Bite Me

To finish off the Chinese-American trifecta that filled my mailbag (see below), last week I took a spin by Little Olive, at 1050 South Wadsworth in Lakewood.

In the beginning there was Little Ollie's, a Cherry Creek offshoot of the popular Aspen eatery owned by Charlie Huang and John Holly. Their Denver collaboration didn't last, though, and while Huang retained day-to-day oversight of the Denver Little Ollie's (and later would partner with developer Jim Sullivan on the nearby Mao), Holly went on to open Little Holly's at 2223 West Wildcat Reserve Parkway in Highlands Ranch. Most of the cooks stayed at Little Ollie's -- but its menu was repeated almost word for word at Little Holly's.

In the meantime, Little Olive opened in Lakewood. After a few name changes (it's Little Olive Asian Seafood Kitchen on business cards, Asian Olive Bistro on the takeout menus) and ownership shifts, six months ago it finally landed with Tommy Lee, who had come up through the kitchen of Imperial Chinese Seafood Restaurant on Broadway. Lee took a menu that was another near-carbon-copy of Ollie's (and thus Holly's) and expanded it, adding Thai, Korean and Vietnamese dishes and a "group share" roster full of moo shu, kung pao and yu shang. More important, he poached two of the good cooks from the Little Ollie's line, bringing Wei Huang and Jason Ha on board in hopes of getting the flavor Ollie's had been known for without turning Olive into another Ollie's clone.

It worked.

"Chinese food is all the same now," Lee explains. "Food is the same, name is the same, but the flavor is different. You work, you get the right flavor, the right taste. The flavor is what matters."

Olive got my order a little confused, but the orange beef suggested by a server was just as good as he promised it would be (and probably better than the sesame chicken I'd wanted), and even if I didn't order them, the spare ribs were better than even the huge racks I get from my favorite Chinese delivery place, Szechuan Express. The sweet-and-sour chicken featured a tomato-based sauce that was actually sweet and sour, kind of maple-y and nutty, with white sesame seeds; the sea bass came in a light ginger sauce that complemented the fish rather than overpowering it. But instead of a proper, crisp tempura, the quote-unquote shrimp tempura had been jacketed in a thick batter, and the egg rolls were nothing to write home about.

Still, the best move of Tommy Lee's career was not buying that video camera on the night before his wedding (what, you think I could let that name go without at least one joke?), but getting those guys from Ollie's to jump ship. "Our menu came from the chefs, because that's what they knew how to cook, so it looks the same," Lee says. "But the flavor? The taste? That you can change. That's what we did."

Dead letter day: Skeeter, who runs the mailroom here at Bite Me World HQ, was just trying to protect my feelings when he hid this week's letters in a sack out by the dumpster. I understand that. And I feel bad about ordering the little snipe to be publicly flogged for what was merely a misguided attempt to shield yours truly from the slings and arrows and truly unfortunate grammar of my fellow man.

But Skeeter had to be made to understand that all correspondence delivered unto these hallowed chambers -- no matter how pissy, no matter how loudly it ticks -- must be treated with the utmost gravity. Why, just last week, I received an entreaty from a troubled Nigerian banker in need of my assistance, and had I not received his urgent missive (and promptly provided him with my bank account numbers, PIN and a copy of my Social Security card), I wouldn't right now be expecting a cool $3 million deposit in my name -- the funds already earmarked for company jet packs and hiring the Pogues to play at our annual St. Paddy's Day shindig.

So after his flogging, I explained to Skeeter that, because I'm ultimately responsible to the people who read my columns, it's vital that those people be able to tell me exactly what they think of the job I'm doing. And despite all the ink I've spilled recently criticizing Little Holly (Bite Me, February 26) and Little Ollie's ("Remember Yen," January 8), John Holly and Charlie Huang should be gratified by the number of loyal customers willing to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards, as the case may be) in order to vent gallons of bile in my direction and defend their favorite restaurants.

And that's great. That's how the system is supposed to work. I say I dislike something, folks write in and say I'm an asshole; I say I like something, folks write in and say I'm an idiot; I say the sky is blue, folks write in and tell me I'm colorblind. It's a fine example of modern Socratic dialogue, and I'm happy to be a part of it.  

