Asia Like It

Sushi chef Tetsuo Hirano fishes for compliments at Akebono.
Anna Newell

Thank heavens we've almost shed the Year of the Snake.

As in most cultures, Chinese lore rarely regards snakes as a good sign. In China, the snake represents cunning and evil, which pretty much sums up our 2001 (or the Chinese year 4698). On February 12, the year 4699 begins, and it's the Year of the Horse. Specifically the Black Horse, which is supposed to portend happy times, according to a complicated calendar system involving water and fire and good pork lo mein.

"We're relieved that the New Year is about to begin," says Yee Wing Wang, who bought Akebono, a four-decades-old eatery in Sakura Square, in July 4698. "The Year of the Snake was not too good." It was particularly tough for the restaurant business, so turning a longtime Japanese restaurant into a combination Japanese-Chinese spot couldn't have been easy -- but it was a change Wang felt he had to make. And he was just the man for the job: He'd been a chef in his native Hong Kong for nearly a decade before moving to Japan to cook for another eleven years, and then he came to Denver to serve as executive chef at Imperial Chinese Seafood Restaurant. Wang's work history has given him a strong working knowledge of both Japanese and Chinese cuisines, and he enjoys them both.

"I don't think there's anything that doesn't work between the two," Wang says. "And really, I want to offer many dishes that come from many Asian countries, because there is so much that is complementary about them."

When he took over Akebono, he kept many of the popular Japanese dishes -- such quintessential starters as edamame, miso soup and gyoza, the teriyaki entrees, a few tempura and noodle items, and the bento box dinners -- as well as the sushi bar. The restaurant's looks haven't changed much, either: The emphasis is still on pale avocado colors and streamlined, simple elegance. (More outdoor signage directing customers would be helpful, though, especially since Sakura Square is currently in a construction zone.) Even the friendly, efficient staffers include some holdovers from the original owner -- noted turkey sexer Fred Aoki, who opened the eatery in 1960 as Fred's Place.

What's new at Akebono are a dozen classic Chinese dishes on the lunch menu. Some are repeated on the dinner menu, where they're joined by many more. Although dinner may seem pricey (entrees cost between $10.95 and $23), lunch at Akebono can be as reasonable and quick or as relaxed and expensive as you desire. Part of that depends on whether you're including sushi in your meal -- but I wouldn't recommend it. The raw product we sampled during our two Akebono visits wasn't great (one batch of mackerel was particularly off-tasting, and some pieces weren't as chilled as I'd like to see -- much less eat), and the fish arrived on rice that didn't hold together properly. So we were surprised to find the sushi embellishments showed such care: paper-thin wedges of lemon on the salmon, teeny scallion curls on the mackerel.

The rolls were a major improvement over the sushi, their tidy construction hiding a few surprises. The Philadelpia roll, for instance, included not only the usual smoked salmon and cream cheese, but also smelt roe and sesame seeds. The Las Vegas roll was another good bet, combining raw salmon, yellowtail, white fish and tuna with avocado, asparagus, apple, tamago (the omelette), cream cheese and shrimp for a roll that was simultaneously soft, crunchy, sweet and rich. Another unexpected treat was the sticky-sweet eel sauce on the spider roll, which nicely played off the crispy soft-shell crab, cucumber, avocado and radish-sprout fillings.

The cooked dishes -- both Chinese and Japanese -- provided ample evidence of real talent in the kitchen. The miso soup was top-notch, with plenty of fermented soybean paste clouding a broth that also included pieces of firm tofu. The gyoza -- five dumplings filled with spiced pork, flash-fried and served in a sharp garlic sauce that cut the meat's richness -- were as killer as they'd been under Aoki's watchful eye. The soft-shell crab was done tempura-style, coated in a thin, crispy batter that wasn't too greasy. And the Chinese-style salt-and-pepper calamari was as addictive as salty French fries, with the crunchy-edged squid coated by a heavenly yin-yang of flavors.

In keeping with their upscale prices, the dinner entrees were generously portioned and beautifully presented. For one dish, scallops had been stir-fried with baby bok choy in a silky garlic sauce, and the result was draped decoratively across the plate -- not a drop of sauce spilled -- and sided by a large scoop of perfectly cooked white rice and a pile of freshly steamed broccoli and carrots. The sea bass with tofu arrived in another elegant arrangement; the real marvel was the combination of deep-fried chunks of soft tofu tossed with moist, tender sections of sea bass that lent their sweet fish flavor to a light, velvety brown sauce. The Japanese-style curry chicken featured super-soft pieces of the bird, along with big slips of translucent onions and green bell peppers, covered in an almost creamy curry sauce.

At lunch, we sampled amazingly tender beef done teriyaki-style, and quickly realized that the small squares of meat were tenderloin, which had soaked up the not-too-sweet liquid. Our sesame chicken was another exemplary dish, encasing tender chicken cut slightly larger than bite sized in a crunchy but not impenetrable shell of batter; this, in turn, was coated with another not-too-sweet, not-too-sticky sauce that trapped plenty of sesame seeds. The sauce was so addictive that we kept scooping it up long after we were full; it also made me think that Wang knows what he's doing. Despite its transformation, Akebono is no cheap Chinese-takeout joint.

For that, head to Dragon Cafe. For the last few years, this five-table spot, tucked into a tiny strip mall, has turned out inexpensive, generic Chinese food that comes fast and never fails to please -- if you're looking for decent food made from decent ingredients, that is.

Sadly, Dragon Cafe has stopped using the fun, old-fashioned takeout boxes with the metal handles; now everything is put in Styrofoam containers, which means your food can be steamy-wet by the time you get it home. But that doesn't change its innate appeal: While Dragon Cafe's food may be cheap and not too excitingly flavored, it's cooked just right.

Throughout the day, Dragon Cafe offers about three dozen special combination plates for five bucks. Each comes with larger-than-usual egg rolls -- big, fat ones packed with cabbage and carrots, along with just enough seasoned pork to add a delightfully fatty flavor -- and fried rice, egg only, that has a characteristic beige sheen and a slightly salty taste. Fried rice even came with the special-combination chicken lo mein (our favorite dish at Dragon Cafe) all greasy noodles and gnarled bits of plushly textured chicken.

The kung pao beef mixed thin strips of beef with celery, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, cashews and a few bird's-eye chiles; the overall effect was as brown as it gets, with the only flavor spark coming from ingredients that had been sitting next to a chile. The beef with black-bean sauce was another brown study, this time slightly saltier and without chiles. But in both cases, the meat was juicy and tender enough to cut with a chopstick. Meanwhile, the scallops with garlic sauce had been properly cooked and even had a little flavor jolt, while the sweet-and-sour chicken was a gooey stir-fry reminiscent of pineapple-upside-down cake.

Whether this New Year is prosperous or lean, Akebono and Dragon Cafe are ready. Happy 4699, the Year of the Horse. Let's hope it's a good ride.

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