Is China Jade the best Chinese restaurant in Denver? Close enough.
Shrimp with gralic sauce?"
"I love shrimp with gralic sauce. Get some of that."
"Sour taste cabbage? Or Triple Delight? What do you suppose that is?" she asked, and smiled. I responded, mind soaking in the gutter, and we giggled like kids hearing their first dirty joke.
"Oh, wait. What about this?"
She pointed and I followed her finger down, running across the slick surface of the laminated menu to the cuminum cyminum flavored beef. It took me a second, reading over the four words (eight words if you counted the cuminum cyminum flavored lamb just below) and cocking my head like a dog hearing a strange sound, a word other than its name. My lips moved, trying to wrap around the strange, almost Latin clusters of consonants and vowels, finally going phonetic.
Cumin...cinnamon...beef...? Cumin-cinnamon beef.
"Oh, yeah. We gotta order that."
And we did. Plus some shrimp in gralic sauce. Plus some wontons that we'd thought were pork belly but weren't. We skipped the Triple Delight, my darling wife and I. That, we figured, would keep until after dinner.
We were at China Jade, a little space in a forgettable east Aurora strip mall, surrounded by French bakeries, barbecue restaurants, Eastern European groceries, nail salons, coffee shops and chain operations. From the outside, China Jade isn't much to look at: covered windows, student lunch specials written out on vivid construction paper, a bright neon OPEN sign glowing optimistically. Inside, it's small — big as a living room, maybe — with ten tables, a register, a magazine rack pushed up against the wall, a Buddha here, a maneki neko good luck cat there, and one of those backlit menus hanging near the ceiling filled with pictures of kung pao chicken and sweet-and-sour pork, all super-saturated with unnatural Day-glo colors. Calling it intimate would make it sound too twee, too sparkling; cozy too warm. It's simply small and close and crowded.
And possibly the best Chinese restaurant in Denver.
Not if you want very American Chinese food (and there's nothing wrong with that), though, which is what you get if you order off the bright yellow, four-fold to-go menu or that backlit board. The egg rolls (thin ones, almost Vietnamese) taste like they've been frozen at some point in their existence, maybe not so long ago. The lo mein is bluntly dull and laced with threads of squash coming off the mandolin that almost immediately go limp and slimy.
And not if you're looking for legendary Szechuan. China Jade's Szechuan offerings are also listed on that to-go menu, and they're decent Szechuan-lite. The kung pao beef even has an edge of excellence — a layered, complex flavor with hot flakes of red pepper as the searing top note and a low basement full of dusty, earthy savor. And over steamed rice, on a white plate on a pale green table, the Szechuan chicken and Singapore chow mei fun come off almost flirtatious, almost deliberately manipulative, as though someone (that young dude with the crazy pop-star hair, maybe — wrapped in gouts of steam, working a wicked rhythm over his blazing wok) is holding back. Intentionally dialing it down as a misguided favor to the somewhat less-than-Occidental weirdo at the table by the wall, grinning around a mouthful of snow peas like he knows what's what.
It took me a visit or two to figure out what, exactly, was what at China Jade. I'd shoved a fair amount of lo mein and cock-tease kung pao into my food hole before I caught on and understood the essential (and either mildly racist or exceedingly polite, depending on how you look at it) disconnect between the plain-jane plates of noodles and pea pods on the yellow take-out menu and the completely other dishes that kept coming out of the back in huge, steaming, family-size portions, and going to those tables full of Asian customers with which China Jade always seems so full: the pots and the casseroles, the platters of fish and plates of goodies that smelled of alien herbs and foreign spice as they were walked past me.
Turns out, China Jade has two menus: the take-out menu full of crab rangoons, pu pu platters and chop suey, and a laminated menu stuffed with strange juxtapositions (pork tofu?) and stranger delights (pig stomach with cilantro), with the food that the kitchen (obviously) wants to be cooking and the customers who know better want to be eating. China Jade is two restaurants in one building, two spirits in one body. Depending on who walks through the door, it's either a run-of-the-mill, slightly better-than-average American Chinese restaurant or one of the best Chinese Chinese restaurant in town, serving a cuisine based mostly around Tianjin in northern China.
