Sure, you could head to the usual, on-every-street-corner spots for your breakfast burritos and lunchtime sandwiches. But why do that when Denver has a surprising variety of homegrown fast-casual options, in addition to our successful chain exports?
In fact, we’d argue that the diversity of local quick-service food available around town beats the heck out of our mid-range and high-end restaurants.
Among some of our local fast-casual favorites are an assembly-line curry shop now looking to expand internationally, a modern Native American restaurant that sources directly from Native American-owned farms and reservations, a multi-generation bakery making Vietnamese coffee and French bread sandwiches, and an East Colfax cafe serving the silkiest hummus.
Here, we define fast-casual as a restaurant with counter service: walk up, order and pay, take a number, have a seat. And while there are so many more fast-casual restaurants to discover across Denver, these are 23 of the best the city has to offer right now, in no particular order.
RELATED: These new Denver restaurants, coming soon, are worth getting excited about
714 Santa Fe Drive
The Santa Fe Drive staple is best enjoyed from a bright yellow counter seat, where you can watch the chefs at work preparing plates of chilaquiles, chiles rellenos and tongue, tripe and cheek meat tacos. Tip: Always get your burritos smothered in green chile. It’s some of the best around.
3536 W. 44th Ave.
The only restaurant of its kind in Denver, Tocabe makes Indian tacos, stuffed fry bread, and posu grain bowls ($7.90-$12.85) mixed with hominy, shredded bison, roasted chilies and more. Native American-owned farms supply many of the ingredients, which you’ll find in dishes at two locations, on the north side of Denver and in Greenwood Village.
720-524-8282, tocabe.com (plus one more location)
1503 Grant St.
At this family-run Syrian restaurant off Colfax Avenue, the service is so flexible that diners can choose whether to order at the counter or sit down. Either way, you’ll want to start with the silky hummus ($5.49), which is some of the best in town, and finish with a slice of baklava ($3.49) or kinafeh (ricotta cheese-filled pastry, $2.99).
81 S. Pennsylvania St.
Now in Wash Park, this burger shop sells high-quality, locally sourced beef patties topped with all the fixings ($8.50-$13), plus French fries ($3-$5), milkshakes ($6) and house-made sides. The space is family friendly (it’s outfitted with arcade and board games), but it’s also good for a date (see the full bar).
RELATED: A Denver burger spot wants to take on Shake Shack, In-N-Out with local, responsibly sourced beef
2001 E. Colfax Ave.
Even though Illegal Pete’s has grown quite large in its 24 years serving oversized “Mission-style” burritos ($7.29-$8.29), you’ll still feel right at home across the nine Front Range restaurant locations. Diners can build their giant burritos or bowls and then perch at the bar for a coin-style margarita or local beer on-tap.
720-723-2703, illegalpetes.com (plus eight more Denver locations)
2845 Larimer St.
Not pinning itself to breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner, this day-to-night cafe kicked off a Scandinavian food trend in Denver, with seriously good aebleskiver pancakes ($6.50) and salmon tartines ($13.50) served alongside a full coffee bar, wine and mixed drinks. Easily one of the more upscale destinations here, Call still doesn’t take itself too seriously, with campy tin-can phones and neon signs as decor.
Note: This restaurant will be closed from Sept. 30 to spring 2020 for renovation. 2845 Larimer St., 303-954-0230, call-denver.com
3915 Tennyson St.
The most casual restaurant by the creators of Root Down, Ophelia’s and El Five, this Berkeley spot sells all plant-based dishes from chimichurri yuca fries ($5) to banh mi tacos ($9) and Korean stir fry ($13). Bonus: Its pretty dining room and patio make for a nice night out at a lower price point.
2500 Larimer St.
Denver’s cult-followed pizza place built inside a shipping container makes so much more than just wood-fired pies. Order some oysters or tinned seafood (market price), fresh-from-the-oven bread and butter ($4) and a chopped salad ($10), and seriously consider a prosecco on tap ($9) or a $10 spritz. Look for extra seating on the courtyard patio out back, and get ready for a second location coming soon to Highland.
1859 S. Pearl St.
Now with a South Pearl Street brick-and-mortar restaurant in addition to an Avanti food stall and a food truck, this Venezuelan restaurant gives diners a lot of bang for their buck. Corn-based pockets are stuffed to the brim with fried plantains, black beans, shredded beef, avocado salsa and more for $8.99-$12.99.
Two locations: 1859 S. Pearl St. and 3200 N. Pecos St., quieroarepas.com and avantifandb.com
4279 Tennyson St.
Build your own South Indian curry bowls ($9.95-$12.95) and add on samosas ($2.50) and chapati ($2) for a healthy but fast meal at one of two Denver locations of the Little Curry Shop. The Berkeley restaurant will soon have a bigger bar and brunch service, while at Broadway Market, you can try food from other vendors, too.
