As I thought a lot about regional cuisine in China — and ate a lot of it, too — I began wondering how the food there would evolve. As in the States, some chefs in China are looking around the globe for influence, while others are attempting to revitalize and celebrate traditional foods that threaten to become extinct as rural populations move to the cities. I found one especially compelling take at an upscale Beijing restaurant, where a Cantonese chef was reworking classic Sichuan food. Cantonese and Sichuan feature incredibly disparate flavor palates — the former is often delicate and sweet, the latter heavy and hot — but by combining them, this chef was able to bring unusual clarity to the flavors in her food.
In Denver, where freestyling on various cuisines is a little more common, Tommy Lee is attempting a similar match-up at Hop Alley, digging into his Cantonese roots and love of Sichuan food to offer a menu that celebrates both regions. He's also leaning on a cook in the kitchen who spent a significant amount of time in Singapore to bring in Hakka (a Chinese group that migrated to Malaysia) and other southeast Asian influences.
The restaurant’s name pays homage to Denver’s own Chinese history: Hop Alley was the once-thriving Chinatown that was burned down during riots in the 1880s. But the cooking is all modern, and interprets some dishes liberally. Blending bone marrow into fried rice, for instance, is a stroke of genius; it gives the grains a nice, silky mouthfeel and umami addictiveness, upgrading fried rice from what’s basically a throwaway dish to a star. The crispy pig ears, braced with a tart cucumber-and-carrot slaw, are stellar, and they don’t have the cartilage chew that some people find off-putting. The suan ni pork chop is a killer upgrade: Lee eschews the usual mediocre cuts of shoulder and nails the chop — it’s absolutely voluptuous — while balancing the garlic hit that’s traditional in this dish with plenty of sharp vinegar.
My least-favorite dish at Hop Alley is the la zi ji, likely because it’s so widespread (and delicious) in China. There you get bone-in bites of chicken, fried crispy and dusted with Sichuan peppercorn and salt, served on a platter with a heap of dried red chiles. (A popular game involves taking turns searching for a bit of chicken — first person to come up short has to eat a pepper.) Hop Alley has made an improvement on the chicken; the kitchen uses tender hunks of boneless bird. But it's added a sweet note that doesn’t jibe for me, and because the poultry is served in a bowl, it loses its crispiness before you can finish. Even so, this is the only dish I’ve found in Denver that really shows the potential power of the Sichuan peppercorn. That unmistakable tingle is everywhere in the Middle Kingdom, but it’s hard to come by in the States. (Lee says he can get only one kind of peppercorn in Denver, whereas the Chinese commonly cook with at least three.)
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Even so, I was excited by my meal at Hop Alley, because it provided a good look at how Chinese food could evolve here — from General Tso’s chicken to a new frontier of Chinese-American cooking. (It also snagged the Best New Restaurant award in the Best of Denver 2016 — with good reason.) Over the past decade or so, we’ve seen a lot of chefs head to southeast Asia to mine the kitchens there for inspiration. Now I’m looking forward to seeing more chefs following Lee’s lead, digging into the Chinese pantry to create new, innovative fare.
Hop Alley is located at 3500 Larimer Street. For more information, go to hopalleydenver.com.