The words "upset," "appalled," "insulted" and "offended" figured prominently in many recent letters. Jim from Parker insisted that while he "usually wouldn't waste time commenting" on the lowly scribblings of a restaurant hack, my Bite Me comments about Little Holly "almost seemed like a personal attack on the restaurant and its owner." They weren't -- my comments were directed at the food -- but that didn't slow down Jim. "When the columnist spoke of 'bastardized shrimp' and the owner 'ruining Chinese cuisine,'" he continued, "I found myself wondering if he himself was Asian and who he is to criticize an Asian-owned restaurant of bastardizing their own culture?"

See? Here's where these letters can be so helpful. In my hurry to spout off witlessly about Chinese food, I'd forgotten all about the section of the restaurant critic's handbook that reads: Thou shalt not open thy pie hole regarding restaurants owned by those of a different race, creed, color or nationality. So from here on out, I'll remember to confine my screeds to the Irish pubs, transit cafes and all-night diners of my forebears. What a racist I've been! Why, if it weren't for the good dental coverage here and the fact that I've spent the last fifteen years of my life working in, eating at and writing about every kind of restaurant under the sun without once being asked for a copy of my family tree, I'd quit right now!

Cynthia "will put zero credibility to Mr. Sheehan as a food critic after his review," she warned, largely because my saying that even my cats wouldn't eat leftovers from Little Holly's "insults me, my family, my friends, and a large number of families in Highlands Ranch who enjoy and patronize the restaurant."

Okay, first? I really think my words were more insulting to the cooks at Holly's than they were to Cynthia and her friends. Second, only one of my cats refused the leftovers; the other eventually, grudgingly, ate some of the shrimp, but she also eats cardboard, gravel and her own hair, so I don't know if that's a ringing endorsement. And third, Cynthia did hit on an important point: A lot of people (and not just from Highlands Ranch) frequent both Ollie's and Holly's. The restaurants are always packed, full of customers who seem blissfully happy with the food that's offered, and these folks get rightly pissed off when some shmuck like me comes along and tells them that, in my not-so-humble opinion, their favorite restaurants suck. I get how someone could take that personally. It's like walking up to a stranger on the street and telling him that his pants make him look fat or that Kip Winger wants his hairdo back.

But you know what? This isn't gym class, and not everyone gets a gold star just for showing up. There's good and there's bad in the restaurant world, and sure, it would be fantastic if I confined myself to saying nothing but nice things about the food and the people that are my business, but that ain't gonna happen. I'm a critic, not a cheerleader -- which is handy, because you don't wanna see me in one of those short skirts.

So to Jim and Cynthia and all the rest of you who wrote and called to tell me exactly what kind of bigoted, revenge-obsessed jerkoff I am (echoing another group that responded much the same way to my February 5 "A Cut Above," comparing Anthony's and Lil' Ricci's), thank you. I'm glad you wrote, I'm glad you like the work being done by Huang's and Holly's kitchens, and I wish you many more mediocre meals at those tables. I'm not going to change your opinion, and I'm not changing mine. I like what I like, and I hate what I hate, and the only difference between us (though my mom still can't believe it) is that I've got my own weekly bullhorn to shout my opinions through.

Well, that and the fact that I'm right.

Leftovers: Thai Basil II has moved from the Aurora strip-mall spot it occupied when I reviewed it ("One Night in Bangkok," December 4, 2003) into another, bigger location, just around the corner in that same Aurora strip mall. Although the restaurant hasn't yet reopened, a new Kassai Sushi is already up and running in Thai Basil's former space. Pho So 1 (translation: "Pho Number 1," and I couldn't agree more) got its doors open a couple of weeks ago at 1195 South Federal Boulevard, beating out the new Hong Kong Supermarket that's due to open any day now just down the street at 1320 South Federal, in the same plaza that houses the massive Mexican Avanza supermercado. The latter is part of a chain of six stores, four of them in Colorado.  

Over at 1700 Vine Street, Galaxy and the Rhino Room have signed on with restaurant consultant Marco Colantonio of Colantonio Communications. Word is, both the two-for-one Galaxy/Rhino space and the Hornet (which is owned by the same folks) are looking to remake themselves and combine concepts in order to attract some of the new money coming into the Capitol Hill and Baker neighborhoods.

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