The Aurora Sentinel’s inaugural Grade A Awards were published Aug. 30 honoring the things we love best about Aurora. It includes the results of our readers’ poll as well as staff picks. You can still pick up a free copy through Sept. 5 where the Aurora Sentinel, Buckley Guardian and Life Science newspapers are available, and also at aurorasentinel.com.
Here is just a taste of Grade A: The food-related awards that I gave out to my favorite restaurants, bakeries and markets in Aurora.
Grade A Persian Zereshk Poloe and Morgh
We may not be able to pronounce it but Darya‘s zereshk poloe and morgh is absolutely our favorite new chicken dish in Aurora. Hassan Soleimani’s welcoming Persian eatery roasts saffron-infused, bone-in bird until it literally falls off the bone in moist shreds. The chicken is served on a mound of buttered, steamed basmati rice with grains so long they look like thin vermicelli noodles. Sprinkled across the top are grains of yellow basmati and dozens of tiny, tart, dried barberries. The cranberry-like taste matched with the roasted chicken lends a Thanksgiving-like appeal to the dish. We enjoyed it with silky hummus and mirza ghasemi, a baked eggplant dip, and a glass cup of floral Persian tea.
• Darya Persian Restaurant, 10890 E. Dartmouth Ave., Aurora; 303-750-4326
Grade A Scones With Clotted Cream and Seedless Raspberry Jam
It has gotten to the point that there are scones everywhere — breakfast joints, coffee shops and gas stations — in various shapes and sizes. More than 90 percent of them are just biscuits in disguise that are laced with chocolate and plastered with glaze, nuts and sprinkles as if they were doughnuts. That why the real scones at The English Teacup are such a wonderful discovery. The scratch-made round scones come in diverse flavors from traditional plain to cinnamon apple and a wonderful cherry mango version. Presented warm on an English china plate, one enjoys it slowly with thick, rich clotted cream, imported seedless raspberry jam, low-key gentility, BBC accents and a well-made cup of tea.
• The English Teacup, 1930 S. Havana St., Aurora; 303-751-3032
Grade A German Schnitzel, Spatzle and Red Cabbage
When a bit of fall chill finally arrives in Aurora, we’re making a beeline back to Helga’s for some German-style comfort. Our favorite is the a thin-pounded pork schnitzel with warm brown sauce sided with buttered noodle-y spatzle dumplings and soft red cabbage. A slice of apple strudel, a tall stein of good German pilsner and some polka music make it perfect.
• Helga’s German Restaurant, 14197 E. Exposition Ave., Aurora; 303-344-5488
Grade A Eastern European Meat Treats
We don’t argue when the folks at Solomon’s Grocery & European Deli say “taste this!” That’s how we discovered a great Estonian summer sausage and the best bologna in the world. Besides Eastern European groceries, this compact establishment sells an array of sausages and meats including Lithuanian bacon, smoked pork loin, and hunter’s sausage along with assorted soft cheeses and heavy-duty rye bread to put it on.
• Solomon’s Grocery & European Deli, 1939 S. Havana St., Aurora; 303-337-6454
Grade A Glazed Blueberry Fritters
When we need that over-the-top extra morning boost, we invest our calories and fat grams in one of the classic fritters at the independent Donut House in Aurora. The cake and raised doughnuts are tasty enough, but we make the pilgrimage for these fried dough wonders that have enough heft and density to stand up to blazing hot coffee without dissolving into mush. The many nooks and crannies of the fritter are deluged with glaze so there’s plenty of sugar in every single super cinnamon-y bite. There are two varieties: apple, and our personal favorite, blueberry.
• Donut House, 746 Peoria St., Aurora; 303-367-4603
Grade A Ricotta-Filled Italian Cannoli
When you name your eatery the Wholly Cannoli Cafe, you better serve an exceptional rendition of the namesake product. Luckily, this bakery and Italian-accented cafe on the southern edge of Aurora dishes a nearly perfect cannoli we grew to love on the East Coast. One bite of the crisp tubular shell filled with the traditional, lightly sweetened ricotta dotted with tiny chocolate chips and we were ready to sing “O Sole Mio” and have an espresso. While you’re there check out the soft-chewy pignoli (pine nut) cookies and take home an eggplant Parmesan grinder.
