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Had Charlie Huang opened Little Ollie's Asian Cafe, his all-American noodle shack, among the nail salons and after-market car shops along South Federal Boulevard, deep in one of the area's several versions of Chinatown (or Koreatown, or Vietnamtown, or whatever), he would have been laughed off the block. That's the popular conception among Asian foodies, and it's one to which I subscribe -- especially after my recent meals there (see review). Had Huang stuck to dumplings, that might have been fine. But candy-coated fish and those abysmal ribs wouldn't fly down in the land of duck feet, black-bean prawns and crispy fried intestine.
But here's the thing: Huang never tried. He opened his original Little Ollie's in Aspen -- right in the middle of Fat City -- and his second in Cherry Creek. Like the saying goes, location, location, location...
Of course, if you're going to bastardize a cuisine, it's best to go someplace were no one knows the parents. Then there's no stigma. No complaints except from sore-ass snobs like me and a handful of purists you'd never be able to please anyhow. I may consider Huang's kitchen a total snooze, and I may think that he could save a lot of money on food cost by taking Polaroids of each menu item and then serving those snapshots instead because they'd taste about the same, but that's just me. The restaurant has a following as loyal as any -- customers who'd fight like gladiators in the pit just to get to the hostess station and then walk happily over the bodies of the vanquished for an order of ribs and Singapore noodles. Denver's Little Ollie's is ridiculously popular. I imagine Huang has to haul the money out every night in gunnysacks, there's so much of it. And when you've got that kind of support, there's only one right and decent thing to do.
2364 E. 3rd Ave.
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
So Huang decides to open another restaurant nearby. But not Little Ollie's squared, not Little Ollie's Mark III; more like Little Ollie's times a thousand, partnering with real-estate developer Jim Sullivanin his new building at Second and Columbine for Mao, a concept so big that the two of them probably had FRANCHISE tattooed across the inside of their eyelids so they could see it when they slept.
And, sure, the partners looked crazy as goddammed loons to all the looky-loos who spent the next year strolling by the almost-block-long space with the brown paper taped up over all its windows, craning their necks to try to get a peek inside. The opening was delayed again and again -- a tactic I'm not entirely convinced wasn't intentional to keep Mao's ridiculous name in the press.
But then Mao finally opened its doors in December, and not only is it far better-looking than I could have guessed, but it's twice as over-the-top and weirder by an order of magnitude. First, of course, there's the sweet irony of doing a zillion-dollar buildout in Cherry Creek, assembling a menu where dinner and drinks for four can easily run you upwards of 300 bucks -- and then naming the place after the granddaddy of Chinese communism. Better still, Mao's menus (which, except for the mediocre offerings from the sushi bar, are only nominally Asian -- which means exactly like Little Ollie's, only more expensive by 30 percent) come tucked inside little red books, and the back wall is adorned with a lovingly rendered, twenty-foot-high portrait of the chairman himself, looking more like Joe Pantolianoout for a stroll than the leader of a murderous agrarian revolution. For shock value, Huang and Sullivan might just as well have opened a Jewish deli called Little Hitler's or a breakfast place named Black Sambo's Chicken and Waffles. But choosing Chi-com agitprop as a decorating style? That takes both nuts and a really unusual sense of humor.
The color-changing sushi bar is hypnotic, the computerized laser-light system that splashes the dining room's ceiling with an ever-shifting smear of shape and color flat-out strange. Ever been to one of those Pink Floyd laser shows? It looks kind of like that, only Chinese, and worth -- in someone's mind, at least -- $50,000. And then there was the porn -- soft-core, sure, but from what I hear, some pretty hot girl-on-girl action -- that got early play on the dozen or so flat-screen plasma monitors that Mao sports throughout the bar and bathrooms. It was a strange move -- risky and doomed to scandalous failure in this age of New Puritanism, when five queers on prime time are A-OK, but two homosexuals kissing on a street corner can ignite a Supreme Court fight -- but the ladies went up on the screens only after 10 p.m. (when Mao the restaurant sheds any veil of respectability, turns down the lights, cranks up the DJs and becomes Bad Mao the nightclub), and it was nothing you couldn't see for $50 in the Champagne Room of your favorite gentleman's club.
The porn is gone now (and again, I'm not sure it wasn't a stunt to begin with), replaced by Hong Kong-style kung fu action flicks. When I showed up on a Monday night to check out the place, I got to watch Sonny Chiba kick some serious ass while I was peeing. And that's just not something a man gets to do that often.