By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Shrimp with gralic sauce?"
"I love shrimp with gralic sauce. Get some of that."
"Sour taste cabbage? Or Triple Delight? What do you suppose that is?" she asked, and smiled. I responded, mind soaking in the gutter, and we giggled like kids hearing their first dirty joke.
"Oh, wait. What about this?"
She pointed and I followed her finger down, running across the slick surface of the laminated menu to the cuminum cyminum flavored beef. It took me a second, reading over the four words (eight words if you counted the cuminum cyminum flavored lamb just below) and cocking my head like a dog hearing a strange sound, a word other than its name. My lips moved, trying to wrap around the strange, almost Latin clusters of consonants and vowels, finally going phonetic.
Cumin...cinnamon...beef...? Cumin-cinnamon beef.
"Oh, yeah. We gotta order that."
And we did. Plus some shrimp in gralic sauce. Plus some wontons that we'd thought were pork belly but weren't. We skipped the Triple Delight, my darling wife and I. That, we figured, would keep until after dinner.
We were at China Jade, a little space in a forgettable east Aurora strip mall, surrounded by French bakeries, barbecue restaurants, Eastern European groceries, nail salons, coffee shops and chain operations. From the outside, China Jade isn't much to look at: covered windows, student lunch specials written out on vivid construction paper, a bright neon OPEN sign glowing optimistically. Inside, it's small — big as a living room, maybe — with ten tables, a register, a magazine rack pushed up against the wall, a Buddha here, a maneki neko good luck cat there, and one of those backlit menus hanging near the ceiling filled with pictures of kung pao chicken and sweet-and-sour pork, all super-saturated with unnatural Day-glo colors. Calling it intimate would make it sound too twee, too sparkling; cozy too warm. It's simply small and close and crowded.
And possibly the best Chinese restaurant in Denver.
Not if you want very American Chinese food (and there's nothing wrong with that), though, which is what you get if you order off the bright yellow, four-fold to-go menu or that backlit board. The egg rolls (thin ones, almost Vietnamese) taste like they've been frozen at some point in their existence, maybe not so long ago. The lo mein is bluntly dull and laced with threads of squash coming off the mandolin that almost immediately go limp and slimy.
And not if you're looking for legendary Szechuan. China Jade's Szechuan offerings are also listed on that to-go menu, and they're decent Szechuan-lite. The kung pao beef even has an edge of excellence — a layered, complex flavor with hot flakes of red pepper as the searing top note and a low basement full of dusty, earthy savor. And over steamed rice, on a white plate on a pale green table, the Szechuan chicken and Singapore chow mei fun come off almost flirtatious, almost deliberately manipulative, as though someone (that young dude with the crazy pop-star hair, maybe — wrapped in gouts of steam, working a wicked rhythm over his blazing wok) is holding back. Intentionally dialing it down as a misguided favor to the somewhat less-than-Occidental weirdo at the table by the wall, grinning around a mouthful of snow peas like he knows what's what.
It took me a visit or two to figure out what, exactly, was what at China Jade. I'd shoved a fair amount of lo mein and cock-tease kung pao into my food hole before I caught on and understood the essential (and either mildly racist or exceedingly polite, depending on how you look at it) disconnect between the plain-jane plates of noodles and pea pods on the yellow take-out menu and the completely other dishes that kept coming out of the back in huge, steaming, family-size portions, and going to those tables full of Asian customers with which China Jade always seems so full: the pots and the casseroles, the platters of fish and plates of goodies that smelled of alien herbs and foreign spice as they were walked past me.
Turns out, China Jade has two menus: the take-out menu full of crab rangoons, pu pu platters and chop suey, and a laminated menu stuffed with strange juxtapositions (pork tofu?) and stranger delights (pig stomach with cilantro), with the food that the kitchen (obviously) wants to be cooking and the customers who know better want to be eating. China Jade is two restaurants in one building, two spirits in one body. Depending on who walks through the door, it's either a run-of-the-mill, slightly better-than-average American Chinese restaurant or one of the best Chinese Chinese restaurant in town, serving a cuisine based mostly around Tianjin in northern China.
From the Chinese Chinese menu, Laura and I got our shrimp with gralic and our beef in misspelling sauce. We got our not-quite-pork-belly wontons in red pepper oil. And with every single dish, we got an apology: Sorry this took so long, sorry you had to wait, sorry there is so much... We waved off these deprecations and dug in. The shrimp was fairly standard, a dark-side take on an Italian scampi, proof that no one anywhere is that different from anyone anywhere else, at least not when it comes to appetite. The wontons were contrary proof that maybe tastes really do differ, that people are as different in appetite as they appear. They were actually omasum, which is a particular kind of tripe and not from a pig at all, as I'd assumed because when I asked about it, the guy I asked pointed at his belly and said "stomach." But to me, they tasted just of the hot pepper oil in which they lay.