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DEAL A MEAL

Most restaurant owners fall into one of two categories: chef or businessman. The chef usually winds up with his own place after suffering for years as a misunderstood artiste forced to conform to the mad wishes of the money people, only to discover that you need dough to make a restaurant rise. The businessman, on the other hand, usually views running a restaurant as no different from running a shoe store--which goes a long way in explaining why the food at his establishment tastes like leather.

The best restaurants boast ownership teams that include both types who somehow get along perfectly, or--even more rare--have a chef/owner who manages to be both pennywise and poundcake foolish.

Understanding the food as well as the finances takes extra effort, but it's paid off for Sue Smith, owner of the New Orient and Viaggio. Smith, who left her native Vietnam in the Sixties, has an MBA from the University of Denver; she spent several years on the bean-counter side of things before becoming interested in the beans themselves. "A friend of mine owned the New Orient years ago, and I would go over to help with the paperwork, try to help them reduce food costs," she says. "At the time, I wasn't interested in cooking at all, but I started to notice things. You know, what would I do different, that sort of thing." By 1982, the friend wanted out of the business, and Smith decided to make a career change.

"I didn't know anything about the food part," she admits. "I spent a lot of time over on Federal eating at all those Vietnamese places, studying the food and trying everything to see what would work." But once she had a workable Vietnamese menu in place at the stylish but simply decorated New Orient, Smith's business instincts kicked in. "I decided to offer specials each day that were different from anything you could get at the traditional Vietnamese restaurants. Things that would maybe take some chances and be creative," she says. "After all those years of being a typical economist, I discovered that I really loved and could handle the creative, and that it could make money, too."

Not to mention great food. On Smith's menu, such Vietnamese standards as beef-and-noodle bowls keep company with more upscale entrees like halibut encrusted in honey and sesame seeds with a sauce of dried cranberries and walnuts. When the cooking is this ambitious, there are bound to be a few misses--but not enough to spoil an overall sound operation.

One such disappointment: the chicken-asparagus rice-paper rolls ($4). The grilled chicken was juicier than you often find in spring rolls, and jicama gave a nice crunch, but the promised asparagus turned out to be three skinny, inch-long slips of the vegetable, which didn't add up to much flavor. Ah, but the incredible soft-shell crab ($5.95) more than made up for that lack. A gentle, tempura-style batter cloaked the swimmer (an old Chesapeake Bay term), which had been deep-fried into an exemplary balance of crunchy and soft, with no trace of grease and plenty of crab taste. This is my favorite Denver version of the dish, and every time I visit the New Orient I have to restrain myself from ordering more, more, more in order to save room for the rest of my dinner.

Smith is quick to share credit for the crab with her chef, Tien Ha. But the honey-crisp chicken entree ($7.25) is entirely her own inspiration. "I kept driving past Kentucky Fried Chicken, and I noticed that they are always so busy," she explains. "So I thought, `I'll bet if I come up with a crispy chicken, it'll sell.' And now it's the most popular item on the menu." And with good reason: The Colonel's recipe has nothing on these chicken strips coated in a thin batter and deep-fried until golden, then stir-fried with broccoli, snow peas and carrots in a spicy honey concoction. New Orient's dishes may cost a few dollars more than those at the average Asian restaurant, but they contain an above-average amount of meat rather than cheap vegetable fillers. For example, an order of shrimp and scallops in garlic sauce ($9.50) brought eight medium-sized shrimp and too many bay scallops to count, on top of just enough bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, baby corn, mushrooms, onions and cashews, all set off by a garlic sauce flecked with crushed red-pepper flakes. The sauce--not too garlicky, not too spicy and just the right consistency to both coat the ingredients and soak into the steamed rice--provided additional proof of Smith and Ha's savvy with proportions.

They continued to strut their stuff with the roasted-duck soup ($5.50 for two), a deceptively simple bowl that seemed to hold nothing but a few pieces of roasted duck, some egg noodles and several scallion loops floating in broth. But what a broth it was, strong and full of flavor that comes only when the kitchen takes its time and goes through the entire tedious process of cooking it down. We followed the soup with more complex offerings from the specials menu, which changes by one or two dishes daily and undergoes a major overhaul every three months. One item is so popular that it's offered most of the year: the Vietnamese seafood paella ($15.95), a collection of grilled salmon, shrimp, scallops, mussels and clams stir-fried in a fish-stock-based garlic sauce. But you have to be lucky enough to go at the right time, as we did, to catch the tropical mango chicken ($10.95), a healthy update on sweet-and-sour preparations that used mango, pineapple and strawberries to counteract the crisp-fried chicken and the tart fruit sauce. We also managed to hook the grouper potsticker special ($15.95), with mint pesto and baby bok choy in a paprika-tinged lemongrass broth.

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