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By Cafe Society
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By Patricia Calhoun
Go back to the bathroom," Rob whispered as he returned to his seat. "Trust me."
I'd just finished paying the check for our feast at Hong Kong Barbecue, and a trip to the restroom didn't have much appeal. Given the restaurant's spare decor — just a few wall hangings featuring the Buddha, a trio of whiteboards lettered with Chinese characters and a flat-screen TV hanging on the back wall above the counter, tuned to a Chinese-language channel — I couldn't believe there would be much to see. But he was insistent, so I rose and headed past the table full of cooks and other Chinese men gesturing wildly over a bubbling hot pot, dodged the corner of a glowing case that held whole roasted ducks suspended in mid-air like trapeze artists in a circus act, and entered the back hallway, which was permeated with a sweet smell.
It was one I recognized immediately: Somewhere close by, someone was playing with offal. And then I passed the open door of the kitchen and saw what had captured Rob's attention. Three men were hard at work butchering a whole pig. Its splayed body had been hollowed down to the skeleton, the white bones of the rib cage pulling the flesh into the shape of a canoe.
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The pig was destined for some giant unseen oven, where it would be slowly cooked until the meat was gloriously juicy and tender, the skin crispy. I wondered whether that meat would wind up in some of the dishes on the pork-heavy menu, or if someone had ordered a whole hog for a celebration.
Hong Kong is famous for its siu mei, a blanket term that covers many roasted meats. Siu mei shops in that city display whole honey-glazed and five-spice-dusted slow-cooked animals in their windows. Pigs and geese are the most popular critters, prized for the high fat content that makes the meat so moist as the fire melts the fat. Customers take cuts of the animals or sometimes whole carcasses home for dinner, where they're served with a little rice.
Though siu mei is easy to find in cities with a vibrant Chinatown, it's a rarer treat in Denver, where Chinese restaurants tend to offer a mishmash of specialties from all over the country. And Hong Kong Barbecue is no exception. Sun and Jian Yu, originally from Hong Kong, took over what had been Gahring, another authentic-but-eclectic Chinese joint, two years ago; at first glance, their menu doesn't look very different from their predecessor's. Despite the fact that there are enough animal carcasses in the place to spark a PETA demonstration, the vast list is loaded with such familiar items as kung pao chicken and lemongrass beef, as well as fried rice, noodles, hot pots and even curries. But many of those dishes are made to order and feature mouth-watering roasted meats. You can also order cuts of siu mei served over rice — or simply buy a whole roasted duck or pig (which runs between $240 and $270) to take home.
Our lunch that day had included fat-laced, juice-drooling roasted duck, the velvety meat of each slice tearing away from a crackle of skin as we popped them in our mouths. The duck had come with a ginger-infused, honey-like dipping sauce and a steamer of rice, and the portions were generous enough to serve two. But we couldn't resist a second meaty order: the twice-cooked pork, a Szechuan specialty that our server had promised would be spicy. And it was. Quivering bits of pork belly, sliced thin, had been pan-fried with strips of red and green bell peppers and angry red chiles; everything came coated in a peppery, ginger-spiked sauce that was equal parts fiery, salty and palate-cleansing.
Because the day was cold, we'd also gone for a hot bowl of congee, the rice porridge that's ubiquitous in Asia, though its preparation varies by region. Hong Kong Barbecue cooks up multiple versions; we'd ordered one studded with pieces of pungent pork, fresh chives and black bits of salty preserved egg. It was rib-stickingly hearty and comforting, and obviously cooked with care, since each ingredient had been impeccably prepared. We'd washed down our meal with tea and Coca-Cola — Hong Kong Barbecue doesn't have a liquor license — and even before I spied that pig, I was wondering when I could return to eat my way through more of the massive menu.
I didn't hold out for long. A snowy night just a few days later, Rob and I made our way back to Hong Kong Barbecue. With an assist from our friendly server, who somehow maneuvered around the language barrier, we managed to order dinner — and just moments after she'd taken that order back to the kitchen, we could hear the sizzles and splats of our meal being made. A few minutes later, the server was back with our seafood hot plate, a hissing skillet filled with shrimp, squid and a flaky but unidentifiable white fish, along with broccoli stalks, all bathed in a delicate, soy-tinged sauce.
We'd nearly polished that off when our most exotic-sounding choice, the salt-and-pepper duck chin, arrived. Duck jaw was more like it: The dish held a pile of jawbones and tongues, coated in a salty-sweet batter and deep-fried. Duck tongue doesn't have the sponginess of cow tongue, and it took some work to pry apart the bones to get at the bits of stringy meat — but the effort was worth it. I kept thinking of chicken wings; I could see myself polishing off a plate while downing a beer and watching a sporting event at a bar. If the bar served duck jaws, that is.