For some people, hot and spicy food is unbearable, but for others, heat is an essential part of dining. And of course, winter is the best time to eat some hot stuff. It’s science – you’re cold from walking in the snow, you go to a warm restaurant and pop some spicy grub and boom, you’re cured.
With Denver’s never-ending supply of cultural influence and talented chefs, there’s no shortage of dishes that deliver the heat. Here’s a good selection to warm your bones and taste buds.
Peppers Five Ways — Work & Class
Where: 2500 Larimer St., Suite 101, Denver
The Lowdown: This RiNo establishment is a place to come and have a good drink and meal after a hard day at work — or any occasion, really. The kitchen focused on Latin American and American food. Every dish has a unique flavor and usually a bit of spice.
Anytime after a long day of work, you need food right away — so bring on the appetizers. Peppers Five Ways ($14) are a must with bacon-wrapped jalapeños, Fresno peppers, grilled shishitos, mixed pickled peppers and pepper jam. If that’s not enough peppers for you, add more Fresno or jalapeño for $2.50. For an entree, try the cochinita pibil, red chile-braised pork (¼lb/$7.75, ½lb/$14.75, 1lb/$28.75). Round out the meal with one of the many sides like spicy & sweet braised greens (small $5, large $10).
If you need to put out the flames, the drink menu is larger than the food menu, so you may as well come during happy hour: Tuesday-Friday, 4 p.m. – 6 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday, 4 p.m. – 5 p.m.
Kimchi Chigae — Dae Gee
Where: 827 Colorado Blvd., Denver
The Lowdown: If you’ve never had Korean cuisine, Dae Gee has it all with several locations — two in Denver and one in Westminster and Aurora. Not to mention, they’ve been featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives. The kitchen focuses on meats including pork, beef and seafood and the famous Korean BBQ where you cook the protein tableside. The meat usually comes with a selection of sides like kimchi, broccoli, fish cakes, fermented onion and jalapeño, radish and spicy sauce to mix to your liking. Each dish has a varying level of spice, but one of the spiciest is the kimchi chigae ($11) dish which is a beef broth with kimchi, garlic, tofu, onion, green onion, jalapeños, pork and clear noodles. There’s a gluten-free option and you can add extra pork for $3. It is also available on the lunch menu Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. for only $8.
Smothered Barbacoa Burrito — Los Molinos
Where: 1603 Bruce Randolph Ave., Denver
The Lowdown: Dubbed a counter-style cantina serving slow-roasted meats and authentic Mexican dishes, a trip to Los Molinos is like a small trip to Mexico. Their menu consists of Mexican breakfast plates, tacos, gorditas, tostadas, platillos and smothered burritos. The authenticity shows in their tacos (4 for $7) with your choice of meat including asada, pollo, carnitas, barbacoa, buche (pork stomach – authentic as it gets) and more – served with cilantro, onion, salsa and lime.
As for the spice factor, the smothered barbacoa burrito ($7) served with beans and rice is what you need. Don’t skip the smothered though because the spicy green chile is really what brings the heat. Just like the tacos, you can get the burrito with any meat of your choice. If you need to calm the heat, try a Mexican horchata which is a delicious sweetened condensed rice milk.
Atomic Wings — Cherry Cricket
Where: 2641 E 2nd Ave., Denver
The Lowdown: If you want to breathe fire, the Atomic Wings ($12) are made with the signature ‘Atomic’ sauce served with blue cheese or ranch at the Cherry Cricket are the ones for you. It’s a beloved Denver establishment with all the standard sports bar food done well. Another spicy dish is ‘Our Original Green Chili’ (cup $5, bowl $7) with spicy Pueblo-style chile, pork, New Mexico green chile and a tortilla for dipping.
You can’t talk about the Cherry Cricket without mentioning its legendary burgers. The Cricket Burger ($8.25) – 1/2 pound and the Little Cricket Burger ($6.50) – 1/4 pound. They’ve got tons of toppings, including nine kinds of cheese, peanut butter, avocado, grilled pineapple, sauteed mushrooms, sauerkraut and more. For the spicy toppings, you can get roasted red peppers, pico de gallo, salsa, barbecue sauce, jalapeño, chili and candied bacon and jalapeño jelly.
La Ji Zi — Hop Alley
Where: 3500 Larimer St., Denver
The Lowdown: If you’re a true spicy food lover, Hop Alley serves Chinese dishes that you need in your life. This place is super hip — think modern decor and kick-ass Chinese food. Let’s start off with the most spice kicking dish on the menu, the La Zi Ji ($19) — fried chicken with dried chilis and Sichuan pepper. It doesn’t get much hotter than that. La Zi Ji is an authentic Chinese dish that Hop Alley does justice. For a vegetarian dish with plenty of spice, try the kung pao cauliflower ($15) with wood ear mushrooms, peanuts and Sichuan peppers. A favorite on the menu is the salt & pepper soft shell crabs ($25) with Bibb lettuce, lime mayo and red onion. You’ll want to pair these dishes with a glass of chilled white wine, beer or cocktail.
