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To finish off the Chinese-American trifecta that filled my mailbag (see below), last week I took a spin by Little Olive, at 1050 South Wadsworth in Lakewood.
2364 E. 3rd Ave.
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
In the beginning there was Little Ollie's, a Cherry Creek offshoot of the popular Aspen eatery owned by Charlie Huangand John Holly. Their Denver collaboration didn't last, though, and while Huang retained day-to-day oversight of the Denver Little Ollie's (and later would partner with developer Jim Sullivan on the nearby Mao), Holly went on to open Little Holly's at 2223 West Wildcat Reserve Parkway in Highlands Ranch. Most of the cooks stayed at Little Ollie's -- but its menu was repeated almost word for word at Little Holly's.
In the meantime, Little Olive opened in Lakewood. After a few name changes (it's Little Olive Asian Seafood Kitchen on business cards, Asian Olive Bistro on the takeout menus) and ownership shifts, six months ago it finally landed with Tommy Lee, who had come up through the kitchen of Imperial Chinese Seafood Restauranton Broadway. Lee took a menu that was another near-carbon-copy of Ollie's (and thus Holly's) and expanded it, adding Thai, Korean and Vietnamese dishes and a "group share" roster full of moo shu, kung pao and yu shang. More important, he poached two of the good cooks from the Little Ollie's line, bringing Wei Huang and Jason Ha on board in hopes of getting the flavor Ollie's had been known for without turning Olive into another Ollie's clone.
"Chinese food is all the same now," Lee explains. "Food is the same, name is the same, but the flavor is different. You work, you get the right flavor, the right taste. The flavor is what matters."
Olive got my order a little confused, but the orange beef suggested by a server was just as good as he promised it would be (and probably better than the sesame chicken I'd wanted), and even if I didn't order them, the spare ribs were better than even the huge racks I get from my favorite Chinese delivery place, Szechuan Express. The sweet-and-sour chicken featured a tomato-based sauce that was actually sweet and sour, kind of maple-y and nutty, with white sesame seeds; the sea bass came in a light ginger sauce that complemented the fish rather than overpowering it. But instead of a proper, crisp tempura, the quote-unquote shrimp tempura had been jacketed in a thick batter, and the egg rolls were nothing to write home about.
Still, the best move of Tommy Lee's career was not buying that video camera on the night before his wedding (what, you think I could let that name go without at least one joke?), but getting those guys from Ollie's to jump ship. "Our menu came from the chefs, because that's what they knew how to cook, so it looks the same," Lee says. "But the flavor? The taste? That you can change. That's what we did."
Dead letter day: Skeeter, who runs the mailroom here at Bite Me World HQ, was just trying to protect my feelings when he hid this week's letters in a sack out by the dumpster. I understand that. And I feel bad about ordering the little snipe to be publicly flogged for what was merely a misguided attempt to shield yours truly from the slings and arrows and truly unfortunate grammar of my fellow man.
But Skeeter had to be made to understand that all correspondence delivered unto these hallowed chambers -- no matter how pissy, no matter how loudly it ticks -- must be treated with the utmost gravity. Why, just last week, I received an entreaty from a troubled Nigerian banker in need of my assistance, and had I not received his urgent missive (and promptly provided him with my bank account numbers, PIN and a copy of my Social Security card), I wouldn't right now be expecting a cool $3 million deposit in my name -- the funds already earmarked for company jet packs and hiring the Pogues to play at our annual St. Paddy's Day shindig.
So after his flogging, I explained to Skeeter that, because I'm ultimately responsible to the people who read my columns, it's vital that those people be able to tell me exactly what they think of the job I'm doing. And despite all the ink I've spilled recently criticizing Little Holly (Bite Me, February 26) and Little Ollie's ("Remember Yen," January 8), John Holly and Charlie Huang should be gratified by the number of loyal customers willing to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards, as the case may be) in order to vent gallons of bile in my direction and defend their favorite restaurants.
And that's great. That's how the system is supposed to work. I say I dislike something, folks write in and say I'm an asshole; I say I like something, folks write in and say I'm an idiot; I say the sky is blue, folks write in and tell me I'm colorblind. It's a fine example of modern Socratic dialogue, and I'm happy to be a part of it.
The words "upset," "appalled," "insulted" and "offended" figured prominently in many recent letters. Jimfrom Parker insisted that while he "usually wouldn't waste time commenting" on the lowly scribblings of a restaurant hack, my Bite Me comments about Little Holly "almost seemed like a personal attack on the restaurant and its owner." They weren't -- my comments were directed at the food -- but that didn't slow down Jim. "When the columnist spoke of 'bastardized shrimp' and the owner 'ruining Chinese cuisine,'" he continued, "I found myself wondering if he himself was Asian and who he is to criticize an Asian-owned restaurant of bastardizing their own culture?"
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