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2014 Bites: 50 essential bites

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There's been another year and more than 1,000 meals since we last virtually dined together here inside the pages of our annual Bites guide. We hope many of your food adventures out and about in the area were memorable.

Colorado Springs saw a number of cool additions to town in 2013, and already 2014 has ushered in some promising new places for parking your thirst and appetite. Our food and drink scene continues to make promising strides in the craft and creative arenas, from the Third Wave movement converting many of our coffee shops to superlative spirits and the remarkable quantity of fresh beer-tap handles seeing lever action these days (see here). Then there are the food trucks that have introduced new-to-town cuisines ranging from Eastern European to South American.

This year's Bites guide touches on many of those culinary and liquid contributors as well as commendable goodies spread across our stalwart and newbie brick-and-mortar joints. While not claiming in any way to be comprehensive, rather, we offer this as a mere sampling of those scenes and evidence of deserving destinations in every geographic region of the city.

What follows are individual dishes in no particular order or ranking that we found noteworthy for one flavor or another. We aren't calling them "the best," as we leave that to your annual voting (see here). And they all differ from last year's 100 Essential Bites (still available at tiny.cc/Bites2013) — many of which still remain among our favorite eats. Just consider them food for thought.

We can never vouch for consistency across kitchens, so note that these descriptions reflect our last experiences, some of which were many a meal ago. But you can stay constantly updated on our latest food and drink forays at csindy.com with our online database, searchable by cuisine and part of town.

Lastly, a humble thanks for tuning in and allowing us to play the role of taste-testers and gustatory guides through our edible environment. We appreciate the company at the dinner table. Cheers.

— Matthew Schniper

  • Video by Craig Lemley
  • Broasted Pork Chops at Johnny's Navajo Hogan

    2817 N. Nevada Ave., 344-9593, johnnyshogan.com

    Everyone knows about the Hogan's pretty fabulous, best-selling broasted chicken plates, but every Wednesday you'll also find broasted pork chops as a special. Yes, it's the same pressure-cooked, deep-fried method (see broaster.com), applied to brined and flour-breaded pork hunks, resulting in crispy skin, super-juicy meat and a huge heap of happiness. Consume with a New Belgium Rampant IPA off the taps. ($8.95/one, $10.95/two; includes two sides)

    Reuben sandwich at P.B. & Jellies

    106 E. Kiowa St., 465-2686, pbandjellies.com

    The "brilliant" winner of our Reuben "food fight" this past December, unlikely contender P.B. & Jellies promises and delivers big. Meet half a pound of Boar's Head pastrami split into multiple, consistent layers by Swiss cheese, moist sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing and a touch of coleslaw. All that's on a light, caraway-flecked rye bread from Denver's Aspen Bread Company. A sweet crunchiness perfectly balances out the meaty juiciness within. ($8.55)

    Carne Adovada at La Rosa Southwestern Dining

    25 State Hwy. 105, Palmer Lake, 368-7676, larosasouthwesterndining.com

    This New Mexico-style rendition of the classic Mexican slow-roasted pork plate is a lustrous, sanguine-colored beauty, whose sun-dried Hatch, N.M., chilies exude deep earthy flavors tinged with smoke and the unique terroir of that famed growing region. The huge, medium-spicy pork chunks, also bearing faint garlic and cumin notes, find more flavor via a garnish of cilantro and sharp white onion. Simply divine. ($9 lunch/$14 dinner, includes rice, beans and a flour tortilla)

    El Reno-style Fried Onion Burger at Green Line Grill

    230½ Pueblo Ave., 964-1461

    "I'm not just a jackass cooking hamburgers," chef Bobby Couch said to the Indy last August upon his opening. He wanted to be clear that he wasn't creating just another burger joint. Instead, it's a paean to "the mecca of the fried onion burger," Oklahoma's Sid's Diner. The starring, Depression-era creation starts with a mound of caramelized onions and an 80/20 sirloin/chuck-to-fat beef grind from Anderson Boneless Beef out of Denver. As it sears on the flat-top, salt, pepper and garlic lightly season the meat, then the whole hot sexy mess, including a cheddar slice quickly melted, meets a basic bun with lettuce and tomato. It's blue-collar basic but perfectly badass. ($4.75 as the original; $5.25 as the deluxe with the lettuce, tomato and cheese)

    Kimchi Pancake at Tong Tong

    2036 S. Academy Blvd., 591-8585

    You've got kimchi and pancakes, two items that stand perfectly well on their own, but once combined — like Voltron assembled from the individual, space-exploring robot lions in Voltron: Defender of the Universe — well, then you have yourself the food equivalent of a giant. (Just go with it.) The probiotic-bearing fermented goodness of the tangy cabbage slivers appears brightly inside the equally bright-orange, plate-sized, fried-flour disc, sliced like pizza into eighths tableside. Pre-bulgogi binge, it's the appetizer for you. Trust me, my sweet little robot lions. ($4.99)

