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If I'm looking for noodles, I head to Chef's Noodle House (see review). But when I've got a yen for sizzling rice -- that most theatrical of Chinese dishes, and one badly mangled these days by kitchens that don't appreciate the inherent drama that once attended every Americanized Chinese dinner out -- I go to Wan's Mandarin House (13710 East Quincy Avenue, Aurora).
2500 W. Alameda Ave.
Denver, CO 80219
Region: Southwest Denver
Wan's started slinging soy sauce back in 1982, offering all the subgum and sizzling-rice classics that made up the thespian canon of Amerasian cuisine before Chinese food became synonymous with waxy takeout boxes of General Tso's chicken and weed-inspired midnight trips to Panda Express. And from the look of things, Wan's hasn't changed one whit in the past two decades. Service is friendly and quick (because odds are, if you arrive at any time other than prime lunch and dinner hours, you'll be the only one here). The smallish dining room is cafe-cutesy, with just enough curling dragons and paper lanterns to send even the most jaded and well-traveled foodie back to those simpler days when mu shu pork and egg rolls were still exotic treats to be savored and MSG was a legitimate (and mysterious) spice. The menu is long and inexpensive, full of flavors from a pre-P.F. Chang's world: sweet where you'd expect, savory when required, and simply built.
When people first come across a restaurant serving authentic abuelitaMexican cuisine, many think it's boring. It's not; it's just not what they expect after a lifetime of fiery, chile-spiked norteño, New Mexican and American-Mexican grub.
It's the same with true Mandarin cuisine. Fans of American-Chinese food are accustomed to the heat and spice of Hunan, the dovetailed chile and peppercorn preparations of Szechuan. They know blank-in-garlic-sauce (Hunanese), stir-fried whatever (ditto) and sweet, fried everything (Szechuanese), and they associate these two regional traditions with the paper takeout menus crowding their junk drawers. Mandarin, though, is gentler, more complex. Peking duck (and pressed duck and tea-smoked duck) is Mandarin. Steamed pork buns and pan-fried dumplings and all those wheat-flour-pancake mu shu dishes come from the Mandarin tradition. The origins of Mandarin food lie in the Imperial Courts of ancient Peking -- making it the grub of gods and emperors -- and while the elaborate presentations of carved vegetables and food sculptures are long gone, and the sense of cooking for kings diluted by the slow parade of pasty pink suburbanites filling the booths, the essence of flavor is still there.
As is at least a fraction of the theatricality, as evidenced by Wan's sizzling rice. Rather than rely on the pre-rice-cooker custom of using the burnt rice at the bottom of a pot to make "dancing rice" dishes for American culinary tourists, Wan's kitchen deliberately overcooks fresh rice, dries it, then uses it by the handful -- tossing it into thick, mucilaginous soups that nearly mimic the comforting Cantonese seafood porridges cooked up and down Federal Boulevard, or scattering it on top of meat and noodle dishes fresh from the pan. The effect is like throwing a spray of Pop Rocks into a vat of Pepsi, or like pouring boiling water over Rice Krispies: The sizzling rice snaps, crackles and pops, then goes still. All the fun is over in about three seconds, but I've had entire dinners at some knock-off Chinese places with fewer than three seconds of fun in them, so I'm not complaining.
I've been pleased to find Chinese traditionalists giving the public a taste of foods they usually serve in private. JJ Chinese Restaurant(1048 South Federal) does some really frightening plates straight out of Guangdong province; the nearby Ocean City feeds the multitudes with Mandarin hot pots, Shanghai and Hong Kong-style fresh seafoods and those Cantonese porridges. Special props, though, go to Wan's for not only doing a passable version of Mandarin cuisine, but for staying true to the classics of Chinese-American cuisine -- and in the process, reminding us of when Chinese food was fun.
Leftovers:Noodles & Company may not be my favorite noodle house, but it picked a local favorite, three-breasted drag queen Nuclia Waste, as the People's Choice in its 2005 Asparagus Queen contest (a Wisconsin woman took the crown last Friday). What may have won the people over, Nuclia says, was her parody of a Star Wars poster in which she's seen waving not a lightsaber, but a piece of asparagus, right by the slogan "Cross Over to the Green Side."
Then again, there was Nuclia's answer to the contest's "Do you like asparagus?" query: "No, I do not like asparagus. I LOVE asparagus. It is what I live for. I pine in winter while my asparagus lays sleeping under the snow. In the spring, I will sit for days in my garden waiting for their fresh little heads to poke through the soil. I gather their tender stalks to my bosom and caress them with love and tenderness. Then I eat them."
Had she won the crown, Nuclia had a far more selfless plan for the vegetable. "I had promised to use my winnings to rid the asparagus smell from pee," she tells me. "Alas, that scientific endeavor will have to wait for another day."
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