Best restaurants in Denver, according to chef Logan Stephenson

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As one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, Denver’s vibrant culinary scene is evolving at an incredibly rapid rate. Restaurants, bars and breweries are popping up seemingly overnight, with imaginative recipes and chef-driven menus.

The food and beverage community here loves to experiment with favorites, as well as reinvent specialties, such as the spirits developed at the multi-award winning Mythology Distillery. Not to mention, the surprising creations by the legendary Molly’s Spirits, some of which were featured at the city’s annual craft brewery event, Collaboration Fest.

Chefs in this city also embrace change and are passionate about revitalizing menus. Logan Stephenson is the executive chef at Panzano restaurant, which is situated in the chic and centrally-located Kimpton Hotel Monaco. He took the reins earlier in 2019 and revitalized the menu to focus on the authentic flavors of Northern Italian cuisine.

Chef Stephenson in the kitchenChef Stephenson in the kitchen — Photo courtesy of Kimpton Hotel Moncao

A few of his specialties include the grano arso orecchiette, a charcoal-colored pasta that receives its black hue from toasted grain flour imported from Puglia, Italy. It’s served with spicy Italian sausage, broccoli rabe, garlic, chili and pecorino.

Seafood lovers adore the polpo a la plancha, which is seared octopus with butter beans, braised greens and pancetta, drizzled with Calabrian chili vinaigrette and lemon balm. His ragu di agnello features Colorado-raised lamb ragu, wild mushrooms and pecorino.

Chef Stephenson enjoys dining out in Denver and experiencing a multitude of other restaurants and diverse cuisines within its many neighborhoods. These are a few of his favorites.

Chada Thai

Exterior of Chada ThaiExterior of Chada Thai — Photo courtesy of Chada Thai

Chada Thai, one of the oldest Thai restaurants in the city, serves up a variety of traditional specialties in this friendly and warm neighborhood spot. Chef Stephenson’s go-to dish here is their handmade Thai dumplings, which are steamed and filled with ground pork, onions and bamboo shoots.

The chef-owner, Nuntana Watcharinpeecha (“Nita” for short) hand rolls the dumplings every evening. According to Logan, if you walk by at night and peek in, you can see Nita seated on a stool making the dumplings by hand.

In addition to the dumplings, a few other fan favorites include satay appetizers, fish cakes, Thai rice noodle soup and pad kee mao (drunken noodles).

He says, “This was the first restaurant I dined at after moving to Denver in January. It’s located within walking distance from my apartment, so it’s an easy and convenient option. I’m a huge fan of Asian cuisine, and was pleasantly surprised at the quality and authenticity of the menu.

“The chef and I have since become friends and she cooks with so much knowledge and passion that I return there numerous times a week for my staple meals. The only thing that exceeds the quality of food are the people who work there.”

Mercantile

Beef tartare at MercantileBeef tartare at Mercantile — Photo courtesy of Eve Lloyd

Located in the newly-refurbished and bustling Union Station, award-winning chef Alex Seidel heads up this stylish, hip restaurant that serves creative comfort food throughout the day. Some of the creative menu items include roasted baby artichokes, polenta custard, squid ink bucatini and paella.

Chef Stephenson’s favorite dish is the Creekstone beef tartare, which is considered a unique version of a classic dish, made with tempura maitake mushrooms, crispy garlic, furikake crumble and bonito aioli.

Stephenson says, “The first time I went to Mercantile was for my birthday. My wife, Karen, knew how much I wanted to try it since we first moved to Denver, so she made a reservation to surprise me. We had over five courses – and each one was exceptional. It’s become my go-to spot when I have guests from out of town.”

He added, “I knew of this restaurant when I moved here and eagerly awaited the opportunity to try it. I have dined there numerous times since – and have had some of my best meals in Denver. The chef’s philosophy is so inspired, and both the food and service are at such a high level that I find myself walking back to my kitchen – instead of home – to work more diligently on raising my own standards.”

Born2Bake

Born2Bake's pudding cakeBorn2Bake’s pudding cake — Photo courtesy of Neil Gattas

This cozy bakery and coffee shop is located in Old Town Littleton, which is the historic downtown area of the city. Born2Bake features a number of freshly made breads, cakes, pastries, pies, tarts, brownies and more. A few best sellers include blueberry cream puffs, scones, almond croissant, toffee cake and macarons. But the menu is not limited to sweets; guests can enjoy homemade soups, crispy, oversized salads and delectable sandwiches.

Stephenson said, “I stumbled into this quaint bakery and coffee house by accident when my wife and I took shelter in it during a rainstorm (in April 2019). I have quite the sweet tooth and fell in love with their chocolate pudding and strawberry crepe cake. Even though this bakery is in Littleton, I always find reasons to take more trips to Old Town to get my pudding fix.”

Beast + Bottle

Lamb dish at Beast + BottleLamb dish at Beast + Bottle — Photo courtesy of Casey Giltner

Owned by food-loving siblings Paul and Aileen Reilly, Beast + Bottle is a rustic American restaurant that focuses on locally-sourced cuisine, as well as craft cocktails and a unique yet approachable wine list.

Stephenson revealed, “I kept hearing a lot of great things about Beast + Bottle from fellow chefs. I decided to pop in on one of my days off, which happened to be on a Thursday. It turns out Thursdays are their weekly ricotta gnudi night, which is one of my absolute favorite dishes. Talk about serendipity.”

Some of Beast + Bottle’s specialties are black olive gnocchi, crab cake and sheepishly (made with lamb bacon, broccoli and black pepper). Stephenson raves about their consistency and quality, and usually orders the lamb pappardelle, which he says is tender and delicious. He also enjoys the delicate pasta, which he describes as “light, cooked perfectly and incredibly flavorful.”

He explains, “Chef Paul builds his entire menu around seasonality and sources his products locally from relationships he builds with farmers. Co-owner Aileen does an excellent job with the front of house staff. As a result, service is always top-notch. The intimate size of their restaurant allows the team to focus on providing a personal dining experience.”

Las Tortugas

This quick-service, small Mexican sandwich shop in Aurora (a Denver suburb) has become extremely popular and features a variety of homemade specialties. Stephenson advises that customers should be prepared to wait in line, especially during prime meal time.

Although there are several Las Tortugas locations in the area, Stephenson explained, “I happened to drive by this place randomly one afternoon and decided to pull over. The neighborhood itself is a complete melting pot of so many different cultures. You can find some of the city’s best Vietnamese, Thai, Mexican and Chinese food all tucked away in the southwest corner of Denver.”

So, what’s his favorite menu item here? He says, “The menu features sandwiches made with ham, breaded skirt steak and chicken breast – among others. My absolute favorite is the Cuatrera – it’s pork, chorizo and melted cheese torta – and all sandwiches come with flavorful toppings that tie the whole sandwich together.”

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