RELATED: Denver’s original fast-casual curry shop is closing its RiNo restaurant
303-975-6886, littlecurryshop.com (plus more locations)
3484 W. 32nd Ave.
With an original location in Boulder plus two more casual outposts in Denver (and two more on the way, in Hale and Stapleton), there are plenty of opportunities to stop for a Neapolitan pie ($5.75-$8.75) with a glass of wine and Italian budino (butterscotch pudding, $1.80) for dessert. The restaurant was started by Frasca’s owners, so service and quality far exceed price point.
303-302-2451, pizzerialocale.com (plus more locations)
1300 S. Pearl St.
The newest concept from Denver’s 2018 James Beard Award winner is a rotisserie chicken shop that sources its meat directly from a farm co-op to serve in quarter, half and whole birds ($6-$20), alongside sides like mac and cheese ($5), Pacific rolls ($1) and charred vegetables ($5). Kids have a dedicated play area, and adults can order half-glasses of wine and cocktail “happy pots” in baby-food-size jars.
2370 W. Alameda Ave.
With three locations — on Alameda Avenue, Federal Boulevard and inside Zeppelin Station — this 25-year-old bakery has become a fixture for banh mi sandwiches in Denver. Go for the classic lemongrass-marinated pork sandwich on French bread ($9.50), but also order a Vietnamese coffee and sesame balls for dessert.
2370 W. Alameda Ave., 303-922-0999, facebook.com/vinhxuongbakery
2500 Larimer St.
If you fancy a morning bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, try out Port Side’s better version with extra toppings like kimchi, pulled pork and avocado ($6-$9). Oats ($6), cheesy grits ($8) and smoothies ($7) are some other deceivingly simple menu options from this walk-up cafe and coffee bar on Larimer Street.
3264 Larimer St.
RiNo’s counter-service industrial Italian joint makes a selection of pastas and small plates that rival the best restaurants in the city. You can start with a $5 glass of wine and some Castelvetrano olives ($4) and continue with cavatelli, cacio e pepe, or any of the pasta dishes, really, for $14-$17.
3455 Ringsby Court
A non-profit lunch counter, Comal serves Mexican specials like tacos ($3-$4), estofados and tamales ($10-$14) from Monday to Thursday. And on Friday, it switches to Syrian dishes, like fattoush salad ($4), kebabs ($14) and jaj bl riz (chicken and rice, $11). The women who cook here every weekday are training to start their own food businesses.
725 E. 26th Ave.
Head to Five Points or Stanley Marketplace for Denver’s best bagels and bagel sandwiches, where the smoked fish selection is also a standout. Try Ronnie’s Favorite with dill cream cheese, Scottish smoked salmon, whitefish salad and cucumbers ($13.75).
123 W. 12th Ave.
The place to go for lunch in the Golden Triangle, Leven makes a 12-day pastrami sandwich ($12.50), a selection of salads and spreads ($6-$10) and cookies (snickerdoodle, chocolate chip, $3.50) that are worth saving room for at the end. Great for a lunch meeting, the dining room is bright and airy with garage doors that open onto an Art Museum-adjacent downtown patio.
1526 Blake St.
A lot of bars provide varying levels of bar food, but Brass Tacks’ style sets it apart. Drinkers here can walk up to the food window (look for the Bingo board design above it) and order some of the more creative counter fare around, from happy hour ham-dogs ($5) to a family-style Viet-Cajun shrimp boil ($24).
1625 Wynkoop St.
Potstickers ($1.55), bao buns ($3.21), za jiang mian (egg noodles, pork, vegetables, $8.04) and liang ban mian (egg noodles, cucumber, bean sprouts, $5.69) are some mainstays at this Chinese street food restaurant. Owner Edwin Zoe opened the business for his mother, first in Boulder, and then expanded to a Union Station outpost.
1420 E. 18th Ave.
Another morning option, Onefold, is an oasis in City Park West with menu stars like duck-fat-fried potato breakfast burritos ($12) and duck confit congee (Chinese rice porridge, $12). There are also things to order without duck, and if you get there early on weekdays — 7-9 a.m. — you can have a slightly smaller breakfast burrito (duck or no duck) for just $5.
950 S. Broadway
Before opening a stall in the new Broadway Market, chef Justin Brunson served his wildly popular hot chicken sandwich during lunch at Old Major, the Highland restaurant. Now that it has a dedicated space, the sandwich has spawned a full menu (chicken salad, cheeseburger, more). But it’s the hot chicken you’ll want, with ghost pepper, bread and butter pickles and cole slaw piled on top ($11.50).
2387 S. Downing St.
Calling itself “Colorado craft barbecue,” Roaming Buffalo takes its chef-owner’s Texas smoking tradition and turns it on its head. So while the city has plenty of tasty, fast-casual barbecue options, it’s this one that still stands out. Try Colorado pulled lamb shoulder ($20 a pound), Colorado bison back ribs ($20 per rack) and bison green chile and cheddar sausages ($4 each). And plan on getting there before 2 p.m., since they usually sell out.
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