Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Imperial Chinese Restaurant: Define “imperial”?

To get all my usual disclaimers out of the way: a delivery order is not the same thing as a restaurant meal. You’re missing the ambiance & the service, which of course factor into a typical review—& by a majority of accounts to which I’ve got to give the benefit of the doubt, Imperial Chinese is lovely & smoothly run. You’re also risking the possibility that the increased time & space between the kitchen & your mouth will be detrimental to food quality—although if the restaurant in question is willing to deliver in the first place, it stands implicitly behind the results, which may not look quite as comely or be as piping hot as they would in house, but you’ll get the idea (especially if you avoid fried calamari or, um, soufflé or something that’s really best served immediately).

Taking all that into consideration, & recognizing that this place is something of a South Broadway institution, I nevertheless wouldn’t call anything we ordered on 2 occasions last weekend “imperial”—as in “royal,” “extravagant,” “magnificent,” etc. It was all pretty disappointingly commonplace, in fact.

I guess the best of the bunch were the Imperial noodles (pictured above right)—described on the website menu as containing chicken & shiitakes, but the round egg noodles were tossed instead with pork, scallions & peppers. Odd, but okay by me, though observers of various dietary strictures might object more strenuously. Simple but flavorful, nice & toothy, though I liked them even better when I splashed them with a little of the duck & mushroom soup (unpictured) that, by itself, was a bummer—starchy in texture, indifferently seasoned, highly suggestive of a packaged soup base—but that added a little moisture in lieu of sauce. Above left, the Director’s yue shang lamb—a variant spelling, I assume, of the more common yu hsiang, a term that usually indicates the presence of a fairly spicy, garlicky, salty-sweet sauce—wasn’t notably pungent, but at least the lamb & shiitake pieces were tender, the broccoli bright & crisp.

The “dim sum sampler” sure looked pretty by any measure, but proved a mixed bag. Pork shumai (right) were just fine, no better or worse than 100 other examples—unlike the gluey, drab har gow (shrimp dumplings, bottom). As for the green ones (left), the vegetarian filling was a pleasant surprise—cabbage, scallions, sweet winter squash, & what seemed to be couscous?! any ideas?—but the skins were doughy & chewy, not delicate & silky.

Which brings us to “Johnny’s seafood gumbo,” a supposed house specialty. Though brimming with perfectly firm-tender mussels, whitefish, scallops, shrimp & squid, the soup itself tasted exactly like equal parts gazpacho & sweet-and-sour dipping sauce—gloppy, cloying & just weird.

So I dunno. Imperial won’t be on my regular delivery rotation, that’s for sure. I may head there sometime to see if dining in yields a vastly different experience, but I won’t hold my breath in the meantime.

Imperial Chinese on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Lettuce with Pickled Tofu Sauce (& more!) at Hong Kong Barbecue

You’d think, after a matinee of Django Unchained, the Director & I would have been feeling particularly bloodthirsty upon stopping by the real-dealio Hong Kong Barbecue for takeout on Xmas Day, where the delightful family in charge was tending to 2 other couples of (I’m guessing) my tribal ilk as they dug into heaping platters of roast duck, whole fried fish, & garlicky pea shoots.

But of the quartet of dishes whose every last bite we adored, it was the titular vegetable (pictured on the right) that proved for me the ultimate revelation.

I’d initially ordered water spinach with pickled tofu sauce & jalapeños, but they were out of that, so I got the variation sauteed with romaine instead. Either way, if I’d thought about it too much beforehand, I might have gotten cold feet; after all, it should’ve occurred to me that “pickled” is synonymous with “fermented”—& one of my greatest gastronomic shames is that fermented soy beans, known to the Japanese as natto, absolutely turn me green with revulsion, try as I might to undo the damage done by Steve, Don’t Eat It!’s now-classic diatribe against the stuff.

But as it happens, fermented bean curd is a whole different (non-)animal, not unlike a soft cheese; this source nails the description as “reminiscent of Camembert, with a hint of anchovy flavor.” Turned into a thin sauce, it becomes a sort of Asian Alfredo—creamy & gently funky & spiked with the fresh green zing of sliced jalapeños—to highlight the distinct vegetal heartiness of the romaine, which is so much more obvious when it’s cooked than when it’s raw.

Pictured left is fish-ball curry, also a winner. Likewise relatively thin—the gloppiness one tends to associate with bad Chinese-American fare is nowhere to be found here—the curry was sprightly, dominated by the tang of ginger & onions, & the fish balls addictive, with the texture of scallops but the clear flavor of whitefish & whitefish alone (if they use any filler, it’s minimal). Chunks of red & green bell pepper & celery added a touch of contrasting crunch.