    Pho at Pho-nomenal

    5825 Stetson Hills Blvd., #100, 597-0277, phonomenalrestaurant.com

    A family offshoot of Denver's Pho-natic and Aurora's Pho 888, Pho-nomenal has floated to the top of many pho aficionados' lists since the inexplicable local pho boom rained nearly a dozen pho joints upon us. The drowned rice noodles are a given, as are the jalapeños, bean shoots, whole basil leaves and chopped cilantro and scallions, but it's up to you whether to toss in rare steak, well-done brisket or the more challenging, but rewarding goodies like tripe and tendon. Hints of clove, anise and cinnamon in the peppery, lightly sweet broth will do lovely things to all of the above. ($6.50 for 36 ounces; $7.50 for 56 ounces; $8.50 for 88 ounces)

    Man Candy at The Ritz Grill

    15 S. Tejon St., 635-8484, ritzgrill.com

    Believe me: After receiving a press release recently for a bacon-scented deodorant — no joke — I'm actually exhausted and put off by our brave new world of Bacon Everything. Which of course sounds scandalously stupid, since bacon does tickle the happy centers of our brain in that uniquely special way. So, tediously trendy as it may be, the Ritz's awesomely named Man Candy inarguably taps the zeitgeist with gusto, baking the swine into crispy jerky sticks coated in brown sugar and black and crushed red peppers. It's sweet, spicy and self-loathingly lovable. ($5.95)

    Lomo Sandwich at Dogtooth Coffee Company

    505 E. Columbia St., 632-0125, dogtoothcoffee.com

    Peruvian co-owner/chef Luis Pagan, who's also a Pikes Peak Community College culinary instructor, says that at 2013's end he was churning out around 350 of his best-selling Lomo sandwiches a month. Not bad for a coffee shop. (He's also recently added a chorizo sandwich, a "true" Cuban and a Peruvian pork sandwich.) The appeal: thin-sliced red wine- and Worcestershire-marinated sirloin cuts imbued with red onion sweated on the grill, then finished with crispy potato straws and spicy mayonnaise lathered on a fine, floury ciabatta made by Olde World Bagel and Deli. The question, "Why not eat your fries on your sandwich?" will haunt future burger runs because of this experience. ($7.25)

    Fried Mac & Cheese at High Grade Catering

    Mobile business, 930-3843, curbsidecuisinecs.com

    Honestly, I'd like to select something for this guide from every Curbside Cuisine participant, because the food-truck hub as a whole offers some seriously good grub in a playful atmosphere that's greatly improved our cultural and culinary scene. But alas, I cannot, and upon reflection, what I called "the ultimate stoner food" upon eating it last August won out in my memory. Though the other Jamaican plates I sampled at High Grade inspired perfect irie-ness, we literally spazzed out when toothing through these triangular treats. Molded with an airy tempura batter, they're almost beignet-fluffy — the crisp shell surrendering to a molten, tacky, starchy, cheesy goo inside, which is kinda what your happy brain feels like the whole time you're munchin' down. ($3)

    Pepper Steak at The Pepper Tree

    888 W. Moreno Ave., 471-4888, peppertreecs.com

    A serrated steak knife isn't even part of the table setting; a mere butter knife suffices for these tender center-cut filets procured from Peyton's Anderson Meat Company. The searing happens tableside, with the steak taking a long, hot butter bath before a brandy splash ignites the pan, adding an elegant touch of char. Then crushed peppercorns and Indian-style mango chutney lend sweetness and spice bite. A creative contrarian in our scene's sea of bacon-wrapped filet renditions, this one's a real beauty, best followed by the flambéed Bananas Foster or Cherries Jubilee. (6-ounce/$36.95, 8-ounce/$44.95, 12-ounce/$59.95)

    Idaho Roll (or England Roll) at Yoo Mae

    21 E. Kiowa St., 473-8105, yoomae.com

    Chef/owner JJ Kim's United Rolls of America series stands as a culinary coup and mastermind maneuver of sushi creativity, richly deserving the still-in-progress international rolls series as a follow-up. What's uniquely fun and awesome about both the Idaho and England rolls is the inclusion of superfine shoestring french fries, paying homage, respectively, to the famous potato-growing state and the Brits' love of fish 'n' chips. In the Idaho, the superlative spud sticks top a baked spicy tuna and red snapper roll lined with sweet wasabi. Biting down through the England, you hit the "chips" then panko flakes, avocado slivers, eel-sauce-streaked rice, then tempura cod. Just brilliant. ($13.99 each)

    Oklahoma-Style Ribs at Bird Dog BBQ

    Multiple locations, birddogbbq.com

    Oak smoke meets dry-rubbed ribs until each rack sports a leathery skin with tender meat residing within. Which is all fine and dandy, but the real fun begins at the table, when you squirt as you see fit with all the house-made sauces. Some reach for the lively "wasabi-Q," while others take the path less potent with the mild. For our tastes, it's the hot all the way — a blend of the mild and Sriracha that starts sweet and ends with a wholesome, spicy smolder. Ask for the extra-hot sauce, held behind the counter, if you're seriously hating your tongue. ($9/pound; $12.50 on a regular plate that includes two sides)

