant Week is upon us, that annual feeding frenzy where Mile High diners overrun hundreds of local restaurants in search of screaming deals on truncated menus.
The merriment runs Saturday through March 8. This year there are 354 participating restaurants as of press time, making it the largest such event in the nation.
Somewhat lost amid all the high-end steakhouses and upscale Contemporary American places are the flood of global dining opportunities we now have in Denver.
It has been a sea change in the past 20 years, not just because of the wave of immigrants who have embraced, and been embraced by, our city, but because of the wealth of fresh ingredients available. Thank you, UPS and FedEx, and thanks also to the cooks and food-show hosts that have helped show us the way.
This is a guide to some of the fine international dining available in Denver. We have decided to forgo Italian, French, Chinese and most Mexican restaurants, since those cuisines have been in the United States so long they're essentially mainstream. We look at restaurants that might still be below your radar screen.
Some of these rooms don't participate in Denver Restaurant Week, in part because their menus are so inexpensive that it's hard for dinner for two to add up to $52.80, the requisite tab for the event's formula and advertising hook. (Get it?)
But they are all worth visiting, especially if you have a yen to let your palate do some globe-hopping around the culinary Rand-McNally.
Ethiopian food is delightful, a vast mix of vegetarian dishes, finely chopped stewed meats, and a hefty array of spices and curries. Denver is blessed with a number of Ethiopian restaurants, all serving platters of food such as tibs, a type of roasted meat with many variations, served on injera bread. There are no utensils — you pull the spongy bread apart and scoop up the goodies with it. Kids will love the concept.
Arada*, 750 Santa Fe Drive, 303-329-3344. aradarestaurant.com
Queen of Sheba, 7225 E. Colfax Ave., 303-399-9442.
The fall of Saigon in 1975 resulted in the diaspora of 1.3 million people from Indochina, with about 830,000 of them — mainly Vietnamese — eventually settling in the United States. The food of this country shows the influence of its one-time status as a French colony, notably in the sandwich known as banh mi. It's a cultural mash-up, and one of the most popular versions is roast pork, pâté and pickled carrots/jalapeño/cilantro served on a baguette. And there's the heady national soup known as pho, with scores of varieties.
Vietnam Grill, 1015 S. Federal Blvd., 303-936-5610
The tiny Central American country of El Salvador has at least one excellent ambassador in Denver: El Tamarindo, a mom-and-pop place that hosts a ton of ex-pats plus a growing audience of longtime Mile High residents. A fine intro to the cuisine is the Para 2, a plate of five pairs of small dishes. There are toothsome pupusas, the Salvadoran dish of a corn tortilla packed with cheese and roasted squash, beef empanadas, chicken tamales, beef enchiladas and a dollop of yuca con chicharron. Yum.
El Tamarindo, 7700 E. Colfax Ave. 303-3205490.
Granted, Japanese food has become so common in the U.S. that it all but qualifies as mainstream. Still, two local sushi spots have such loyal followings among the raw fish-and-rice set that it seems a shame to leave them out of this round-up. Sushi Den and Sushi Sasa have knocked it out of the park for years, with staples such as miso soup, fatty tuna belly rolls, and the teriyaki-slicked eel standout known as unagi.
Sushi Den, 1487 S. Pearl St., 303-777-0826. sushiden.net
Sushi Sasa, 2401 15th St., 303-433-7272. sushisasadenver.net
Granted, Denver is awash in green-chile places. Locals view them as a sort of birthright, even though, to me, this town sometimes feels more like the westernmost outpost of the Midwest instead of the northernmost city of the Southwest. But Paxia restaurant in the Highlands is a big dose of the food of Central Mexico, including the city of Puebla, considered by many that nation's culinary capital.
Try the chiles en nogada, a traditional dish dating from the 19th century. It features a poblano pepper stuffed with pine nuts, almonds, pecans, raisins and seasoned beef, covered in walnut-cream sauce and topped with pomegranate seeds.
Paxia*, 4001 Tejon St., 720-583-6860. paxiadenver.com
We are talking specifically about tapas, the array of small plates that are a national obsession in Spain. This style of shared dining off passed plates, packed with bold flavors, has influenced American dining in the past decade.
The 9th Door in LoDo offers a fine introduction. Fire-roasted piquillo peppers, a broad-shouldered crimson fruit, are packed with creamy goat cheese and rosemary. Chopped pears, arugula and Idiazábal sheep's-milk cheese rolled in Serrano ham. Savory, sweet and salty vie and blend at the same time.
The 9th Door*, 1808 Blake St., 303-292-2229. the9thdoor.com
Korean cuisine is rich in flavor. Barbecued meat is popular, both beef and pork. The pungent, pickled vegetable dish known as kim chee — there are hundreds of varieties, and most families have their own recipe — are serious flavor drivers. If you want an instant intro into what Korean food is all about, order a bowl of bibimbap. It's a mélange of warm rice topped with sautéed veggies, gochujang (a chile paste, sliced meat and a fried or raw egg. Stir it all together — heaven.
Han Kang, 1910 S. Havana St., Aurora. 303-873-6800. hankangkoreancuisine.com
You don't find much Malay cooking in Denver, outside the kitchens of immigrants from that large island nation in the South China Sea. But Makan Malaysian Cafe is worth a visit — more than one, actually. (Makan means "eat" in the Malay language.)