Satisfied as I was, I couldn’t keep my paws off either the Director’s ultra-treyf house-special fried rice with both shrimp & barbecued pork as well as scrambled egg (oy vey, kids) or his minced pork with sweet-potato glass noodles.

You can see for yourself how beautifully 2-toned the gristle-free pork on the left is, & the plump, firm shrimp were no slouches either, but the rice itself really brought it all together—only lightly fried to offer a little toastiness rather than soaked through with cooking oil. As for the dish on the right, it too was all about the slight sweetness of the actual, crisp-fried noodles & their thorough integration with the bits of tender pork & loads of bright carrot & celery—robust to be sure, but surprisingly variegated in effect.

The menu goes on & on, yet the number of concessions to whitebread expectation are refreshingly few compared to the myriad hot pots, congee bowls, & specialties rife with duck’s tongue & jellyfish, gingko nuts & lotus leaf. I won’t be waiting until next holiday season to explore it further.

Hong Kong BBQ on Urbanspoon

Awesome Names for Iffy Stuff: Ants on a Tree & Creaky Chicken

I wish I could say they lived up to their monikers. Much as I adore East Asia Garden when it comes to most Northeastern Chinese eats, a delivered order of Ants on a Tree was bland in the extreme, assuming blandness can be extreme. Of all the possible flavoring ingredients listed in the aforelinked Wikipedia entry, this dish contained, as near as I could tell, naught but neutral oil to moisten the ground pork that supposedly clings to the bean-thread noodles like ants on bark, hence the name (can’t say I see the resemblance). Ah well—plenty else on the menu to keep me happy.

As for the Creaky Chicken I ordered from Sunny Gardens, that moniker proves even more of a mystery; a request for info on Chowhound yielded zero responses, & Google only a few unrevealing links—the 1st of which leads to an 8-year-old review of a now-closed restaurant in New Jersey, called, of all things, Sunny Garden. Huh.

 

Anyway, it was indistinguishable from your average orange chicken—bummer.

However, the Director fared much better, despite appearances to the contrary, with a half-Peking duck.

 

Even for $12 bucks, we were a little taken aback that most of the meat was pre-rolled into into mu-shu wrappers, & suspected the worst of their contents. But wrong we were: they were stuffed silly with rich, moist shredded duck, along with bright slivered scallions & cucumber—no sauce added or required. If you thought of them as wraps, & we did, then you could give 3 cheers for hitting the sloppy cheap-eats jackpot. Whether that was just a lucky fluke remains to be seen.

Let Me Count the Ways: East Asia Garden

This is how lazy & stupid I am: I’ll wait an extra 15 minutes (at least) & spend an extra $5 (at least) to order delivery from a place I could drive to for take-out in 3 minutes tops. So when I saw that GrubHub, newly launched in Denver, included East Asia Garden—which I fell hard for while covering it for the now-defunct Denver Magazine a few months back—among its options, I promptly got a jones for northeastern Chinese food & set about placing an order, though the joint’s just around the corner. Funny thing, though: the phone number listed was EAG’s own. Confused, I contacted customer service online to ask: if I’m calling the restaurant directly, how do you know what to deliver? Answer: we don’t; they deliver it. In short, GrubHub basically acts as a menu clearinghouse, kinda useless in the case of restaurants that have websites—but helpful with respect to those, like EAG, that don’t.

Anyway, between my visits there, run by an adorably sweet family, & the delivery guy’s visits here, I can count the myriad ways I’m so glad this place is in my hood, & why you should support it too, sketchy appearance along an ugly stretch of South Broadway notwithstanding.

1. Though much of the menu consists of your standardized Chinese-American stuff, there are a few sections boasting regional specialties you’ll rarely if ever find the likes of between the coasts—Cold Dishes, Cross Bridge Noodles, & Traditional Northeast China Flavor (the latter does not appear on the take-out menu, only on the dine-in menu, which luckily is the one shown on GrubHub)—as well as a selection of buns & dumplings (baozi & jiaozi). Here you’ll encounter…

2. An array of “hot & spicy”—more accurately “room temperature & spicy”—preparations including julienned seaweed & potato (aka “silk”), sliced cucumber & tofu skin, alone or in a combo,

as well as beef shank.

