By Gretchen Kurtz
By Mark Antonation
By Cafe Society
By Kristin Pazulski
By Chris Utterback
By Cafe Society
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Jamie Swinnerton
"You like salad?" she asked.
I waffled, said "Uh..."
"Chicken salad with lemongrass," she said. "Very good. Not spicy." And then she ordered it for me, later bringing a plate of perfectly grilled chicken — two breasts, and then some — laid over a shredded iceberg salad drowning in bittersweet nuoc mam with cabbage and tomatoes and a sprinkling of peanuts.
3355 S. Wadsworth Blvd.
Denver, CO 80227
Region: Southwest Denver Suburbs
There's a small, quiet magic in spare spaces, rooms that, devoid of ornamentation or decorated only in dribs and drabs and splashes of color, allow detail to fill the blanks. Peking Tokyo is so simple, so barren (blank walls, plain tables, generic chairs) that I find the place calming. I can focus on the clatter of pans in the kitchen, the biting sting of cleaning products, the faded newspaper clippings hung by the door and the various good luck charms tucked away here and there.
On a slow night (they all seem slow to me, with no more than a few tables in the small, L-shaped room), I sat drinking tea and waiting for some kind of shrimp dish (unsure about what the smiling waitress and I had finally decided on, anxious to see what would come), watching a family party unfold across the room — mothers and grandmothers sucking at the legs of their cua lot and scraping the inside of the shell with chopsticks while children climbed like tiny monkeys on the seat backs or poked fastidiously at their rice. They smiled a lot and laughed a lot, speaking in a language other than mine and clucking their teeth. In the back, a military family talked of books and NASCAR and ate sesame chicken, and I counted the cases of Tsing Tao stacked in the coat closet (there were nine) and watched the Chinese waitress in the Corona T-shirt take phone calls and try to balance out the credit-card reports for the night. It was late, but no one seemed to be rushing, and I allowed myself to be folded into the languor, rolling my tea cup between my palms and enjoying the unique odor of garlic hitting the sesame oil in a wok in the back.
Whatever I'd ordered, it was excellent, served workman-like on a plain plate with white long-grain rice. The shrimp were tender, curled like they were sleeping in a thin, brown sauce that tasted of candied garlic and ginger and the vegetables that were steeping in it. I ate ravenously even though I wasn't particularly hungry, because the smell was enough to drive me crazy.
On another night, I went for the coconut curry pork with lemongrass and cheap crab rangoons so American they might as well have come with little flags and sparklers stuck in them. I'd also ordered steak cubes in garlic sauce, but instead got sesame-spiked beef in a black bean sauce — and thanked whatever food gods see to the affairs of bewildered waitresses that such a mistake had been made, because the dish was amazing: sweetly complex, sticky, savory and completely unlike any black bean sauce I'd ever had before, like the difference between mole from a can and mole made by hand, over 24 hours, by someone's abuela who's been making it for fifty years.
There's so much on this menu that I have yet to try the Thai food — although the Thai spaghetti (with tomatoes, basil, mushrooms and shrimp, cooked in a wok) and prig khing and pud kraw pow are next on my list. But then, if I live a hundred more years and spend fifty of them at this job, it still won't be enough time to tease out every strand of influence and innovation at Peking Tokyo. If I ate here every day and every night for a year, I don't think I'd understand the place any better than I do now, or have more of a grasp on what makes an owner, a cook, a kitchen roam so far afield and cover so much territory.
I know now only that I like this place a lot, that I want to get back for my own plate of cua lot and those steak cubes in garlic sauce that I never got, and to sink once more into the perfectly anonymous starkness of a room where the sweet, sharp little details — the statues above the counter, the Buddha on the floor, the worn spaces in the carpet and the chatter of happy families on a dull Tuesday night — add up to more vivid life than most crowded, cluttered and geographically rooted restaurants could hope for on any night of the week.