Acova can hardly contain itself. The action at this sprawling Highlands restaurant, which last year filled the empty space housing Patsy’s Inn for 95 years, connects with the neighborhood through an indoor-outdoor bar, patio, and play area. It’s all the vision of ebullient owner Betsy Workman, who with husband Sean also operates The Hornet on South Broadway. “The Hornet is my husband,” she says with a big smile, the way she says just about everything. “This is me.”
Betsy and their son, now 10, found out a few years ago that they have celiac disease. The Workmans like to eat out and seek out gluten-free options, so they were discouraged to learn that many kitchens were cross-contaminating fryers, cutting boards, and utensils. On most menus, they concluded, “gluten-free” meant “almost gluten-free.”
Betsy designed Acova to be 100 percent celiac-safe, seeking to make food that’s also 100 percent delicious. On the busy Friday night we visited, she spread her cheer from table to table—young couple with infant twins here, two middle-aged couples there, a dozen 20-somethings in the middle.
Our perky waitress suggested we start with the Seared Ahi + Herb Polenta Cakes ($11). The fish melted in our mouths, and the accompanying slaw added pop. Calamari Fra Diavolo ($11) nodded tenderly to the restaurant’s old Italian roots and new name, which means “nest.”
We couldn’t help trying the Acova crowd’s favorite drink, the Misty ($8), a wine slushie made of red, white, or both. It tasted best with one of the optional ($4) liqueurs. (Try the white with the peach liqueur for a summer cooldown.)
Salads are, of course, beautiful. The shaved Brussels sprout and kale salad ($12), accompanied by apple rings, is garnished with a personal Betsy touch of the unexpected (“the twist,” she calls it): granola.
The Fish N’ Chips entrée and the Icelandic Cod have their fans, but one dish rises above all expectations for those who eat gluten-free, and that’s the Honey Stung Fried Chicken ($19). Its crispy, buttermilk-battered crust encases a fresh, moist chicken breast. A honey cayenne drizzle represents “the twist” here, and whipped potatoes and spicy greens with sausage gravy serve as the complicit sidekicks.
Our surprisingly gluten-free dessert choice: the Apple Donuts ($7), fried apples that came with vanilla ice cream, strawberries, and caramel. We wanted only to taste them, yet we devoured them.
After dinner, we toured the vast patio that leads back to what Betsy calls “The Nest,” a play area for kids full of toys, games, and learning tools. When those infant twins at the next table grow into antsy toddlers, Mom or Dad can run them outside between courses at the neighborhood dining spot that doesn’t lose fun when it eliminates gluten. —Susan Fornoff
3651 Navajo St.
When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, chef Sebastian Ramirez- Lohne lost everything. His restaurant, Parcela: blasted to bits. His livelihood: gone. Fast forward two years, and that tragedy has given way to something beautiful in Denver’s Lower Highlands, some 2,700 miles away. Last year, Ramirez- Lohne joined chef Blake Edmunds in the kitchen of Señor Bear, and the new menu they’ve spun from the partnership is, in our opinion, the restaurant’s best yet.
New dishes include the tangy bean escabeche ($9), the mashed root vegetables in garlic and parsley oil ($7), and the mofongo, a dense offering of fried green plantains that’s widely known and loved in Puerto Rico. Traditionally cooked with chicharron, or fried pork skin, the dish is gussied up here with braised chicken, green papaya slaw, and mango habañero dressing ($22). “One of my favorite kitchen hobbies is making sausages,” Ramirez-Lohne has said, and it certainly shows. The restaurant has been serving new ones—like the recent chorizo parrillero with chimichurri and braised winter greens ($14)—every few months.
When I visited on a recent evening, I made sure to focus on Ramirez-Lohne’s additions to the menu, though I couldn’t help veering off for a few old favorites, like the short rib with chile and herb sofrito, served inside a banana leaf atop a dense little hummock of sticky rice ($24). The coconut rice, a longtime crowd fave, is as good as ever, its milky sweetness balanced by a light, piquant tang, thanks to the small amount of salsa criolla wisely blended in ($7). —Andrew Weaver
3301 Tejon St.