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The best bites from three new Denver restaurants

Getting handed a menu at a new restaurant can be thrilling. It’s a fresh list of culinary possibilities and techniques. Eyes linger to nearby tables for inspiration as exciting aromas waft from the kitchen behind the servers. A diner could be on the precipice of greatness.

But it can also be overwhelming, especially for those who might not feel confident ordering outside of their comfort zone.

Denver has new restaurants popping up every week it seems, expanding the culinary landscape at a faster pace than our stomachs can keep up with. To offer some suggestions, I wrote a recent list of 3 of my favorite bites from Michelin-starred restaurants. This time around, I have 3 recommendations about some of the city’s new restaurants.

Alma Fonda Fina: Frijoles puercos

Alma Fonda Fina’s frijoles puercos sum up this new Lower Highland neighborhood restaurant perfectly. Chef Johnny Curiel recreated the dish his mother, Alma, makes him every time he returns home to Guadalajara, Mexico. “This is a core dish to the restaurant,” Curiel said. “It’s really well conceived and connects diners to our story and flavors.”

Curiel and his wife, Kasie, opened Alma Fonda Fina in the former Truffle Table space in LoHi at the end of December.

The traditional Mexican dish ($15) is made with refried beans, chorizo and smoky chile de arbol salsa verde, reminiscent of the one served at his parents’ “fonda” – “a mom-and-pop place, where blue-collar workers go for lunch,” Curiel said.

Curiel folds corn flown straight from Mexico into the beans, which is “why it’s so creamy,” he said. He makes his own grind for the chorizo, which is marinated for 36 hours and cased in-house. And the dish is served with a side of sourdough tortillas, reminiscent of Guadalajara’s traditional birote (sourdough bread). Curiel said they make 130 every day. “I didn’t want to half-ass the bread,” Curiel said. “It took us probably 30 to 40 different tries before we nailed down the tortillas.”

The fina (fine) aspect of the dish comes from the upscale plating and labor-intensive techniques it takes to make the chorizo and tortillas. “I know I’m doing my mom proud,” Curiel said.

2556 15th St., Denver;

Ukiyo: Mushroom trio

If there’s any new menu that might overwhelm you, Ukiyo’s 18 courses — ranging from small plates of sushi and nigiri to jerk chicken, scallops fresh from Japan, lobster and truffle potato ravioli, and a show-stopping dessert — probably takes the cake. The 12-seat omakase experience ($175 per person) opened in the basement of Bao Brewhouse last month.

Through his menu, Chef Phraseuth “Paul” Sananikone tells the story of his life as a second-generation chef whose parents taught the art of hibachi cooking, as well as techniques for Laotian and Thai (from his mother’s heritage).

The dish I connected with the most was his Mushroom Trio, made with enoki, maitake and shiitake Japanese mushrooms, butter, garlic and thyme. The dish is wrapped up in aluminum foil and tied together with a string, an ode to Sananikone’s childhood around the campfire with friends. The playful presentation brought back my own childhood memory of making banana boats with chocolate and marshmallows at Girl Scout Camp. It was like a savory, buttery bite of a favorite core memory.

1317 14th St., Suite 0, Denver;

Nana’s Dim Sum & Dumplings: Red Sea chili wontons

This new Highlands restaurant, which opened in October, fills up from the moment it opens at 4 p.m., and I finally had the chance to figure out why. It took me a few attempts to get into the buzzing spot, hoping that an early arrival would give me an advantage. But everyone else had the same idea. Not only that, but Nana’s has a 90-minute table time cap, which I haven’t seen since COVID. But the second I tasted the food, I understood why.

The menu is a dry-erase board so you can pace out as many servings of dim sum and dumplings as your stomach pleases. We ordered the crab rangoon, and they were filled to the brim with fresh crab, and served with a side of fresh lump crab for proof you’re not eating the usual imitation stuff. The wontons were hot and fresh, breaking apart easily, and without any day-old chew.

The star of the show, though, was the Red Sea chili wontons ($20 for eight pieces) with shrimp and pork, covered with red chili sauce, garlic and sesame seeds. The chili clears your nostrils like Moses parted the Red Sea, and every bite packs a punch of flavor that creeps through the spiciness so that you will be disappointed when the plate is empty.

3316 Tejon St. #102, Denver;

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