Any & all are a must—smeared with chili-reddened & garlic-electric yet lightly sweet-&-sour marinade, they’re nonetheless cooling.

3. EAG’s buns are sometimes superb & sometimes not quite, but the odds are good that you’ll get a heap of tender, gleaming, silky-smooth pouches oozing with the savory juices of the pork/shrimp/cabbage inside, best doused in the accompanying black vinegar.

Though the filling’s every bit as moist & flavorful, EAG’s dumplings aren’t quite as successful. The 1st time I ordered them, they arrived steamed, a surprise since the menu noted “steamed also available,” which led me to assume pan-fried prep was the default. In any case, they were a bit on the thick, sticky side.

The 2nd time, I specified that I wanted them fried, again assuming they’d be pan-fried; instead, they were deep-fried.

Interesting, if a little underdone. Still, I’ll stick with Lao Wang’s potstickers from now on.

4. The traditional homestyle dishes are richly sauced, but not in the gloppy, cloying fashion of so much sweet-&-sour slop; rather, they’re all about a nice umami balance—soy, fermented bean pastes, rice wine, etc.—with the main ingredients that still shine through, from the sliced potatoes, tomatoes & bell peppers in the Three Earth Fresh

to the eggplant braised with onions, carrots & peppers in a soy-based sauce (with cornstarch, clearly, but not too much, lending silkiness)

to more eggplant in broad bean sauce, showing a completely different profile—darker, deeper & funkier,

to hairtail filets (bone-in) braised à la the first eggplant dish—fleshy, pungent, & not for those who don’t like fish that tastes like fish,

to firm yet fluffy, omelet-like wedges of tofu with more onions, peppers & carrots.

Granted, all of the above entrees are fairly similar in the comfort they offer; if you want the hard stuff—though you may have to do a bit of wheedling if you’re pale-faced—there’s fried pig liver, cold pig ear with cucumber & creamy, luscious tofu with black eggs, which cracked my 2010 Top 10 list.

Does EAG really deserve 5 stars? Obviously, the trio of Urbanspoon users who’ve reviewed it as of this writing don’t think so. So let me put it this way: the benefit of the doubt goes to the kitchen for caring & daring to do things a little differently, to broaden the horizons of a neighborhood in which the “ethnic” options are mostly mediocre (with a few exceptions, the Kizaki brothers’ empire included). That despite the odds it succeeds more often than not warms my cockles. And hope, rare as it is for a cynic like me, warrants at least a star or 2.

East Asia Garden on Urbanspoon

This Week on Gorging Global: Sizzling Sichuan at Ocean Forest Café

Don’t miss this week’s post on Denver Magazine’s The Mouthful—one of the finds of the year to be sure, from the wacked-out decor

to the damn-fine dumplings in red chile oil

& much, much more!

News of the Week: NYE Dinners at Beatrice & Woodsley & Vesta Dipping Grill; hot pots & more at JJ Chinese Seafood Restaurant

Many an industry pro considers New Year’s Eve—along with Valentine’s Day &, well, pretty much every Friday & Saturday—amateur night, an overhyped, pack-’em-in, toss-’em-out shitshow.

If there’s 1 restaurant I’d trust to be the stunning exception to the rule, it’s Beatrice & Woodsley, which positively killed it last Halloween. I wish the menu for this 6-course (7 if you count the amuse) were a little more detailed—given the $100pp price tag, I’d at least like to know, say, what comes with the veal or what precisely will rock that carrot-ginger soup (cause I guarantee something will); still, it’s a promising start. Betcha big bucks it sells out, so call 303.777.3505 nowish to make reservations for 7:30pm.

Amuse Bouche

1st course
Grilled diver scallop, sauce romesco, candied fennel & bacon
Domaine Giachino Jaquere, Savoie

2nd course
Seared Hudson Valley foie gras, petite minced meatless tart & tellicherry pepper essence
Castelfeder Schiava, Alto Adige

3rd course
Carrot-ginger soup
Selbach Incline Riesling, Mosel

4th course
Lobster & champagne “risotto”
Viña Santa Maria Torrontes, Mendoza

5th course
Assiette of milk-fed veal
Il Faggio Montepulciano, Abruzzo

6th course
Chocolate savarin cake, brandy & morello cherry ice cream
Dom Pérignon “Andy Warhol Colors” Special Edition 2002, Champagne

I can’t make similar promises for Vesta Dipping Grill; I enjoy the place, but given how crazy busy it gets on weekends, NYE could be a black sucking vortex. Still, they’ll be serving up some specials that actually sound special (again, with prices to match, suggested wine pairings not included—see: amateur night). Call 303.296.1970 for reservations:

