Denver has no shortage of traditional Asian eateries, from the longstanding strip of Vietnamese restaurants along Federal Boulevard to the more recent explosion of Korean barbecue places in Aurora. There’s a sushi bar in nearly every suburban strip mall, even if full-fledged Japanese menus are much harder to find. And Chinese restaurants in the metro area cover the spectrum, with everything from tiny takeout joints serving American-Chinese classics to elegant new dining rooms. Thanks to the continued efforts of these eateries, we know where to turn for favorites like pho, bibimbap, ramen and General Tso’s chicken.
But you can find traditional Asian dishes in more unexpected spots, too: on menus at more mainstream restaurants, put there by chefs looking to broaden the palates of diners or just having fun with international recipes. You can call it appropriation, but we find these three discoveries completely appropriate.
Korean Fried Young Chicken
575 St. Paul Street
While Korean fried chicken is commonplace in Los Angeles, a search for the crispy, spicy dish in this city’s Korean restaurants can turn into a real snipe hunt, with Funny Plus and Yong Gung in Aurora offering two rare — if delicious — versions. But then you find the bird where you least expect it: the Hound. Formerly the Irish Hound, this Cherry Creek spot was recently transformed from a neighborhood pub into something slightly more upscale, with a more diverse menu. Chef Dakota Coburn embraces the New American concept, which gathers up the crazy quilt of international culinary arrivals in the U.S. and gives it a more comforting, familiar twist. Coburn has added Mexican touches inspired by his travels and his time at Boulder’s Centro Mexican Kitchen, as well as French and Italian techniques and ingredients ranging from polenta to fried baby artichokes, but he’s also larded the menu with a banh mi bolstered with duck pâté and smoked pork.
The fried chicken, though, stands out as basically unaltered from its Korean bar-food origins, with a crackly coating laced with heat and a sweet-hot peanut-and-chile glaze. Coburn is the culinary director of the Little Restaurant Company (a spinoff of the Little Pub Company that ran the Irish Hound), and he’s hired Ray Clinton as his right-hand man in the kitchen. Clinton uses a young, two-pound chicken for the Hound’s Korean specialty, coating it with a flour dredge that also incorporates cornstarch, baking powder, ginger, chile powder and a little vodka. The resulting crust has a little lift and a lot of crunch, while the accompanying sauce adds heat without the sugary stickiness found in some versions of the dish. A half-order rings in at $13, while the whole chicken, plated for sharing, runs a reasonable $20.
Cha Ca La Fish Tacos
ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro
1555 Blake Street
Chef/restaurateur Lon Symensma writes menus that serve almost as a mouthwatering atlas of culinary geography and history. He launched ChoLon downtown in 2010 after working and traveling extensively in France, China and Southeast Asia and then lending his skills to several top Asian-themed restaurants in New York City, including Spice Market, Yumcha and Buddakan. While traveling in Vietnam, Symensma visited a Hanoi restaurant called Cha Ca La Vong, famous for a singular fish dish of the same name. One of the ingredients that makes the dish unique is the use of dill, an herb not typically found in Vietnamese cooking, Symensma says; he believes it was introduced by French colonists in the early part of the twentieth century. Other distinctive elements of the cha ca la vong include river fish native to northern Vietnam and a marinade that incorporates turmeric, giving the fish a distinct yellow tint.
Like other iconic Asian dishes on which Symensma has scrawled his signature (such as his French onion soup dumplings and kaya toast with “egg cloud”), the Cha Ca La Vong gets a modern edit. Instead of being spooned over noodles, the fish — tilapia standing in for a Vietnamese catch — is served in tacos. The resulting lunch-only special captures the vibe of the Asian-Mexican street food that has swept Los Angeles while maintaining its Hanoi roots. The dill adds a homey, country quality reminiscent of Great Lakes cooking, but other herbs and spices ground the dish firmly in Vietnam — and the tortilla makes for an almost dim-sum-sized bundle without distracting from the fish itself. Cha Ca La Vong may be buried deep within the tomes of one or two Vietnamese restaurants in Denver, but Symensma’s presentation makes his version unique in this city.
Soft-Shell Crab Steamed Buns
3254 Navajo Street
It wasn’t so long ago that bao (stark-white, fluffy Chinese buns) were nearly impossible to find in Denver. Unless they stopped in one of a few dim sum parlors that carried the dish, diners with a craving would have to wait for a trip to San Francisco, Seattle or New York, where big Chinatown districts serve traditional steamed bao by the cartload and influence dining choices throughout those cities. In Denver, bao have recently jumped from a hard-to-find specialty to a trendy menu novelty, done with greater or lesser competence at a growing number of small-plates joints and food trucks.
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But outside of dim sum places, nowhere do bao buns seem more at home than atop the bar of LoHi’s oddly named There…, where they share space with cocktails and other internationally influenced dishes. There... is in no way an Asian eatery, but elements of Japanese, Chinese and Korean cuisine poke through, and every table is set with a bouquet of chopsticks, so that a group of friends can pick away at whole fish, miso-glazed eggplant or crispy Brussels sprouts.
The restaurant’s steamed buns are filled with a choice of several proteins or toothsome vegetables (crispy duck being a good option for traditionalists), but the soft-shell crab comes closest to marrying a Chinese snack with a Japanese sushi roll in just the right way. Spindly crab legs, coated in a crunchy-fried batter, poke out from a snowy pillow and offer a textural contrast to the soft bao. Visually, it’s a stunner, and that first impression carries through to the last bite.
Purists may rail against the intrusion of Western sensibilities into traditional Asian recipes, but at these three restaurants, good, tasty fun trumps any notions of cultural appropriation.