    Senegalese Vegetables at Adam's Mountain Café

    934 Manitou Ave., #102, Manitou Springs, 685-1430, adamsmountain.com

    You'll be eating this longtime Adam's staple at a new (less flood-prone) location soon enough, and likely still debating whether to order it over brown rice or udon noodles — though the choice of Red Bird natural chicken over tofu as an optional extra is an easy one for me. Peanut sauces rule the universe (well, good ones, to be perfectly clear), and this one, exuding sweet gingery and garlicky notes with a balance of rice vinegar and (gluten-free) tamari, is a winner, further heightened by garnishing scallion bite and currant sweetness, plus slivered-almond crunch. As for those advertised veggies, you'll be taste-tackling pieces of celery, cauliflower, potatoes, onions, carrots and snow peas. I know you're up for the job. ($12; $5 extra for chicken, $4 for tofu)

    Wild Boar Caprese Bruschetta at Swirl Wine Bar

    717 Manitou Ave., #102, Manitou Springs, 685-2294, swirlismybar.com

    The Italian classic can be as simple as toast points rubbed in garlic and hit with olive oil, salt and pepper. Then you've got renditions with chopped tomatoes and items like prosciutto. And then you've got Swirl, gettin' all piggy with it on its Wild Boar Caprese Bruschetta, the most popular house item, according to co-owner Andrew Palmer. On fat grilled bread, thin boar salami slices top thick tomato wheels and nearly a half-inch-thick layer of gooey, house-made mozzarella. Bites are heightened by the herbal smack of basil chiffonade and sweet notes of a balsamic reduction. I dare wager it's classier than the classic. ($9.25)

    Lavender Lamb Bacon at 2South Wine Bar

    2 S. 25th St., 351-2806, 2southwinebar.com

    It's difficult to find three prettier and more alluring words in succession than lavender, lamb and bacon. I could pretty much stop writing there and you'd know all that you really need to. But that would sadly deprive you of a sensuous description of thin salt-and-sugar-cured lamb belly strips attaining a coarse-ground black pepper and dried lavender flower rub before meeting hickory and applewood smoke for an hour and a half. Request it only lightly seared-off-the-smoker (my preference) or crisped up as part of a build-your-own charcuterie and/or cheese platter. Though that lamb bacon is king, the hickory duck or applewood pork bacon also work just fine, perhaps paired with some truffle mozzarella or rosemary goat cheese. Oh, and nab a nice wine pairing, too — obviously. ($14/three items; $18/five items)

    Clam Chowder at Joseph's Fine Dining

    1606 S. Eighth St., 630-3631, josephsdining.com

    Whereas Walter's Bistro gains fame for its Maine lobster bisque and La Baguette for its French onion soup, Joseph's rallies its fans behind a stellar clam chowder rendition. (It's also known for a strong lobster bisque, to be fair.) Big batches are made every other day to meet demand, but each batch also marinates for a full day to let all the flavors bleed and blend. Smoky bacon bits lend their charm next to wonderfully soft potatoes and squishy whole clams. Treat yourself to this homemade answer to everything that's wrong with the stuff in a can at the store. ($5/cup; $6/bowl)

    Roasted Duck at Saigon Grill

    337 N. Circle Drive, 635-0720

    Yes, this is the Saigon Grill that was open on the west side of town for a decade, and yes, it's still excellent, as evidenced by dishes like the roasted duck from the huge Vietnamese menu. (Sales of it have risen and plummeted along with Duck Dynasty's popularity. OK, not true.) The crispy skin highlights, that is until you're into the succulent, fatty meat, which beautifully reabsorbs its own sweat in the form of a brown jus. Underlying cabbage on the plate adds crunch, as do garnishing carrot strands, while cilantro leaves lend a welcome floral/herbal component. Plus, here, you can take home the whole bird for what just a handful of slivers at a fine dining outfit typically costs. ($16.95/half duck; $28.95/whole duck)

    Cinnamon Knots at AJ's American Pizzeria

    751 Gold Hill Place, Woodland Park, 687-4505, enjoyajspizza.com

    Picture a round, silver sheet-tray bearing five fist-sized, airy, moist dough balls lacquered with oozing rivulets of cinnamon-laced milky icing and butter sauce. Sexily shellacked like some sort of puffy mutant donut holes, these beauties practically scream: "Be gone ye lesser cinnamon buns, with your sub-part swirls and dry interiors!" For high-altitude oven-hotties on the sweet side (lower pressure = fluffier dough), they're simply unbeatable. ($3.95)

    Special Red Curry with Kabocha Squash at NaRai Thai Restaurant

    805 Village Center Drive, 531-5175, narai-thai.com

    Some cultures view kabocha squash, an Asian winter squash, as an aphrodisiac. Then again, supposedly, so are chilies, chocolate, oysters, bananas and pretty much anything the average guy eats right before bed. But feeling turned on after eating this dish isn't difficult, as it's an inherently sexy mix of silky coconut milk stew impregnated with basil essence and a lovely, floral, smoldering red curry. Order it hot, or Thai hot if you're a super-freak (in bed). Either way, your chicken, beef or tofu will meld with the squash's sugars in the fiery bath for a beautiful sweet/heat marriage. ($9 lunch/$11 dinner)

