By Philip Poston
By Jonathan Shikes
By Noah Reynolds
By Gretchen Kurtz
By Kate Gibbson
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Patricia Calhoun
The duck feet did me in. I've eaten some pretty freaky stuff in my time and have had duck (and chicken) feet on more than a few occasions, but after spending several days gorging myself up, down and across Denver's Far East intersection at Alameda Avenue and Federal Boulevard, the duck feet at The Empress (2825 West Alameda) proved a little much.
8100 W. Crestline Ave.
Littleton, CO 80123
Region: Southwest Denver Suburbs
I blame my Easter-weekend excesses on a single episode of the Food Network's Iron Chef. People claim that all the sex and violence on TV is responsible for the sorry state of today's youth, but what about those impressionable youngsters who are hypnotized by the flash and glam of kitchen life as presented by the Food Network? What of those misguided little guttersnipes dreaming of rewarding careers in investment banking or home-siding sales who take one look at Mario Bataliflaming up a dish of gamberetto, or Bobby Flay doing terrible things to an inch-thick cut of Kobe beef, and decide right then and there to forget their dreams of variable bond markets and sink all their Christmas money into a junior-sized chef coat and a secondhand set of Sabatiers? For that matter, what about impressionable young restaurant critics who innocently sit down on the couch, flip on the tube and -- purely by accident, I assure you -- stumble across a re-broadcast of the classic June '99 sushi battle between Nakazawa Keiji and Iron Chef Morimoto?
Okay, so I'd actually caught that episode before. In fact, I've been a huge Iron Chef fan since the day the Food Network started showing it, and I'm such a glutton for it that over New Year's, I spent two solid days digesting a marathon twenty episodes -- but that's all beside the point. Watching Morimoto and Nakazawa up there in Kitchen Stadium banging out the most innovative, beautiful, Edo-style conger eel, o-toro and kanpyo sushi I've ever seen affected me deeply. So much so that I spent the next two nights and three days on an Asian food bender that would have done Chairman Kagaproud.
I went out Good Friday looking for...something. I didn't know what, exactly. An adventure. Something different. Some weird, Blade Runner-meets-Indochine, neo-classic gaijinexperience. I wanted to get drunk and sing Styx songs in a divey karaoke bar. I wanted to sit in a sushi bar in the rain and have a stranger invite me across town for an underground game of high-stakes paigow poker with a one-eyed midget dealer and soft-footed geishas bringing round after round of pearl sake to the nervous players. I wondered how much of my losses I could expense to the company's tab.
Unfortunately, I didn't find any of this. While these particular thrills may be available in Denver, they're tough to find when you're out looking for them blindly on a Friday night. So instead, I ended up getting an over-large takeout order of good sushi from Sonoda's, driving home and watching the director's cut of Blade Runner.
But bright and early the next morning, I headed back out for breakfast at the Empress,one of those cavernous dim sum joints I tried before finding Mee Yee Lin.
"Cavernous" is an understatement. The Empress can probably seat 250 comfortably, and maybe fifty more than that if they squeeze in tight. The menu is vast, too, with a huge selection of Chinese entrees as well as all the dim sum standbys necessary for a properly terrifying breakfast. I had croissants stuffed with roast pork (not scary at all, really, just a slightly Asian take on the French pâté chaud), squishy har gow (shrimp dumplings), pork dumplings in sweet soy with quail-egg yolks quivering on top (the perfect breakfast food if you think of them as bacon and eggs and not pork paste and quail yolk), huge baked sweet buns filled with lemon curd, copious volumes of chrysanthemum tea, and the aforementioned duck feet.
I knew precisely what I was getting into when I ordered them. As expected, the plate came bearing four whole feet (chopped off above what I guess would be the duck's shins) and two smaller pieces that looked like chicken wings, all bathed in a thick, dark sauce. And here is where we get into one lesson of supreme importance when dealing with dim sum: Always arrive early. The earlier you show up, the fresher the food will be, the less time anything will have spent sitting under heat lamps or in warming boxes -- and the less chance there will be that a suspiciously metallic-tasting sauce will have coagulated around the duck feet, making them more a test of manhood than a meal.
I ate one foot -- picking the thin shreds of meat and skin off the bone, working around the webbing between the toes -- and was concerned. I ate the two extra pieces and was worried enough to stop eating there (having already made enough of a dent to prove I wasn't a wimp). I'm pretty sure that if I'd finished off the plate, I would have suffered some severe gastrointestinal consequences.
Still, everything else I had at the Empress was excellent, the crowds were loud and happy, and while the service I received was -- to put it politely -- dismissive, no one was outright hostile. But then, no one invited me across town to play paigow with a midget, either.