From the Chinese Chinese menu, Laura and I got our shrimp with gralic and our beef in misspelling sauce. We got our not-quite-pork-belly wontons in red pepper oil. And with every single dish, we got an apology: Sorry this took so long, sorry you had to wait, sorry there is so much... We waved off these deprecations and dug in. The shrimp was fairly standard, a dark-side take on an Italian scampi, proof that no one anywhere is that different from anyone anywhere else, at least not when it comes to appetite. The wontons were contrary proof that maybe tastes really do differ, that people are as different in appetite as they appear. They were actually omasum, which is a particular kind of tripe and not from a pig at all, as I'd assumed because when I asked about it, the guy I asked pointed at his belly and said "stomach." But to me, they tasted just of the hot pepper oil in which they lay.
The beef, though, was undeniably fantastic — heavy on the cuminum, with cyminum coming on only as a faint aftertaste, a ghostly echo of sweet spice in the back of the throat, almost-but-not-quite burnt away by the odd sparks of biting heat and heavy brown flavor of wok-seared onion. Smothering our laughter at the Chinese kid with the bowl cut and crazy eyes, bouncing in his seat and shrieking "I LOVE PORK CHOPS! I LOVE PORK CHOPS!" at the top of his six-year-old lungs, we ate in silence, stunned by how good China Jade could be when the kitchen was working on its own home turf, in its comfort zone.
Where I return just a few days later. Again, I'm handed the yellow take-away menu. Again, I smilingly ask for the real menu, please. Credit where it's due: I think China Jade would prefer to operate with just one menu, and has only gone schizophrenic out of a nervous fear that its American neighbors might not cotton to the flavors of Szechuan eel or crispy pig intestines with cabbage. Because whenever I've asked to order off the Chinese menu, I've been given a copy with real pleasure, with a sense of something that's almost like relief. Sure, the lemon chicken might pay the bills, but the boiled beef in stew? That's what's actually good. All the people crowding the tables behind me — the families and children, the couples, the Asian teenagers flipping through the magazines and running their fingers over the pictures of starlets in miniskirts, their faces garlanded in Chinese lettering like advertisements for replaceable heads — are eating off this menu. They can read the Chinese specials sketched out on paper and hung by the counter. They know how to ask for the whole fishes, the casseroles full of stewed vegetables and bits of chewy porcine digestive machinery. I make do with the bad English translations (which are still better than I would ever be able to do, translating "cheeseburger" or "tournedos of beef Rossini" into Mandarin), some pointing and a lot of questions, all of which are patiently answered.
I order the boiled beef (mostly because of the nod of the head when I ask about it) and get something that seems almost Mexican — thin strips of flank steak soaking in a murderously hot hell-broth of chiles and Chinese peppers and lava and brimstone, tasting (in that brief instant before the heat punches a hole in my sinuses) like an adobo stew, all brick-red and earthy and incredibly delicious. The twice-cooked pork is actually pork belly, sliced prosciutto-thin, seared in the wok and slapped fast onto the grill, then served with onions and mystery vegetables and sharp triangles of something that looks like banana leaf. Meat bans? They're steamed buns, a half-dozen to an order, filled with a paste with a texture like wonton filling and a flavor like cold terrine of foie, which makes me think it's from an organ meat of some variety and not caring a bit which organ that might be.
There's also Tianjin-style mooshu pork (finger food for me) and Tianjin-style boneless duck, salted fish and shrimp tofu and a plate of what appears to be bones in sauce, sitting on a bed of shredded pork bits (stomach, I think) that smell like barbecued brisket. I want it all. I want to start introducing myself to the tables that surround me in hopes that other diners, driven by hospitality, will offer me a bite of this, a piece of that.
I don't do this, of course. There's the language barrier, as well as the fact that I'm walled in by an entire family's worth of food myself. But sitting here on a busy Sunday night, watching the tables turn, tearing into meat buns and hellfire stew, I think back to that kid — bouncing in his seat, wide-eyed and shouting out his love of pork chops — and I suddenly understand the urge.
Before it becomes too overpowering, I take a huge bite of the boiled beef and swallow without chewing, smiling through the springing tears, reveling in the sweat, hardly thinking about pork chops at all.
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