Typical dishes include sambal eggplant or kangkung (water spinach) in a chile and shrimp paste. Or dig into of roti prata, toasted flaky Malaysian flat bread served with a side of curry chicken sauce.
Mary Nguyen's Street Kitchen Asian Bistro also carries some Malaysian dishes on its pan-Asian menu.
Makan Malaysian Cafe,1859 S. Pearl St. 720-524-8093. makenmyfood.com
Street Kitchen Asian Bistro*, 10111 Inverness St., Englewood. 303-799-9800. streetkitchenasianbistro.com
Most of our Indian restaurants reflect the regional fare of the north, including the city of Mumbai. But there's fine fare in the coastal south, too. Jai Ho does a great job of navigating all that.
Try the godavari gongura mutton, a tangy goat curry, tender chunks from the haunches and shins that can be gnawed right off the small bones. Diners also find an extensive array of vegetarian options, including karaikudi ennai kathir, a creamy curry dish studded with long-simmered baby eggplant. Bollywood movies on the TVs, too.
Jai Ho, 3055 S. Parker Road, Aurora. 303-751-5151. jaiho.us.com
There was a lot of media drum-beating in 2012 about how Scandinavian food would inundate the U.S. like a horde of Vikings descending on eighth-century Britain. It didn't quite turn out that way, but Denver residents still got a big taste of Norway, Sweden and their sister countries at restaurants such as Trillium and Charcoal.
The cuisine is big on smoked meats and fresh fish, including salmon cured in aquavit, the regional firewater. Fresh berries make for common pairings, and the cuisine speaks to foraging and doing creative cooking in a harsh environment.
Trillium*, 2134 Larimer St. 303-379-9759. trilliumdenver.com
Charcoal*, 43 W. Ninth Ave. 303-454-0000. charcoaldining.com
Thai food is one of the glories of Southeast Asian cuisine, with its emphasis on fresh ingredients and bright, clean flavors studded with basil, mint and chiles. Fowl and fish hold honored places in this food, often atop fragrant rice, and both the red and green curries are superb variations of the sauce.
Denver might boast more Thai places than any other type of ethnic restaurant, at least among the cuisines that have emerged in this country only in the past 30 years.
Local favorites include Wild Ginger and Tommy's Thai.
Wild Ginger, 399 W. Littleton Blvd., Littleton. 303-794-1115. wildginger.info
Tommy's Thai, 3410 E. Colfax Ave., 303-377-4244. tommysthaidenver.com
Lodged on the Mediterranean Sea in northwest Africa, Morocco's culinary tradition is rooted deeply in hospitality — hence the abundance of large plates meant for sharing. Lamb and chicken tend to be the driving proteins on the menu, supplemented by grains such as bulgur and rich dips such as hummus.
Palais Casablanca is a good spot to sample this cooking. Try a lamb tagine with apricots and saffron. A winter night is a fine time to dive into a bowl of lentil harira, an aromatic vegetarian dish.
Palais Casablanca, 2488 S. University Blvd., 303-871-0494. palaiscasablanca.com
Mataam Fez*, 4609 E. Colfax Ave., 303-399-9282. mataamfez-denver.com
The food of Syria is a kissing cousin to that of Morocco, and the Damascus Grill in Littleton is a good place to try it. Their hummus is creamy and artfully plated with a slick of olive oil and dusting of sumac. Other small plates include pickles, including vinegary turnip slivers. Do try the baba ghanouj, an excellent iteration of the classic roast eggplant purée, bolstered with ground walnuts and pomegranate sauce. Lamb and chicken carry most of the protein load in the restaurant's entrees, although there are a fair share of beef dishes.
Damascus Grill, 1399 W. Littleton Blvd., Littleton. 303-797-6666. damascusgrill.com
There has been a dearth of Afghan restaurants in Denver for several years, but a new place recently opened in Aurora: Ariana Kabob Cafe. It's a family-run place. Yes, there are kabobs, but plenty more of this unique cooking that is a reflection of a crossroads country on the old Silk Road. Make a point of ordering the spicy chutney.
Ariana Kabob Cafe, 2767 S. Parker Road, Aurora. 303-745-6262.
Cuban cooking is about as mainstream as it gets in South Florida, but in Denver it's still something of a newish animal, even if Cuba Cuba has been a Golden Triangle staple for more than a decade now. Run by Kristy Socarras Bigelow, whose parents were Cuban ex-pats, the menu is packed with staples such as ropa viejo, vaca frita, a classic Cuban sandwich and the marvelous, milk-soaked dessert cake known as tres leches.
Cuba Cuba*, 1173 Delaware St., 303-605-2822. cubacubacafe.com
*Participating in Restaurant Week
William Porter: 303-954-1877, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/williamporterdp
About denver restaurant week
A two-week celebration of the Mile High City's culinary scene, Denver Restaurant Week runs from Saturday through March 8. Now in its ninth year, it is sponsored by Visit Denver, the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
354 restaurants had signed on as participants at press time, making this the largest such event in the nation.
Here's the deal: The restaurants offer a multi-course dinner — usually from a special menu — for the fixed price of $52.80 for two, or $26.40 for one (not including tax or gratuity).
Reservations can be made directly with the restaurant or through the Open Table website.
More information, such as a list of restaurants and links to the menus they're offering, can be found at denver.org/denverrestaurant.com