• Wholly Cannoli Cafe, 22691 Aurora Parkway, Aurora; 303-400-4110
Grade A Chicken-Stuffed Moroccan Bastilla
Cafe Paprika chicken bastilla is so good it’s even made guest appearances in our dreams … at least our culinary ones. When this savory Moroccan meat pie arrives at the table, a spice and saffron perfume teases your nose. Within crisp, golden sheets of phyllo dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon nests a warm melding of ground chicken, onions and nuts with egg custard and spices. It’s a wonderful celebratory sweet and savory dish.
• Cafe Paprika, 13160 E. Mississippi Ave., Aurora; 303-755-4150
Grade A Hot Italian Sausage Sub Sandwich
Talk about links to the past! Everything about the Italian sausage sandwich at Carmine Lonardo’s hews to time-honored tradition. First, there’s the famous house-made hot Italian pork sausage flecked with lots of fennel seed and red pepper flakes. The warm sausage is tucked in a hunk of soft Italian bread and swathed in a good puree-rich tomato sauce with basil. We like it topped with a couple of slices of real Provolone cheese. Finally, it’s wrapped in white waxed butcher paper just like in the Italian-American delis of New England. The taste combination is ridiculously good.
• Carmine Lonardo’s Meat Market and Italian Deli, 15380 E. Smoky Hill Road, Aurora; 303-699-4532
Grade A Hot Hush Puppies with Barbecue Sauce
Some go to the venerable Shead’s for smoked ribs or catfish, but we go back again and again just for the hush puppies. These are essentially cornmeal-based balls the size of doughnut holes laced with corn and black pepper. Straight from the hot oil, the dense little treats are positively addictive, especially with a little of the shop’s sweet smoky barbecue sauce on the side and maybe a peach cobbler chaser.
• Shead’s BBQ & Fish, 12203 E. Iliff Ave., Aurora; 303-755-0818
Grade A Masala Dosa With Chutney and Raita
Forget the fact that dosas are healthy or vegetarian or that they originated in Southern India. We think if just about any Aurora diner dug into a masala dosa they’d smile and shout “yum!” At Masalaa Indian restaurant, creamy, lightly spiced mashed potatoes are tucked inside a pliable-but-crispy crepe made from rice and lentil flour cooked on a griddle. It’s comfort food of the first order. We enjoy our masala dosa with tamarind or mint chutney and cooling white raita. Others dosas enclose fried onions or are simply brushed with oodles of ghee — clarified butter. What’s not to like?
• Masalaa Indian Vegetarian Cuisine, 3140 S. Parker Road, Aurora; 303-755-6272
Grade A Chinese Pork Wontons in Red Spicy Oil
Skip the same old preparations such as sweet and sour pork when you visit China Jade. Instead, grab a copy of the special “Chinese” menu that features the really good stuff. Our go-to genuine Szechuan-style dish is wontons in red spicy oil. These having nothing in common with those cream cheese- and ”krab”-filled wontons things dished by many Chinese cafes. These are delicate pasta envelopes filled with green onion-y ground pork that are drenched in Szechuan chile-infused oil that tastes benign at first but gradually spreads warmth across your face.
• China Jade, 12203 E. Iliff Ave., Aurora; 303-755-8518
Grade A Wisconsin Bratwurst Sandwich With Sauerkraut
Sometimes we are not in the mood for cuisine. We could care less about having a culinary adventure. We just want a brat and the best place to get one in the metro area is at Bender’s, Aurora’s unpretentious bastion of Wisconsin comfort fare. They start it right by grinding pork and filling their own Sheboygan-style links. The sausages are flame-grilled and split on a fresh white bun. What you add after is your call, but we go with onions, sauerkraut and brown mustard and a side of Bender’s good, warm German potato salad. That’s a simple, satisfying pleasure.
