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But I was looking for something different: to eat "normal" (which really is just to say "American") in a place that is anything but.
And Chopsticks was perfect. The walls were scarred with chips in the paint. The seating was all upholstered armchairs. The fish tank by the front door contained just one lonely-looking swimmer -- not the clouds of bright, decorative fish I'm accustomed to seeing, or the piles of crabs and lobsters I'm accustomed to eating. And the menu (though long and deep and full of strange tastes) also included chop suey, sesame chicken and Kung Pao everything.
Here's a short list of what I didn't eat at Chopsticks: flaming pig's intestine with hot-and-spicy sauce; cold jellyfish salad (ensalada de medusa, in the menu's Spanish translation); steamed prawns with lotus leaves; pork-stomach soup with pickled vegetables (that one was tough to skip); and "three cup sauce frog with basil." I didn't get any of the hot pots I saw Asian customers eating because I couldn't find them anywhere on the menu. And I didn't order the pomfret with soya bean sauce because I had no idea what a pomfret was. (It's a fish.)
5117 S. Yosemite St.
Englewood, CO 80111
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
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Egg and crab dumplings: $7.95
Pork dumplings: $6.25
Beef shank: $4.95
Jellyfish salad: $6.50
Beef with garlic sauce: $9.95
Flaming pig’s intestines: $8.95
Pork with Peking sauce: $9.95
Sesame pocket: $6.95< br>Yellow fish with garlic: $10.95
Although finding something on a menu that I've never heard of usually puts it right at the top of my list of things to try, apparently that's not normal, either: Most people want to know what's going to be coming to the table before they order it. Weird.
Here's what I did eat at Chopsticks: dumplings, sandwiches and barbecue; noodles, more dumplings and pork chops. I had lo mein because lo mein is like spaghetti gone bamboo, and no one is threatened by a plate of spaghetti. I even skipped the Shanghai-style lo mein in favor of the simplest chicken lo mein, because the Shanghai lo mein included a few unusual veggies, and I know how unusual veggies freak some people out.
But even the plain chicken lo mein was fantastic -- seriously good in that way where, even after you've cleaned your plate, you start picking through the serving platter for any tasty bit left behind and running your fingers through the sauce. The noodles were done just right and were neither too stiff nor too limp. The sauce was sweet and thick, the vegetables (nothing more intimidating than red peppers, mushrooms, green onions and some cabbage) were fresh, the chicken all white meat and delicious. It was the best lo mein I'd had in as long as I could remember -- which really isn't saying anything, because I can't remember the last time I walked into a Chinese restaurant and ordered chicken lo mein of my own free will.
But even so, I could see why people would want to eat this rather than shredded lamb stomach with mixed vegetables (the Chinese haggis, also available on the Chopsticks menu). I could see where some people might be greatly comforted by something like this.
Emboldened in my quest for banality, I ordered egg and crabmeat dumplings -- rationalizing that people like eggs and people like crab, so why wouldn't they like them together? -- and got a steamer filled with eight handmade dumplings, each as big as a six-year-old's balled fist, that bled egg yolk when I stabbed them with my chopsticks and tasted not at all like crab. Definitely not normal. I followed these with another big steamer of "juicy pork dumplings" and found my groove again. They were juicy as promised, definitely filled with pork, and I ripped through them as another plate bearing a pork chop crusted in spices descended on the table.
It hurt to skip the preserved winter vegetables (called "preserved snow green with pork" on the menu) in favor of basic, steamed bok choy, but at least the bok choy had been pulled from the steamer at the perfect moment and still had all of its tasty crunch. With it, I ate beef in garlic sauce because it sounded more suburban-normal than "garlic leaf with smoke pork" (which I assumed was barbecue over ramp greens and wanted very badly to try). This beef was good, too: thin slices of top round, seared and served in a sweet and smoky brown sauce studded with a thick sprinkling of minced garlic. I wanted prawns with fresh lily bulbs, but ordered a lettuce wrap -- the P.F. Changiest of Chinese dishes. Even this was excellent: minced baby shrimp; a mirepoix of celery, red bell peppers and onion; puffed rice noodles and a brunoise of shiitake mushrooms served with the outer leaves of an entire head of lettuce.
Finally, there were the sandwiches. Sandwiches are the great equalizer between food cultures, one of the few things they almost all have in common. Before I first visited Chopsticks, I'd never tried a Chinese sandwich, and I had no idea what to expect. What I got was a plate full of hollowed-out sesame rolls, a bowl of diced chicken with vegetables, a bowl of rice, and instructions to just shove a little bit of everything inside the pocket and enjoy.
The chicken was too heavy on the cilantro for my boring tastes, so I tried again, this time with shredded pork in Peking sauce, accompanied by the sesame rolls rather than traditional rice-flour pancakes (the kitchen was out) and a tiny dish of fresh ginger julienned so fine it just melted away like saffron threads. The pork was delicious, like a great barbecue sandwich accidentally hit with a shot of teriyaki sauce, like a Shanghai Hot Pocket or dim sum grown huge. And by the time I was halfway through, I realized I wasn't missing the flaming pig's intestines at all.