Mouthing Off

Chinese checker: I visited seven Chinese restaurants before I could find one to recommend, and even that one, Fu Lin (see review above), wouldn't make it onto a list of the city's best Chinese restaurants. But then, that list is short: I can't think of ten Chinese joints in this town that I'd gladly return to. Still, like so many Mexican restaurants here, every Chinese place always seems to have one dish worth checking out.

For instance, at Sweet Rice Cafe (942 Jersey Street), the Szechuan beef ($7.25) was truly something special, with beautifully sliced vegetables and a heavy ginger flavor that balanced a dish that's so often all about heat. The vegetable spring rolls ($2 for two) were also commendable, since they contained more than just shredded cabbage and had a nice ginger flavor. But the chicken with garlic sauce ($6.75), which was supposed to be spicy, wasn't; the vegetable lo mein ($5.50) that the menu described as having a "round, tasty sweetness" was in reality flat and tasteless. And the sesame chicken ($8.25)--a dish for which I get more recommendation requests than any other--featured too much batter and not enough heat. The staff was very friendly, though, and most dishes had eye appeal. But you'd be well-advised to enjoy them in the privacy of your own home: This spot is more take-out than dine-in, with only a few tables in a small space that's often heavy with wok smoke.

Jasmine Chinese Cuisine (203 West Hampden Avenue) is another strip-mall joint, but one with a much nicer atmosphere than that at Sweet Rice. The sesame chicken ($7.95) is better, too, with a well-rounded spiciness and just enough sweetness to balance the heat without it tasting like candy. The garlic chicken ($6.75), however, had so little garlic flavor that I thought they'd given me the wrong dish. The hot-and-sour soup was so thick it was like eating Jell-O, and while the egg rolls ($2.95) were decent, the dumplings ($3.95 for six) were watery and all dough. The most disappointing dish was the shrimp with lobster sauce ($7.95), with an overly cornstarchy glue holding together some of the most overcooked crustaceans I've ever seen--they made tires seem like butter by comparison.

Hey, I even went all the way to Boulder to check out a place a reader called "the real thing," but Hunan Garden (949 Walnut Street) was more like a real letdown. The space, on the second floor of an old building, is wonderful, with exposed brick and lovely old Chinese chandeliers and other knickknacks. (Don't lean against the wooden counter when you pay, though, because it's not attached to anything.) But the food was a typical combination of a few good dishes and a lot of lousy ones.

The hot-and-sour soup ($1.25) was tasty and packed with prime ingredients. But the soft-shell crab ($4.50) had been suffocated in a too-heavy batter, and the egg rolls ($1.25 each) were all crunch--cabbage and wrapper--and no spices. The pan-fried dumplings ($4.50) and the steamed pork buns ($4.50) were both exquisite, but the lovers' shrimp ($13.95) was a loser. The shrimp were supposedly deep-fried in a "hot, tangy" sauce and then tossed in a white one, but both sauces were too dull to like, much less love. The shrimp with lobster sauce ($9.45) was less goopy, but it also had even less flavor. The orange beef ($8.25) was no better than average, with none of the cornstarch goo of typical versions but none of the expected orange flavor, either. But then--surprise!--came the great eggplant with garlic sauce ($6.45), sharp with garlic.

But our thrill over that taste treat disappeared with the discovery that there's no soap in the bathrooms (my husband checked out the men's room)--even though a sign on the wall about handwashing makes it clear that employees use these facilities as well.

I'm not even going to mention the bathrooms at the next two places I ordered takeout from--both at the strong urging of readers.

I'd like to forget what I ate from these spots, too. Empire of China (4455 West Colfax Avenue) cooked up the fattiest, greasiest fare I think I've encountered at a place that wasn't in the deep South. Empress of China (8100 West Crestline Avenue) was so filthy and run-down that I ate my takeout from there only after it had been microwaved at the maximum temperature possible.

Now, on to a couple of Chinese spots I do frequent. My all-time favorite is the charmingly decorated Golden Plate (7180 East Hampden Avenue), which gave a group of us eating dim sum on a recent Sunday a food hangover, so heartily did we partake of its sumptuous selection. Although dim sum is available only on weekends, Golden Plate's regular menu of Shanghai-based dishes is always an adventure. Don't miss the sesame pocket appetizers or anything with pork in it.

A bit farther east on Hampden, behind Tamarac Square, sits Pavilion (3333 South Tamarac Drive), which offers two menus: one for the typical American, and the one Asians order from, which includes dishes featuring body parts you may never have eaten before. The crispy items, such as the duck or fish, are unbelievably tasty, and the steamed dumplings are the best in the city, if not the state--or maybe even the country.