• Bender’s Brat Haus, 700 S. Buckley Road, Aurora; 303-872-3569
Grade A Salsa Bar For Tacos, Pupusas and Tortas
It’s taken awhile but diners are finally discovering the pleasure of real Mexican food at taquerias like Tacos Y Salsas. The Aurora shop of the small local chain dishes tacos, gorditas, burritos and tortas filled with tender chopped meats in various styles including al pastor and barbacoa. We particularly like the Torta Milanesa, a griddled soft bun layered with chicken-fried beef, cheese, avocado and lettuce. What elevates this and all the other dishes is the small eatery’s extensive salsa bar featuring six types of salsas. We add a spoonful of edgy habanero salsa to our sandwich along with pico de gallo, sliced radishes and onions, chopped cilantro, and a very large squeeze of fresh lime. It’s a regular flavor carnival on your palate.
• Tacos Y Salsas, 9103 E. Colfax Ave., Aurora; 303-367-1046
Grade A Pad Kee Mao “Drunken” Noodles With Shrimp
When you order the wonderful Pad Kee Mao at Thai Street Food in Aurora, we urge caution when setting the heat level. “Medium” is more than hot enough for most folks. “Hot” will thrill most heat-seekers. If you order “Thai hot,” chef and owner Utumporn Killoran will smile a little and your brain will melt. You really want to be able to taste her exceptional “drunken noodles” made with wide rice noodles wok-ed with crisp veggies, eggs, herbs, rice wine, lots of shrimp and a few whole Thai peppers for extra oomph. You can also set the “juiciness” level from broth-y to almost dry. You will deeply appreciate that huge mug (and refills) of Thai iced tea and the other delights on this authentic menu.
• Thai Street Food, 11650 Montview Boulevard, Aurora; 303-587-2293
Grade A Coconut Custard Pie With an Espresso
Flava is nothing like your mother’s soul food restaurant. Owner Sandy Hullum kicked out the cans, cut back the salt, and makes everything from scratch. The year-old spot delivers righteous lightly fried catfish, an exceptional hand-formed burger, real fried chicken, Cheddar-y mac-n-cheese, great greens and strong iced tea. We love the eatery’s distinctive coconut custard pie jam-packed with sweet coconut and a toasted macaroon-like crown and the fact that we can enjoy it with a well-made cup of espresso or cafe au lait.
• Flava, 15343 E. 6th Ave., Aurora; 303-856-3590
Grade A Chinese Dan-Dan Noodles With A Kick
When we want to broaden the range of real Chinese dishes we always head to Chef Liu’s. On a whim we ordered dan dan noodles because they sounded tasty. Our waitress asked “Is spicy okay?” When we dug into the dish we understood why she asked. A mass of thin rice noodles in a sesame-based sauce was tumbled with tiny chunks of beef, lightly wok-ed with baby bok choy, cool cucumber slivers and a sprinkling of peanuts. The sauce had an undeniable Szechuan kick, but mainly it was a rich and complexly layered flavor that lingered. It made us want another bowl.
• Chef Liu’s Authentic Chinese Cuisine, 562 S. Chambers Road, Aurora; 303-369-2220
Grade A Seaweed-Wrapped Sizzled Spam Musubi
Make all the Monty Python jokes you like but Spam has become a stalwart ingredient on menus around the world. Nowhere is the canned meat product more revered than in Hawaii where American ingenuity intersected with Japanese culinary precision in the form of Spam musubi. At L&L Hawaiian Barbecue they layer a block of warm sushi rice with a teriyaki-seasoned slice of griddled Spam and wrapped with a band of dried seaweed. The salty pork-y, ham-y meat is balanced nicely by the rice with a hint of the sea and it makes a warm, appealing handheld snack. Other musubi can be topped with sausage, chicken cutlet or barbecue chicken, but we say Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam.
• L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, 14221 E. Cedar Ave., Aurora; 303-340-8824
Grade A Mexican Pineapple Empanadas
Walking into the recently opened Las Princesas Bakery our eyes lit up at the sight of all the familiar Mexican treats. There were the cookies of all sorts and colors and the sugared, flaky butterfly pastries so great for dunking in coffee. Rows of doughnuts competed for attention with slabs of frosted cake and cream-filled horns. We had to grab a few bolillos — soft pointy white rolls, but if we need to name a favorite we’d always pick a big empanada with sweet-tart pineapple filling.
• Las Princesas Bakery, 15343 E. 6th Ave., Aurora; 720-229-6957