    Fraisier Cake at Marigold Café and Bakery

    4605 Centennial Blvd., 599-4776, marigoldcoloradosprings.com

    Those in the know, indeed know that Marigold reigns as probably the premier dessert destination in town. Just one example of the goods: the gorgeously presented Fraisier Cake, the bakery's more seductive rendition of a strawberry shortcake. White cake sandwiches a thick interior of pastry cream that suspends whole strawberries upright, such that slices reveal a gorgeous profile of bulbous berry wedges appearing as columns hoisting an inch-thick cake ceiling — that covered in another thin layer of whipped cream. If you can't picture that in your mind's eye, it doesn't matter; you're going to venture to eat it anyway. ($5.25/slice)

    Lamb Korma at Little Nepal

    4820 Flintridge Drive, 598-3428; 1747 S. Eighth St., 477-6997, lnepal.com

    It's always difficult to choose between the vindaloos, saags, masalas, makhani and the other Central Asian-region specialties at Indian eateries. Kormas are just one more worthy option, one backed by more than 500 years of history. Though the dish sometimes incorporates yogurt, Little Nepal's version does its dairy solely with heavy cream, further thickened by sweet coconut milk. Stewed onions and Indian tomato gravy launch the flavor infusion, followed by a barrage of spices, from ginger and curry to cardamom, cinnamon and coriander. It's a velvety, epic dish, also available with chicken, shrimp or salmon as your protein. A side of naan bread for sauce-mopping is highly recommended; go for the garlic one. ($16.95; $2.50/garlic naan)

    Grilled Eggplant in Coconut Sauce at Vietnamese Garden

    7607 N. Union Blvd., 520-9299, vietnamesegarden.net

    Yes, you should still start with the yam-carrot fritters appetizer, but my new favorite dish at Vietnamese Garden is the grilled eggplant in coconut sauce. Its keystone ingredient is a pricey coconut-cream portion, which must rest and marinate a bit and thus limits the available amount of this plate daily. (Seriously, call ahead to reserve one.) That cream yields a mildly sweet, starchy coconut sauce, bound by rice flour and bursting with peppercorn bite. Into that epic, soupy goodness, the eatery tosses skinned and grilled Asian eggplants (only faintly bitter), tofu hunks and mushrooms, garnishing it all with a heavy rain of chopped basil, green onions and crispy fried shallots. ($11.75)

    Buffalo Burger at Stagecoach Inn

    702 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs, 685-9400, stagecoachinn.com

    What would the average American do without a plethora of diverse burger options? There are plenty of fine ones to be had around town, and Stagecoach's rendition ranks among them, while also satisfying tourists' desires to take down some tatanka before journeying onward. This half-pound burger's suitably big — actually too big to bite without making a mess after bacon, cheddar and onion rings are stacked on, per the style of the "Stagecoach Burger" menu option. So, fork and knife in hand, work your way through the lean but juicy and flavorful patty, enhanced by the extras. Upgrade to sweet potato fries not just for the sweeter carbohydrate bliss but also the fantastic chipotle honey ranch dip that accompanies. ($12.99/lunch; $13.99/dinner; add $2 to turn it into a specialty burger; $1 extra for the fry substitution)

    BBQ Pork Sliders at Play at the Broadmoor

    1 Lake Ave., 577-5775, broadmoor.com

    Like tapas before them, sliders hit the Colorado Springs scene with a bang, suddenly (if years after trendsetting cities) appearing on menus like so many trios of troublemakers. Many have since disappeared, and of the worthy renditions that remain, a great barbecue pork version lives at the Broadmoor's swank bowling alley/cocktail lounge/eatery. It all starts with an ancho chili and chili powder rub, then a good 20-hour mesquite smoke (or sometimes hickory). Then comes the sauce, bearing among other ingredients: Jack Daniels, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce and apple cider vinegar for a sweet, tangy taste, all loaded into a Broadmoor-baked brioche bun. Strike! ($12)

    Brie Turnovers at Rico's Café and Wine Bar

    3221/2 N. Tejon St., 630-7723, poorrichardsdowntown.com

    Of course there are the fantastic New York-style pizzas next door at Poor Richard's, but the place to be, particularly after 7 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays when there's live music, is Rico's. The long, slender space always gets jam-packed, so even loners will feel in the mix. Whatever you end up ordering before the fabulous flourless mocha torte (like how I snuck a second recommendation in there?), make sure to nab the brie turnovers from the tapas list. It's not that you couldn't construct this same thing at home — wedges of the cheese baked in puff pastry, then garnished with almond slivers and honey, like some sort of Mediterranean dessert — but herein lies the joy of going out and having someone else make it for you. Simple delight. ($8)

