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Sunny Gardens: This Chinese joint seems like the same old story — until the mock tale

Sunny Gardens: This Chinese joint seems like the same old story — until the mock tale
Danielle Lirette
Sunny Gardens’ vegetarian triple delight — with mock chicken, beef and shrimp.

Colin Mallet, executive chef at Sassafras American Eatery, thinks Sunny Gardens is Denver's most underrated restaurant. It's so underrated that I'd never even heard of it.

I Googled the name, found a Sunny Gardens — then checked to see if I'd read Mallet's Chef and Tell answer wrong, because this wasn't the chef-driven, farm-to-table, nose-to-tail concept I would have expected from one of the city's notable chefs. Judging from the website, Sunny Gardens was a neighborhood Chinese joint, the sort of spot you run into when it's raining and you can't wait to curl up on the couch with moo shu pork and season four of Breaking Bad. Turns out I'd driven by the place, which is just east of I-25 on Yale Avenue, at least twice a day for years, and had even stopped off for groceries in the same strip center — but I'd never noticed the restaurant.

See also: A Closer Look at Sunny Gardens

Location Info

Map

Sunny Gardens Restaurant

6460 E. Yale Ave.
Denver, CO 80222-7156

Category: Restaurant > Asian

Region: Southeast Denver

Details

Sunny Gardens
Meat dumplings $6.50
Roast pork buns $2.99
Pork fried rice $8.99
Moo shu pork $9.99
Green curry beef $9.99
Basil jalapeño chicken $8.99 Singapore chow mei fun $9.99
Chicken chow fun $9.50
Vegetarian triple delight $9.99
Hunan chicken (mock) $8.99
Beef lo mein (mock) $8.99
6460 East Yale Avenue
303-691-8830
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, 4-10 p.m. Saturday, 4-9:30 p.m. Sunday

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So one rainy night when I didn't feel like cooking, I dropped in.

One of the delivery boys hustled over to hold the door. "Sit anywhere you like," he said, gesturing to a clean, orderly room decorated with parasols, green plants and perfectly straight rows of spotless tables, most of which were empty save for two moms with a bunch of kids and one solo elderly diner, all of whom were clustered near the flat-screen TV in the corner. We chose a spot near the TV, too, because even in public, there's something about the loneliness of rainy days that makes you crave the comforting background noise of television.

Happy to be a) warm, b) dry and c) not cooking, we ordered whatever sounded good, not stopping to tally dishes to see if we were ordering too much: moo shu pork, because shredded cabbage and plum sauce go better with a rainy day than galoshes; steamed pork buns, with sweet white skins made shiny by a stint in the steamer; wide-noodled chow fun; kung pao beef with peanuts; and a spin-off of gai pad krapow, the spicy Thai dish with basil and jalapeños (the menu includes a Thai section), plus cups of hot-and-sour and wonton soup that were included with the entrees. At the last minute I threw in an order of pork fried rice, because if memory served correctly, that's what Mallet had singled out. Later, when I pulled up his Chef and Tell Q&A, I saw that Mallet had indeed named the pork fried rice as what he wants when he's "too tired to cook," adding, "I can't live without it."

After trying it, I understood what he meant — and not just because fried rice is one of my guilty pleasures. Sunny Garden's version had the intense porkiness you're more likely to find these days in porchetta, the Italian dish of stuffed, rolled roast pork. A study in tan, with nary a green pea or carrot in sight, the fried rice's only color came from pork, the bright-red kind you sometimes see hanging in the window of a Chinese restaurant. Chef-owner Sunny Chen, who worked as a cook in his native China before moving to New York and later Colorado, roasts his own, using food coloring to impart that vibrant color. At this restaurant, though, Daytona 500 Bud banners, not pork, hang in the windows.

Pork plays a prominent role in other dishes. We liked the moo shu, which stuffed ample amounts of pig into pancakes sturdy enough to hold all that dripping filling without breaking apart. Less interesting were the pork buns, which are not made in-house. The chow fun, with just enough sauce to coat the noodles, also scored, one of several noodle-based dishes to do so. But the basil jalapeño chicken, its licorice notes diluted by extraneous vegetables and too much sauce, was disappointing, and the kung pao beef could've been mistaken for any number of brown-sauce dishes except for the few peanuts sprinkled on top. In all, it wasn't the best or worst Chinese food I've eaten — but aside from that pork fried rice, it was about what I'd expect from a friendly neighborhood joint.

Until I discovered Sunny Gardens' large selection of entrees featuring mock meat. The better part of a page is devoted to its "all natural vegetarian menu," which touts no cholesterol, no eggs, no MSG (it's not used in the kitchen at all), olive rather than vegetable oil, and, of course, no meat. The dishes here include beef with cashews, sesame chicken and chicken and eggplant in garlic sauce — all made with fake chicken and fake beef. I'm not sure what's in the stuff besides the soybeans, seaweed, mushrooms and vegetables listed on the menu, but there's clearly something more, since those ingredients alone wouldn't quite add up to the flavored, colored forms you'll find on your fork.

A few years ago in Taiwan (that's where Sunny Gardens gets its mock meat), inspectors found traces of real meat in supposedly vegetarian meat products. Regulations have reportedly fixed this, but it's still difficult to determine what you're getting, especially since the three servers who came over to answer our questions seemed just as perplexed as we were. "I don't know for sure if it's organic, but I think there's a certificate up front," said one. "I don't really know what's in it," said another. "I don't eat it." Apparently lots of people do, though. Through a translator, Chen estimated that 20 percent of his business comes from the vegetarian menu. (Sixty percent is takeout or delivery, which explains why the restaurant never looks full.)

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2 comments
DenverDoughboy
DenverDoughboy

I'm intrigued but I had one of the worst meals in my life at Sunny Garden, and that was only one year ago.   Calling that lunch I ate pig slop would be insulting to pigs.   If they really can do a decent meal, I certainly didn't see any sign of it.     

TheFabulousMarkT
TheFabulousMarkT topcommenter

I've really liked the food at Sunny Gardens when I've gone. Other good mock-meat item selections can be found at Volcano and Purple Ginger II [count 'em!]

At some eateries (of all kinds) even the real meat doesn't taste like meat :D so finding good meat-substitute choices can be a bit tricky.

 
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