Crab & house-cured bacon, triple-cream béchamel, butter-grilled brioche ($12)
Gruet Blanc de Noir

Grilled sea scallops, lobster risotto,creme fraîche–leek salad, tarragon demi ($36)
Maysara Pinot Gris 2009

Chocolate cheesecake cupcake, Nutella buttercream ($8)
Dow’s Late Bottle Vintage Port 2004

***

As I noted on this week’s Gorging Global blogpost, Cantonese joints like JJ Chinese Seafood Restaurant tend to specialize in seafood. But JJ also serves up a slew of hot pots, both the DIY variety—whereby you choose your broth & ingredients & cook it all up yourself at the table—& a more casserole-like array from the kitchen. Since the online menu doesn’t begin to indicate JJ’s wealth of menu options, here’s a look-see (click to enlarge):

“Chicken soup base” doesn’t do justice to the aromatic broth, speckled with jujubes (the Chinese date, not the drive-in candy), goji berries & ginger bits:

Our pal Keith got his with chicken & wontons; not unreasonable, but had it been my order, I’d have gone nutso on seafood & veggies. These hot pots also come with a so-called satay sauce, which isn’t the peanut-based dip of Southeast Asian cuisine but rather a cumin-&-garlic-dominated bowl of wonders I’d have gulped down like soup had I been slightly drunker. (Speaking of drinks, JJ offers two Chinese wines by the bottle. They ain’t cheap—$60 a pop—but they might be worth a shot for curiosity’s sake; rest assured the East Asian wine industry is primed to explode in the next decade or so.)

My own hot pot with was a fine, glistening mess of fatty chopped spare rib & its absorption by eggplant & tofu; if I said it tasted like green-brown & orange-yellow, would that make as much synthesic sense to you as it does to me?

Anyway, more to the point, I urge you to head over to Denver Magazine’s The Mouthful to immerse yourself in fried & salt-cured fishies.

JJ Chinese Seafood Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week 8/23-8/29: bao at East Asia Garden

My fondness for East Asia Garden has only grown since I profiled the S. Broadway Dongbei joint & the sweet-as-pie family who runs it for Gorging Global over at Denver Magazine's The Mouthful a few weeks back. Among the eats I'm unable to refrain from ordering every time, which, since I also insist on ordering specialties I haven't tried yet every time, means my table & I groan under the weight of at least 5 or 6 dishes every time, are the bao (steamed buns).

EAGbuns

Stuffed with pork & pickled veggies (&/or any of 5 other combos, but that's my favorite filling), chef Lee Qingrong's silken-skinned bao are made with a dough that, while risen, isn't quite so fluffy & yeasty as that you commonly find at Cantonese dim sum joints (cf Star Kitchen's); trusty Chowhounds tell me the difference is likely regional. (The good folks at China Jade make theirs in this style too, though I found them unfortunately too thick & clunky. Still, too many people I respect worship the place, so I need to give it a few more whirls.)

Why I love Chowhound, Chinese menus in English, & East Asia Garden

While researching my Gorging Global piece on East Asia Garden for Denver Magazine’s The Mouthful blog, I wound up in an e-mail exchange with a typically avid hound from Flushing who posts as scoopG.  He very kindly sent me a bunch of menus from Dongbei (Northeastern Chinese) restaurants out his way.

Photo 97

Scouring them, I’m charmed, fascinated, yearning to discover for myself such stuff as:

Seafood & blotch soup
Smoked chicken bone
Loofah dumpling steamed
Jelly flower w. shallot
Stew miscellaneous fish w. homestyle cookies
Sea cucumber w. elbow
Coriander herb (that’s all it says)
Crystal pig skin frozen
House special red bean pasta
Sauteed squid head w. spicy peppery
Moo shu persimmon soup
Pork-fried soba noodles halogen
Black fungus with yam
Red beans in egg whites (dessert)
Smiling (that’s all it says; dessert)

Obviously that’s just the beginning of the stuff I’m not familiar with, never mind the stuff I am & love.

It all reminded me to remind you to check out East Asia Garden for yourselves, now, as soon as possible. Driving by yesterday, they had a sign out front:

Try us You like us!

It’s true.

This Is The Last Time I Write This Review: John Holly’s Asian Bistro

A long time ago, an old friend of mine whom my thoughts are always with & who remains my favorite living poet, Chelsey Minnis, wrote a poem that began with the line “This is the last time I write about the moon.”