Closer in to town, I still enjoy Imperial Chinese Seafood Restaurant (431 South Broadway), but more for its impeccable service, excellent wine list and enchantingly elegant decor than the food. (Although if you stick with the spicier dishes, you shouldn't be disappointed.) And during my eating for the 1998 Best of Denver, I became quite taken with China Hill (711 Grant Street), which does a fabulous, but very crowded, lunch buffet for $5.95 that serves up well-cooked food kept fresh in the chafing dishes. I have yet to make it back to try the regular menu, though. And for soup, no one beats Hung Kee (1015 South Federal), where the hot-and-sour garnered a much-deserved Best of Denver award this past year (the pork with melon is wonderful, too).

The hot-and-sour at Fu Lin wasn't quite as good as Hung Kee's, but it was tasty enough that I soon had a hot-and-sour hankering again. So I whipped up a batch of homemade from a recipe I'd created from several sources but hadn't used in years. It still works, though, and as with chicken noodle soup, this is the perfect time of year for it.

The Chinese regard hot-and-sour soup as their cure-all: Ginger and pepper are good for clearing the sinuses; garlic is considered to be a virus-fighter; cilantro is an antioxidant; eggs and bean curd offer protein; vinegar cleans out the system; and fungi are good for the circulation. In addition, when it's made right, with the correct proportion of chewables to liquid and sourness to spice, it's just a darn pleasure to eat. Get your wood ears (black tree fungus) and dried tiger-lily buds (also known as golden needles) at an Asian market or from a gourmet grocer. For a vegetarian version, skip the pork and use a vegetable stock (or try throwing scallions, carrots, fresh ginger, cilantro, bok choy, a few black mushrooms, a couple of star anises and some soy sauce into a big stockpot and boiling it for about an hour to make an Asian stock). Also, white pepper has a more refined flavor than black, so use white if you have it.

Don't be put off by the long list of ingredients, because once they're assembled, the soup takes only about fifteen minutes to make. And one final note: The translation of suan-la-t'ang is really "sour-and-hot soup."

Super Suan-la-t'ang
3-4 dried black Chinese mushrooms
2 tablespoons tree or wood ear mushrooms
4 dried shiitake mushrooms
20-30 dried tiger-lily buds
5 cups chicken, pork or vegetable stock
1/4 pound lean pork, sliced into matchsticks
5 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
14 ounces firm silken tofu, cut into large strips
1 8-ounce can bamboo shoots, drained and sliced into matchsticks
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup water
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons salt (kosher or sea salt, if possible)
1 teaspoon ground black or white pepper (fresh, if possible)
1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped scallions, white and green parts

Fifteen minutes ahead, put black, tree or wood ear and shiitake mushrooms and tiger-lily buds into separate bowls and pour boiling water over them; let stand until ready to use. In a medium saucepan, bring the stock to a boil, add the pork, then lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes. Drain mushrooms and lily buds, cutting off mushroom stems and the woody tips of the buds (discard both stems and tips); add to stock. Stir in vinegar and soy sauce and add tofu and bamboo shoots; simmer another 5 minutes. Mix cornstarch with water until dissolved and stir into the soup. Cook until soup thickens slightly. Turn off heat and slowly swirl in eggs. Add salt and pepper (more to taste). Drizzle with sesame oil and garnish with cilantro and scallions. Serves 4 to 6.

Mongolian barbecued: "Here's Your Hat. What's Your Hurry?," my January 14 review of BD's Mongolian Barbecue (1621 Wazee), inspired a big response, with most of the letters, calls and e-mail agreeing with my assessment that the place is overpriced and the sauces aren't all that great. Caller Susan Wyman pointed out that at lunchtime, she paid $10 for all-you-can-eat, but because the bowls were so small and the line was long, she could only down one "dinky dish" before she had to get back to work. "So much for it being fast like they advertise," Wyman said. "And what a ripoff." Another hungry e-mailer compared the bowls to "teacups."

A few people, however, had different experiences, including restaurant consultant John Imbergamo, who called to say that when he visited, the waitstaff was careful to ask if anyone at his table was vegetarian. And since he is, he appreciated the gesture. "The grill guys used a special set of tongs to toss my food," he added. "And they scraped and cleaned the grill just for me."

The two times I ate there, no one asked if anyone at our table was vegetarian. But then, we didn't get the great service that a letter-writer who signed himself only as a BD's Advocate got, either. Which makes you wonder if the suggestion offered by e-mailer Charlotte Smith would work. "If you screwed up your food by not using the correct ingredients, then that would be your fault," she points out. But if you use BD's recipes, why not just have them do the whole thing for you? It's not like you're saving any money by making it yourself.

From the Heart: This event won't save you any money--but it will buy some help for a very good cause. Nearly 100 eateries are involved in this year's Dining Out for Life event on March 11 to benefit Project Angel Heart. The participating restaurants give 25 percent of that evening's profits to the nonprofit, which coordinates 225 volunteers each week who help cook and deliver hundreds of meals daily to people living with HIV and AIDS. Call your favorite eatery to see if it's on the list, then be sure to eat there that night. Or try someplace new, and remember--charity begins at a meal away from home.



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