A trip down South Parker Road yields many options for a hungry driver, with Mexican, Japanese and Korean eateries beckoning alongside American barbecue, burgers and bar food. But lurking in the strip malls and shopping centers are also culinary rarities that challenge any claims that Denver and its surrounding suburbs lack cultural diversity.
While the cuisines of many different nations and ethnic groups have found their way to the U.S., where they’ve been transformed by time, distance and climate, we seldom consider that a specific culture’s food may have undergone an earlier evolution before it ever arrived on our shores. Migrations, wars and political persecution have all caused populations to pack up their culinary traditions and take them somewhere new, where local meats, produce and seasonings — along with local tastes — often change longstanding recipes.
Two restaurants on South Parker Road remind us of the constant evolution of food, despite our attempts to cling to notions of authenticity. Along a short stretch of asphalt, you’ll get tastes of both Chinese-Korean fusion and East African fare influenced by Italian invaders.
P & Y Cafe Asian Bistro
2769 South Parker Road, Aurora
P & Y Cafe, on the east side of the same building that houses Asian superstore H Mart, isn’t just a Korean restaurant; it’s a Korean-Chinese restaurant. Instead of bibimbap, bulgogi and kalbi, you’ll find dishes that were brought by Chinese immigrants to Korea, where the original recipes were morphed by available ingredients and Korean tastes. This style of cuisine is as familiar to most Koreans as American-Chinese takeout is in the United States. It serves a similar purpose, too, with many of these eateries in Korea offering low prices and speedy home delivery. While Americans have lo mein and kung pao chicken in little cardboard boxes, Korean-Chinese restaurants have jajangmyeon, jjampong and kkanpunggi.
The cuisine at P & Y has taken a long cultural journey; a dish that sometime in history originated as Sichuan kung pao chicken became kkanpunggi in Korea before eventually making it to Aurora, where it has no doubt been further adapted. The little cafe, packed full of Korean families during a Wednesday lunch, serves a version with thin slices of chicken coated in a crunchy cornstarch batter, deep-fried and then drowned in a somewhat bland sauce. Mixed vegetables add a little life to the serving, which at least gets a boost of radiant warmth from toasted red chiles and slices of jalapeño.
The noodle dishes are more along the lines of what I was seeking; jajangmyeon and jjampong both feature noodles so long that they come with scissors to make serving and eating a little easier. Jajangmyeon is a bowl of the long noodles served with an inky black-bean sauce studded with diced, slow-cooked (and possibly refried) pork and a whole lot of diced onions. The base of the sauce is a pungent, salty, fermented black-bean paste called chunjang. If you want to try the chunjang paste straight, you’ll get a spoonful of it on the condiment plate that accompanies the noodles, along with pickled yellow daikon radish and diced raw onion. To eat jajangmyeon, cut some noodles for yourself, mix in some sauce and enjoy, occasionally nibbling bites of daikon and raw onion dipped in chunjang.
The jjampong is a little simpler; it’s a seafood soup that gets its reddish hue from a chile-packed paste. P & Y’s dish is light on the seafood (small shrimp and mussels) but bold on flavor, with plenty of fishy essence and pervasive heat. Another tangle of long noodles lurks beneath the surface — so the scissors will come in handy here, too.
Like the Korean-Chinese originals, P & Y is a cheap lunch, coming in at under $10 a person — with enough food left over for a second meal.
7950 East Mississippi Avenue
Somali cooking has also been influenced by outsiders, but unlike the Chinese who settled in Korea and suffered government-sanctioned discrimination in the 1960s and ’70s, the Italians who left their mark in Somalia were there to conquer and govern. At the end of the nineteenth century, Italy attempted unsuccessfully to take over Ethiopia, leaving for a short time but returning to the region in the 1930s under Mussolini to take over parts of what are now Somalia and Ethiopia. The occupation ended after World War II, but Somalia gained at least one thing from the whole ordeal: pasta.
Kin Restaurant bills itself as an East African and Middle Eastern eatery, so chicken shawarma is offered as a plate or sandwich, but most of the other offerings are purely Somali — even if the spaghetti on the menu took the long way around to get to Denver.
I headed to Kin for a late lunch and found the parking lot full of taxis and the dining room packed with Somali men enjoying soccer on a big-screen TV. A helpful host explained the menu to me and made some recommendations, which I followed to the letter. What I ended up with was a delicious combo plate known as a “federation,” with a mound of fragrant, long-grain rice and one of spaghetti coated in a meaty tomato sauce. I was offered a choice of beef or goat (pork isn’t part of the Somali Muslim diet), so I took the goat, small riblets coated in a spice blend and cooked until tender.
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A simple side salad, a couple of lime wedges and a blazing hot sauce — made with nothing but puréed jalapeños, lime and perhaps a little cilantro — rounded out the platter. I was also given a whole banana, along with an explanation that it’s an essential part of the meal.
Kin also serves breakfast, at which goat and beef liver are popular items, and beef and chicken stews are also available. And at dinner, adzuki beans with sesame oil or cooked cornmeal topped with meat are customary. Despite the geographical proximity of Ethiopia and Somalia, Kin’s food is distinctly different from what you’ll find in Denver’s many Ethiopian restaurants. (For that, you can go right next door to Elsa’s Restaurant & Lounge.)
Neither P & Y Cafe nor Kin Restaurant are polished destination eateries. But the staff at both are friendly and informative, more than willing to explain menu items and even how to eat the dishes in question. And for the opportunity to experience culinary evolution in action — not to mention some tasty food — a trip down South Parker Road is definitely in order.