    Green Chile Pork Tamales at Salsa Latina

    28 E. Rio Grande St., 328-1513, salsalatinas.com

    At the spawn of nearby El Taco Rey, the Aguilar family's green chile has earned local fame. The family prepares vast quantities each weekday morning, using fresh-roasted Anaheim chilies from Pueblo or New Mexico. Garlic and pork sweat enliven the earthy burn, and really, you'd be happy smothering anything on the menu with it. We just happen to especially like to double-down on the piggy with the pork tamale, whose moist masa forks apart effortlessly into the green bath. This isn't generic Tex-Mex; it's the real deal. ($3.35 à la carte)

    Thai Chicken Peanut Banh Mi at The Meat Locker

    1604 S. Cascade Ave., 368-6113, meatlockerativywild.com

    In early spring last year, before the Ivywild School finally launched, Bryce Crawford and I joined Meat Locker butcher Mark Henry in his new kitchen to stuff some sausages and talk shop. While there, he walked us all the way through chopping basil and cilantro on the cutting board to seasoning the ground chicken base, lathering the peanut sauce on a soft Old School Bakery hoagie roll and eventually stuffing all the savory goodness (with that starchy-sweet tinge) into our faces along with Bristol beer samples. It was then we knew Ivywild would not just fulfill, but surpass, its ambitious vision. Though I'm partial to daily, constantly changing specials when I drop by, such as kick-ass pork and grits, this creative banh mi rendition acts as a fine fallback. ($5.95)

    Combo Stir-Fry at Icheeban

    405 N. Union Blvd., 633-8881, icheeban.com

    I'm sorry, but stir-fries' reputation has suffered greatly at the hands of mediocre airport fast-food places, lame holes-in-the-wall that apparently aim to emulate those airport places, and your lazy, uncreative-in-the-kitchen college friend who seemingly doesn't know how to make anything else at home. (Or — gasp! — that might be you I'm describing.) Icheeban, during the course of a single meal, restored my faith in the blanket term that is "stir-fry." The catch-all combo plate features ebi, sukiyaki and yakitori (shrimp, beef and chicken, respectively) mixed with big onion and bell pepper wedges. But the magic happens with the saucing, via a surprising, unique and beautiful cinnamon influence on top of a touch of honey sweetness, garlic kick and salty soy-white-wine body. Bonus points for four rice choices at plating. ($11.99)

    Prix Fixe Dinner at The Margarita at PineCreek

    7350 Pine Creek Road, 598-8667, margaritaatpinecreek.com

    The Margarita specializes in being diverse, eclectic and constantly innovative. One of the few eateries in town to truly source local and work closely with area growers, it offers fun and value-packing prix fixe meals that change weekly — hence the recommendation here of the whole show versus one dish. You get to choose among trios of apps, salads and desserts, plus a handful of entrées. Soup and lovely house-baked bread is included, and cheese and charcuterie plates may be added, as well as alcohol pairings. Full sample menus may be viewed online for a taste of what's to come, including Southwest, Asian and traditional European fusions. They've never done me wrong, and I don't suspect they'd fail you either. ($35/three courses; $42/five courses; $12/cheese add-on; $10/charcuterie add-on; $15/two wines; $21/three wines)

    Vegan Dish du Jour at Coquette's Bistro and Bakery

    915 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs, 685-2420; 321 N. Tejon St. (coming soon); coquettesbistroandbakery.com

    Lest our vegan friends feel excluded, or offended by my bounty of pork picks, here's a call-out for them — one that also goes to show how mindful Coquette is toward not just the gluten-free community, but many others with dietary concerns. Even though the local vegan Meetup group widely shares the goods on the finest animal-free meals around, it's encouraging to see an eatery reach out and not just do a single back-menu lazy pick, but a different dish daily. Much of Coquette's menu, including crepes, can be converted to vegan dishes, but the daily vegan special often heads toward the realm of satisfying stir-fries, creative use of black bean tofu or recent dishes like a flavorful red pepper polenta cake. (Prices vary depending on special.)

    Pork Belly Mac-and-Cheese at Brother Luck Street Eats

    26 S. Wahsatch Ave., 213-3706, create719.com

    When I call chef Luck to ask what items on his constantly changing menu will stick around week-to-week, I'm advised to consider either his chicken waffle wings (very tempting ...) or this kick-ass mac-and-cheese, which I very much enjoyed punishing after judging one of the fun "Knife Fight" culinary battles the eatery hosts each Monday. For this beast of bliss, Luck cures the belly with fennel and cardamom infused in a citrus bath, then tosses it, post-braise, with shell pasta and a pesto cream and smoked Gouda sauce. And because that's not enough, a couple of handfuls of crispy chicharrón add crispness to the creaminess. Yeah, it's stupid-rich and awesome. ($11)