Nashville Hot – Birdcall
Where: 800 E 26th St., Denver; 1701 Wewatta St. (Whole Foods)
The Lowdown: Warning: this sandwich is very addictive. If you’ve dreamt of having a juicy, spice-laden Nashville hot chicken sandwich, you don’t have to travel to Tennessee. Just head over to the fast-casual Birdcall. The restaurant opened this past July in Five Points and recently in the new Union Station Whole Foods.
It’s a place of the future — you order at one of the kiosks and you receive a text when you’re order is ready. It even has a countdown on the screen of the minutes and seconds until your order is ready. Human interaction is few and far between, but the food is where it’s at.
Birdcall has nine specialty crispy chicken sandwiches, salads, fries and milkshakes. But we’re here to talk about the spicy one: the Nashville Hot ($5.75). Crispy chicken is tossed in Nashville hot or “extra hot” sauce and served with sweet butter pickle chips on an Aspen bun. You may as well go big and get the “extra hot” sauce. Try it and fall in love.
Mexican Hot Dog — SOL Mexican Cocina
Where: 200 Columbine St., Suite 110, Denver
The Lowdown: With its first location in Newport Beach, SOL Mexican Cocina decided to put a second location in Denver, simply because they like it here. Though there are a lot of Mexican spots in Denver, SOL focuses on Baja cuisine with more seafood and coastal flavors — and there’s no shortage of spicy options.
The restaurant has more than 24 fresh salsas made from scratch, the hottest being the Viper, made with habanero and ghost chiles. But what we’re really here to talk about is the newest menu item, the Mexican Hot Dog ($6) grilled with bacon, and served with chipotle sauce, lettuce, secret sauce, pico de gallo, pickled jalapeños and spicy roasted green chile salsa (made with charred jalapeños, serranos and a bit of garlic and salt). This is the team’s take on the bacon-wrapped hog dog found all throughout Mexico served at late-night street vendors.
The spice doesn’t stop with the food. Try the cucumber-jalapeño margarita – ($9.75 regular/$12.75 large) is muddled cucumber slices and fresh jalapeño with Corralejo Blanco, fresh lime and agave nectar. Or, try the pineapple-serrano margarita ($10.50 regular/ $13 large). It has a balance of heat and sweet, made with Partida Blanco, muddled pineapple, fresh lime juice and serrano chile.
Cauliflower — Bamboo Sushi
Where: 2715 17th St., Denver
The Lowdown: Sushi and spicy go hand in hand, especially when wasabi is involved. Bamboo Sushi — the world’s first certified sustainable sushi restaurant — recently moved from Avanti F&B to its own brick-and-mortar a few blocks away in LoHi. The spiciest item is not a sushi roll, but a vegetable plate. The cauliflower ($8) served fried with spicy black bean sauce and toasted cashews. Cauliflower has become all the rage lately because it can take on the texture and flavor of a protein, so it’s perfect for vegetarians that love a little spice.
If you’re looking for a spicy roll, their spiciest is the Garden of Eden ($16) with spicy albacore, cucumber and apple, topped with tuna tataki, basil and pickled mustard seeds with spicy aioli. If you order a dish that isn’t necessarily spicy, you can request some fresh jalapeño or Fresno peppers.
Meat Combo for Two — Queen of Sheba
Where: 7225 East Colfax Ave., Denver
The Lowdown: Ethiopian food is a unique cuisine where you sponge up different meats and veggies with an Ethiopian bread called Injera. If you have a cold, it may be the perfect cure with all of its abundant nutrients and spices. Located on Colfax, Queen of Sheba is a cozy, yet lively space with Ethiopian decor. It’s no-frills, serving authentic and tasty Ethiopian dishes. Dishes range from mild to spicy. I would recommend telling your server your preference in order to get the spice you want.
If you’re on a date or just out with a friend that lives for spicy food, we recommend the meat combo for two ($26.99) with seasoned chicken, key yesiga wot (medium-hot stewed beef), keye tibbs (beef shish kabob with jalapeños, onions, tomato and berbere), yatakelt wot (a stew of cabbage, potatoes and carrots) and miser wot (spicy red lentils). A nice mix of everything.
Another must-try is the Yebeg Wott ($10.99) — aromatic lamb stew served hot or mild.