That will probably be the most interesting thing I say in this blogpost, & the recommendation that you read her work will be the most satisfying recommendation I make.

Because how many times can I get delivery from some pan-Asian joint I know is going to be so-so to begin with, find it to be so-so indeed, & write a so-so review about it? We’ll see, I guess. For now, I’m saying no more times. Oh good, it’s 5 o’clock.

***

Now I have a glass of wine, & I’m going to try to pull this off in the sudden haze of melancholy. There don’t appear to be many pro reviews of John Holly’s Asian Bistro; the fact that Warren Byrne supposedly liked it 8 years ago means next to nothing to me. Then again, the fact that there aren’t many pro reviews means next to nothing to me; we all have our moments when we just need someone to feed us hassle-free in our own homes, & the majority of eateries that provide such door-to-door service are the ones whose so-so-ness is a given. So if no one else is going to bother, I might as well; while quality matters less than convenience in said moments, it’s still nice to know which dishes might taste a little better than which others.

This is the filling for the lettuce-wrapped chicken. The lettuce isn’t pictured, since I assume you know what lettuce looks like. I’d have taken a picture if it had been wilted or rusted or otherwise deficient, but it wasn’t.

JHchickenlettucewraps
It’s listed as hot & spicy on the menu; it’s neither hot nor spicy (not that I’m sure what the difference is). But it isn’t bland either, or worse, too sweet; it’s a standard brown sauce marked by a touch of sweet chili smothering ground chicken, peas, red peppers & onion.

Speaking of things I’m not sure about…well, I could go on forever, but I was definitely curious as to how much lobster could possibly be included in a $3 lobster spring roll. I’m still not sure. Somewhere between “not very much” & “a tad more than not very much. Or not.” Could be a krabsticky version of lobster, or a mixture of real lobster & krab. In any case it isn’t pure lobster meat.

JHlobsterroll JHlobsterroll2

Which isn’t, again, to say it’s bad; given a warm, crispy-crunchy shell shiny with just enough grease & brain-clearing hot mustard as foils for the mildly sweet whatever, how could it be?

Its clear superior, however, is the steamed roll with beef.

JHbeefroll
To be clear, while the roll as a whole is steamed, the strips of beef inside are nice & fried with chunks of egg, cabbage, whole green beans & onion. I could make a meal of a few of these. Granted, I could make that same meal at home, but so what? The point is it’s nice not to have to.

Holly’s Lamb, according to the menu, is “sliced top round lamb…stirfried with low-sodium oyster sauce & a pinch of black pepper & cumin seed.” I like salt. Lots of salt. When I was little I’d pour a mound onto my palm & lick it off. I drink pickle juice. Etc. But I was pleasantly surprised by this dish,

JHlamb

which isn’t salt-free, rest assured; the sauce is richly savory, & the chunks of meat, red onion, red pepper & snowpeas generous.

As for the sushi, even keeping in mind that I was not in the hands of a master itamae here but chefs of the pile-&-stuff-&-pile-some-more school of American maki, I still thought the rolls I ordered were too much. Granted, I ordered ‘em; but that’s the kind of sucker for umeboshi (pickled plum) & shiso leaf I am: the roll on the left is the Kimberly, filled with salmon, avocado & asparagus, topped with seared albacore, & supposedly the ume was in there somewhere too. The roll on the top right is the Osaka, filled with spicy tuna & avocado & topped with mackerel, egg, & shiso. (On the lower right is Japanese squash.)

JHsushi
I definitely didn’t see, nor did I taste, all of the listed ingredients, & the fact that I don’t know whether that’s because the combos were just too busy or some things were actually left off is the whole problem. As it was the rolls were coming apart a bit at the seams.

JHsushi2
In sum: Not great, not bad, okay for weeknight delivery, like 100 other places I’ve covered.

John Holly's Bistro on Urbanspoon

East Asia Garden: The Plot Thickens Promisingly

Just got back from lunch at East Asia Garden with pal C; full post to come, but for now, suffice it to say that the take-out menu is not the whole story. (Click to enlarge.)

EAGmenu3
EAGmenu1
EAGmenu2
It’s not that you can’t find the “real” regional stuff amid the Americanized glop at many a local Chinese joint; it’s that I didn’t expect to find it here, on S. Broadway, far from the likelier corners, in a space most recently occupied by an only nominally Thai joint. Hell, hairtail? I thought it might be a bad translation, but it might in fact be this.

Stay tuned.