    Rice, Any Style at Momma Pearl's Cajun Kitchen

    6620 Delmonico Drive, Suite B, 964-0234, mommapearls.com

    Way to glorify the grain, chef Brunet — seriously. Rice, the culinary blank canvas, gets star treatment here, be it with a saffron infusion with crab cakes or blending beautifully with andouille sausage and red beans. But our two favorite renditions are Mama Pearl's Coco Rice at breakfast and Cajun Dirty Rice during hours thereafter. The first fries white rice with eggs, onions and crispy bacon bits, plus Jack and cheddar cheeses for a good, melty texture. Creole seasonings master the flavor component, and cooling avocado slices act as garnish. Then, gettin' Dirty: Jasmine rice meets satisfying smoked pork sausage with onions, peppers and a lovely back-of-throat burn via Cajun spices. The good times will roll. ($7.79/Cajun Dirty Rice; $6.29/Mama Pearl's Coco Rice)

    Hibachi Lunch Combo at Fuji MT Hibachi & Sushi

    16064 Jackson Creek Pkwy., Monument, 481-6688, fujimtasian.com

    While everyone else is thinkin' sushi, you're ponderin' hibachi. I see how you are — smart. Sure, the sushi at Fuji MT, sister outfit to Woodland Park's Fusion Japan, is perfectly alluring, as is the incredibly beautiful, hyper-modern decor. But those wide hibachi tables call to your soul, and whereas at dinner full meals (including soup, salad, etc.) command anywhere from $16 to $35, lunchtime affords this wise option to get most of that same mix for much less. Pick two proteins on the combo plates — I'd go shrimp and steak — and they'll be joined by a fresh stir-fry of mushrooms, zucchini, broccoli, onions and carrots plus sauce options like a tangy soy-ginger or creamy, mildly spicy seafood sauce, both delicious. Pay the buck extra for brown rice. ($12.95 includes a small soup, salad and rice)

    Slopper at Crave Real Burgers

    7465 N. Academy Blvd., 264-7919, craverealburgers.com

    We've wrestled, literally, with Crave's Godzilla burgers, topping-loaded monstrosities so big you can't really pick them up. But the outfit won the 2012 Denver Burger Battle with a Caprese-spinoff (now called the Wiseguy). And mess aside, people love the creative combinations and even the absurdity that is a donut-bun burger (the Luther). So god love the people, I'm making a pick here for Crave's Slopper. Why? Because even the most classic renditions in Pueblo already require silverware, by design. Plus Coloradans and tourists can never get enough green chile, and Crave makes a respectable one. The sauce wets the bun, merging with the melted cheese, while avocado and pico relish, plus lettuce and tomato, add some veggie freshness to what's otherwise a guilty gut-punisher, like most all of Crave's behemoths. ($11)

    Eggplant Rollatini at Paravicini's Italian Bistro

    2802 W. Colorado Ave., 471-8200, paravicinis.com

    Like pad Thai at a Thai joint, I've always felt that an eggplant dish at an Italian eatery stands as a pretty good indicator of overall quality. Paravicini's exudes power via a great eggplant rollatini, which, as the name implies, involves rolling thin slices of the breaded vegetable around Parmesan, mozzarella, semisweet ricotta and Romano cheeses, then baking it into a delicious hot ooze that's plated under a generous chunky tomato-sauce ladling. As an appetizer it stands alone, but as a lunch special penne pasta's tossed underneath. Either way, the eggplant's easily elevated to an exultant status. ($9.50 as an appetizer; $8 over penne pasta at lunch)

    Pad Thai Ho Kai at Arharn Thai

    3739 Bloomington St., 596-6559, arharnthai.net

    Take a great pad Thai execution at a very fair price and wrap the whole thing in a thin, fried-egg purse, slit neatly on the top and folded back into triangular flaps, and you've got the Pad Thai Ho Kai. You get to choose between chicken, beef, pork, tofu or veggies at the regular price. That choice will, of course, be intermingled with the delightful tangle of rice noodles interspersed by crunchy bean sprouts and peanut crumbles and green onions. Rather than the little fried egg bits you often get in other versions, you get the whole egg scramble to cut from as you please. Plus Arharn makes a nice, authentic sauce with the right ratio of sweet to heat and tart. You should be eating it right now. ($8.60; $3 extra for a combo of chicken, beef and pork, or shrimp, squid and whitefish)

    Mango Shrimp at Silver Pond Chinese

    5670 N. Academy Blvd., 594-9343, bestsilverpondchinese.com

    Last year I picked Silver Pond's strawberry chicken for this guide, because it's just so sweetly weird yet unexpectedly awesome. It doesn't sound like it'd work but totally does, like some sort of late-night stoner's kitchen raid of odd scraps gone right. Anyway, once you've appropriately geeked out over the berries, try the mango, which offers a similar sugar influence but its own nuanced fruit infusion that works particularly well with prawns. I generally think about island cuisine when tree things meet sea things, but this proves there's a place for the pairing in Chinese cuisine as well, at the eatery that gives the pantry its best reputation locally. Silver Pond, and these fruit dishes, are gems. ($8.25/chicken, $8.75/shrimp at lunch; $12.95/chicken, $15.95/shrimp or a combo of those two at dinner)

