Crave Real Burgers, R&R Coffee Café, Zio's Italian Kitchen 

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click to enlarge Crave Real Burgers - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Crave Real Burgers

Crave Real Burgers

7465 N. Academy Blvd., 264-7919, craverealburgers.com

I don't know which of us has changed. Maybe both, but something must explain why I enjoy myself so much more now than in 2011, when I called Crave a mixed-bag carnival ride. The small Colorado chain has since won huge accolades at the Denver Burger Battle, while still embracing a giant-crazy-burger mentality.

But here I am, relishing the Drunken Onion ($11) dunked in French onion house jus, French dip-style, with Gruyere and Swiss slathering both fried and caramelized onions. Though big, it's cohesive and manageable. As is a special Buffalo Bill ($12), a fatty, crunchy, tangy flavor bomb with schnitzel-like, pounded pork tenderloin, bacon, fried pickles and onions, jalapeños, cheddar and barbecue sauce on a bison patty. Fries and slaw are good, service is stellar, and the kids meal is unbeatable for $5.50, with two mini burgers, fries, a drink and, finally, an ice cream scoop that can be turned into a shake (ours a simple but ambrosial mint-Oreo) for 50 cents more. — MS

click to enlarge R&R Coffee Café - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • R&R Coffee Café

R&R Coffee Café

11424 Black Forest Road, 494-8300, rnrcoffeecafe.com

Transparency note: When I first met R&R owner and roaster Ryan Wanner in 2009, I was an immediate fan of his outfit, and I've since touched base with him regularly. Most recently, I sat in on his barista training — continuing education and all — for those handling his products.

Beforehand, I bought a pint glass of his cold brew coffee on nitro ($4.25), which acts as coffee's version of Guinness, with a velvety head set above a sightly cascade of settling layers. It also could be seen as a highly caffeinated version of chocolate milk, once Wanner introduces a dram of pure liquid cacao sweetened with a touch of coconut sugar, called Cholaca (70 cents more). Blissful. He prefers the "bright, sweet" notes of a Central American bean (Guatemalan chosen here) in this context, saying African varietals tend to go funky. Newly hired baker Melanie Kunau pays similar attention to detail with her pastries, like a simple, light, sticky cinnamon rose ($1.25). — MS

click to enlarge Zio's Italian Kitchen - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Zio's Italian Kitchen

Zio's Italian Kitchen

6650 Corporate Drive, 593-9999, zios.com

Ten-year-old me spent a pre-birthday week salivating for Zio's, the Texas-based chain. Unlike most childhood memories, this one holds up fairly well 15 years later. The spicy shrimp with prosciutto ($13.79) arrives in a bowl that could fit a whole chicken. The Alfredo sauce mixes cheese with mild spice, and though the prosciutto blends into the background, the shrimp and farfalle noodles are both cooked well. For a side, the bright, garlic-heavy Tuscan tomato soup bests an over-dressed house salad.

The spinach chicken calzone ($10.79; $8.99 for a still-sizable lunch portion) arrives in a tasty wood-oven-baked crust with Gouda confusing an otherwise-straightforward Florentine bite. The house-made ranch zings, but the calzone cries yet louder for bacon as a result. For dessert, the caffé di Zio ($6.50) pleases as a martini-glass presentation of a Buttery Nipple (Bailey's and Bols Butterscotch) shaken with cream. The milk-heavy beast drinks more boozy than sugary. — GS

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