The List: Top ten way-south-of-the-border restaurants in Denver

Categories: The List

Denver has lots of great Mexican restaurants, a few good Latin American restaurants, and not many South American restaurants. But Fogo de Chao, which opened this summer, would be a great restaurant on any continent. Here are Denver's ten top way-south-of-the-border restaurants.

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Aji Latin American Restaurant 1601 Pearl Street, Boulder, 303-442-3464. Aji bills itself as a Latin American restaurant, and its menu is a postmodern fusion of Peruvian, Mexican, Argentine, Cuban, Brazilian, Salvadoran and Caribbean influences, in varying degrees of authenticity. Although little on Aji's menu makes much classical sense, a lot of it is very good, offering a güero-friendly Trip-Tik of Latino nouvelle, a reiteration of ingredients and flavors that present Central and South America as a single place, possessed of a single, over-arching culinary gestalt.

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Buenos Aires Pizzeria 1319 22nd Street, 303-296-6710. The menu at this understated Argentine pizza joint lists thirty types of pizza, each as unique as a snowflake, and not one bearing a single slice of pepperoni. Hearts of palm? Absolutely. Corn? You bet. The salty Crudo features prosciutto and sun-dried tomatoes; there's sliced oranges, pineapple and shredded coconut on the Tropical. And shredded hard-boiled egg adorns about half of the offerings: Apparently the Argentine people were the first to discover that hard-boiled egg (both whites and yolks) lend a weird, wonderful, almost nutty flavor to a slice.

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Cafe Brazil 4408 Lowell Blvd., 303-480-1877. For years, Cafe Brazil has been the go-to spot for Denverites looking for a taste of South America. Unlike most of the Brazilian restaurants in this country, it isn't a churrascaria -- but rather a proper Brazilian (and Latin American) restaurant that offers all the greatest hits of a canon that spans several countries. The space is casual and often crowded, the service friendly, and the food stands as a good survey of all the influences (Spanish, Italian, French and indigenous) that have made South American cuisine one of the most interesting ethnic culinary diversions to come along. Bonus points for the new rum bar. $$-$$$

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El Chalate, 8115 East Colfax Avenue, 303-333-0818 At El Chalate, a stripped-down Mexican and Salvadorian pit stop on East Colfax, you'll often be welcomed by a young girl who likes to practice her English. She flits around the dining room, stopping to chat with patrons, while the attentive waitstaff hustles from table to table dropping off heaping plates of pupusas, stuffed with queso, chicharrón or both, and served with both a mellow tomato sauce and curtido, a tart slaw of carrots, cabbage and oregano. The joint does a steady takeout trade, especially on weekends, when you'll often see a line stretching out the door with people jonesing for the tamales de pollo.

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Empanada Express Grill, 2600 East Street, Unit G, Golden, 720-226-4701. This small South American joint that got its start as a cart isn't remotely fancy; its narrow storefront space contains just a few worn tables and a glass case filled, oddly, with perfectly folded men's shirts that sell for $15 each. Still, where else in town can you can dress a man and feed him corn cakes swollen with black beans, shredded beef, plantains and cheese? The arepas, empanadas (impossibly puffy and lighter than air) and cachapas (corn pancakes with blackened surfaces paved with white cheese) are just as addictive. Empanada Express Grill has no liquor license, but the fresh fruit juices - cantaloupe, passion fruit, pineapple, coconut, papaya, guava and mango - are vast improvements over the sodas in the fridge.

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