    Chicken Tandoori at India Palace

    5644 N. Academy Blvd., 535-9196, indiapalacecos.com

    Good chicken tandoori is a paean to the tandoor itself, where kabob skewers drip meat-grease over the fire and charcoal below and naan dough defies gravity, clinging to and cooking on the clay oven's side. As with any grilled chicken, imparted smoke and char are key to tandoori chicken's essence, otherwise wholly influenced by the vibrant spice rub, plus a garlic, ginger and yogurt marinade. India Palace highlights flavors from the north-Indian state of Punjab, so pay attention to subtle differences from other Indian regions. And at least this one time, break out of your butter chicken habit (yeah, India Palace's is addictive) to savor the bird outside of the heavy cream and in a more refined state. ($12.95)

    Chicken Kabob at Grand Gyros

    3980 Palmer Park Blvd., 597-4282, grandgyros.com

    It's all about the long marinade with this olive-oil-rubbed breast meat: salt, pepper, saffron, onion, garlic, sumac, turmeric and lemon juice. A quick charbroil inside a covered, tinfoil-wrapped contraption then results in super-succulent, canary-yellow-colored chicken with a zesty kick. Grab a side shaker of sumac on the table to further amp the citrus notes. It's blissful on its own, but also awesome dipped in accompanying tzatziki sauce for that lovely, cooling cucumber-yogurt influence. Also visit Union Boulevard's Golden Gyros (whose owner formerly owned Grand Gyros) for a similar rendition. ($7.99)

    Bayrische Schweinshaxe at Edelweiss Restaurant

    34 E. Ramona Ave., 633-2220, edelweissrest.com

    Why did the bear roll away the Edelweiss dumpster? It's not a riddle, it's a true story, and the reason our town's excellent German eatery garnered international attention last summer. Wildland-urban interface concerns aside, let's just agree that it was one smart ursine who knew where to find good food. When you're feeling the inner growl and have a need to paw at something sizable, order the bayrische schweinshaxe (maybe by pointing to the menu if you don't do Deutsch). The hulking, 22-plus-ounce, bone-in ham shank sees tenderization and flavoring during a long marinade in Warsteiner beer. Next, it's slow-roasted and then charred on the grill, before meeting vinegary sauerkraut and potatoes, because you'll certainly have room for those in your belly ... right. You better bring your totem bear spirit if you're aiming for something short of a to-go box. ($26)

    Game Meat Burger at Bunz Bakery and Burger Bar

    11550 Ridgeline Drive, #128, 481-0555, bunzbakeryburgerbar.com

    Forget your beef, or even buffalo. Head to Bunz for an entirely different burger experience via Colorado lamb, Rocky Mountain trout, Alaskan cod, or elk, venison or yak. All the meats at Bunz, a sister outfit to Woodland Park's Donut Mill, are hormone- and antibiotic-free and organic, pasture-raised or natural. You'll pay a premium compared to some other burgers in town, but you'll stand on the right side of sustainability concerns and get a unique taste experience to boot. Beyond the atypical protein choices, you get to further customize your prize with a wide variety of sauces (from spicy aioli to tzatziki) and house-baked bread selections (from pretzel to challah buns), plus cheese and toppings options. If you're the indecisive type, you'll be overwhelmed by the ridiculous bounty. Just take deep breaths and grab something sweet from the expansive pastry case to calm down. ($9.99 to $11.99 before the addition of toppings like bacon or egg)

    Wild Salmon Tartare at TAPAteria

    2607 W. Colorado Ave., 471-8272, tapateria.com

    "The key to this recipe is to use really good wild sockeye salmon. It should be almost red in color. Farmed orange stuff is no good for this," says TAPAteria proprietor Dave Brackett. His eatery bases its beautifully presented rendition on famed chef Thomas Keller's recipe at Yountville, Calif.'s French Laundry. (See gorgeous photos online.) Instead of the tall cornets, TAPAteria loads the salmon into a stem-less martini glass set into another glass of ice below it, while a trio of angle-cut English cucumber wedges finger skyward, providing both garnish and scoopers. Before the fish sees a topping of caper-flecked crème fraiche, it's cured by lemon juice and olive oil and spiked with sea salt, white pepper, shallots and chives. Think light, fresh and damn delicious. ($7.95)

    Pork Banh Mi at Pho Queen

    3748 Astrozon Blvd., 392-0001

    Now that you've seen the Meat Locker's creative banh mi spin, head to Pho Queen to try this gorgeous execution of the original. Food trucks in big cities have popularized the simple sandwich stateside, honoring its history in Vietnam, where French colonization at least led to something good in the realm of culinary fusion. The banh mi starts with a soft baguette roll smeared with butter (in place of the traditional pork liver) and from there stays true to form: cilantro, crisp cucumbers, hot jalapeños, sharp white onions, vinegary pickled carrots and sliced coins of cold compressed, fatty pork spiked with potent peppercorns. ($3.50)

    Chips & Curry at McCabe's Tavern

    520 S. Tejon St., 633-3300, mccabestavern.com

    Oh, that kind of "chips" ... the Brit way of saying french fries. Gotcha, mate. And when you have a plate of these in front of you, you've got several minutes of bar-food bliss ahead. Because you're surely also drinking a great Colorado craft beer, the fries' salt and starch will hit your happy centers hard, but the real beauty's in the creamy curry dip. It's the social stuff of many a post-restaurant-shift, late-night binge among friends. It's so simple but so damn good that you wonder why you don't splash it across everything that passes between your lips. ($6.95)

    The Boilermaker at Bingo Burger

    101 Central Plaza, Pueblo, 719/225-8363; 132 N. Tejon St. (coming soon), bingoburger.com

    You take your regular Bingo Burger (though there's nothing "regular" about the awesomeness of roasted Pueblo chilies incorporated into the custom-blended, Ranch Foods Direct beef patty) and top it with melted cheddar, bacon strips and a fried egg whose whole mission in its noble life is to ooze yolk onto your chin. Pair with hand-cut sweet potato fries and a Colorado craft beer, followed by a milkshake for dessert. The great news is that as of March or April, tentatively, Colorado Springs devotees can get their all-American fix on Tejon Street. ($8.25; $3.50/regular-size side of fries; $4.95/shake)

    Sliced Rice Pasta Soup at Taste of Korea

    1825 Peterson Road, 574-2060

    Go for the excellently priced lunch specials, which include rice and all the typical banchan items like kimchi. One particular favorite is the sliced rice pasta soup, sagol-tteokguk, traditionally an item that celebrates the Korean New Year and supposedly gifts the eater luck and prosperity in the coming months. Short of that, it gifts a great single meal, as a silky, creamed ox-bone soup whose milky translucence bears a black-pepper kick. Highlighting are the thin coins of the chewy starch, sliced from a compressed rice log, not unlike the many variations of mochi to be found across Asia. ($7.49)

    Immunity Shot at Nourish Organic Juice

    303 E. Pikes Peak Ave., 634-5686, nourishorganicjuice.com

    Please note that I adore Nourish Organic Juice and nearby Ola Juice Bar equally; Ola's beet-colored and pineapple-sugared Red juice, with added ginger zing, rates epic. And cold-pressed goodies off of Nourish's Norwalk Juicer do the notion of liquid health-food sweet justice. But when it's a cold I feel a-comin' on, I reach for Nourish's Immunity Shot, what I last described (just after swigging it) as a wet A-bomb: a throat-burning, breath-and-bacteria-destroying, 2-ounce palate-punch of juiced garlic, ginger, lemon and apple, with a cayenne dusting. It's not so much a treat as a tonic, requiring some gustatory fortitude. But for those who prefer to fight germs sans drugs, it's a natural mouth hammer of offense. ($4)

    Crawfish & Jalapeño Pizza at Bella Panini

    4 State Hwy. 105, Palmer Lake, 481-3244, bellapanini.com

    The generally agreed-upon boundaries of what's capable of being put on a pizza have certainly broadened across kitchens over the years. Sometimes life calls for a classic, simple Margherita pie, and sometimes you're compelled to find out what happens when mac 'n' cheese noodles come in contact with a dough wheel (like at Ruffrano's Hell's Kitchen in Manitou). At the eclectic Bella Panini, the Bayou meets the Mexican-American border via the unique, and most importantly, delicious, crawfish and jalapeño pizza. Its crust blisters bread bubbles under the mini prawn curls and pepper chunks set into a four-cheese melt, a mild heat melding with the faint fishiness. Yum-mee, amigos. ($8.95/9-inch; $14.95/16-inch)

    Traditional Swiss Fondue at Upstairs at La Baguette

    2417 W. Colorado Ave., 577-4818, labaguette-co.com

    Keep in mind that this swank little hideaway — like, seriously, a lot of locals still walk right by its stairway to wine heaven without knowing it exists — is only open Thursday through Saturday evenings for your cravings ranging from absinthe to lovely pastries from the bakery below. One nice thing to do (that's my way of saying, "Go do it," understand?) is to grab a few friends and order the full kilo (that's 2.2 gooey pounds) of traditional Swiss fondue. Apple slices and fine bakery breads become scoops and sponges for the blend of French Emmentaler and Gruyère cheeses spiked with kirsch (white brandy) and sauvignon blanc, which add both boozy and fruity flavors. As rich dips go, this one's an authentic winner. ($22/2-person; $36/4 or more)

    Colorado Lamb Chops at moZaic

    443 Hwy. 105, Palmer Lake, 481-1800, innatpalmerdivide.com

    Listen, do me a personal favor and make sure that when you order lamb locally, you ask if it's from Colorado — arguably the finest lamb producer in the world — and not from New Zealand. (It's perfectly wonderful for filming Peter Jackson movies and raising livestock, but thousands of miles away, if we're getting all carbon-footprint about the matter.) The lamb chops at moZaic hail from our Centennial State, and are best ordered medium-rare. Thick edgings of fat with a hint of maple glaze yield to a soft, tender core with that slightly game-y goodness and tanginess the lamb-lovers among us adore. Sides of mustard-laced risotto and bacon-flecked wilted spinach salad act as awesome accoutrements. ($22)

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