In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
I skipped New China Kitchen last week in favor of the Columbine Steak House primarily for logistical reasons (accommodating the schedules of busy friends), but also because I knew this would be a solo trip. I just couldn't seem to muster much enthusiasm from anyone I knew for the little shop -- hardly more than a shack -- huddled beneath a billboard and almost dwarfed by the pickup trucks for sale in the lot next door. Years of battles with taggers have scarred the restaurant's sign with unintelligible squiggles of spray paint, and a makeshift patio adds to the general state of neglect, at least on the exterior of the building. But I'm not here to critique the architectural shortcomings of Federal Boulevard's restaurants; my goal is just to find good food, even from seemingly unlikely sources.
The enticing aroma of wok-seared meats and simmering sauces dispelled my apprehension, even if the time-worn counter with its aging DIY construction was hardly inviting. Stepping up to order at least gave me the chance to glimpse into the kitchen, separated from the dining room -- a few booths beneath barred windows -- by only a pair of saloon doors. Fire blasted from burners beneath darkly seasoned woks set in constant motion by a crew busy flipping rice and tossing stir-fries with wide, flat turners. This was no heat-and-serve operation; the view of the cooks hustling in the kitchen was the most promising aspect of the whole joint. At least I'd be getting something cooked to order rather than slopped from a steam table or warmed in a microwave.
Takeout Chinese-American has never been high on my list of dining priorities. When I was a kid, Chinese restaurants were destinations for special occasions like New Year's Eve or visits from out-of-town relatives, so my parents always sought the unique places with live lobsters in tanks, regional specialties, and ingredients that would make my sister and I laugh and grimace at the same time. Sure, my favorites were the safe dishes: deep-fried and sticky lemon chicken, kung pao studded with peanuts and chiles, and, of course, thick egg rolls and crunchy crab Rangoon. But at least I got to sample what the adults were eating (which opened my mind to the endless variety of international cuisine) and I got to use chopsticks, which automatically gave dinner a more exotic feel. But Chinese was never a quick dinner or a substitute on nights nobody wanted to cook.
And so the idea of cheap and greasy takeout never really hit home with me, especially during college, when an MSG overdose was the exact wrong cure to combat a weekend hangover. Tacos, burgers, burritos, a giant plate of chicken-fried steak with cream gravy -- sure. But rice and flavorless water chestnuts intermingled with a few shreds of mystery meat? A cold cup of coffee and a handful of Advil were preferable.
The deep, steamy billows coming from that teeming kitchen helped overcome my trepidation, if not my initial realization that New China Kitchen's menu leans heavily on standards adjusted to American tastes (which, if those are truly our tastes, makes us a pretty boring lot). You won't find the exotic or unknown here; I was even deprived of the simple pleasure of ordering crab Rangoon like a world-weary traveler slumped at the bar of a formerly glorious, luxurious hotel where the staff still sport white gloves and I could say with a sigh, "Ah, Rangoon, jewel of the orient..." while gesturing for another Singapore Sling. Here they are simply called cheese crab wontons and they come with all dinner-sized orders, along with an egg roll and shovelful of fried rice. I scanned the letter-board menu and quickly selected kung pao beef, double -cooked pork and combination egg foo young. A few minutes later I hefted my sackful of steaming takeout boxes (Styrofoam clamshells in this case, but smaller orders come in the traditional folding boxes with wire handles) out to my car and back home.
The egg foo yung, despite its placental appearance, was my favorite of the lot, with crisp, caramelized edges drowned in a sweetish but not cloying brown sauce. The twice-cooked pork had a nice buzz of chiles accenting tender, pink-edged pork and still-crunchy cabbage (along with a few of those water chestnuts, which can't possibly count as a real source of nutrition). The kung pao beef was oddly flavorless despite a punch of heat from invisible crushed or powdered chile, rather than the typical wok-blackened spears of searing goodness; even a dose of additional chile oil and soy sauce failed to bring out any additional depth.
The generous serving of cheese wontons made up for the beef dish; despite a complete lack of even a whisper of crab, they were puffy and crisp and gave up their bundles of molten cream cheese without a hint of limp or soggy wrapper. Say what you will about cultural abominations or trash food, but these little deep-fried treasures will always have a place at my table, although definitely without the radiant red sauce that's surely just Hawaiian Punch thickened with cornstarch.
Despite the pleasure of furtive late-night leftovers downed in the dim glow of the open refrigerator door, my next Chinese takeout outing may not come for several years; I'll stick with the leisurely pace of a dim sum brunch or the boisterous crush of a packed noodle house. But the value was there at New China Kitchen: Even if it's not so new and even not so China, the Kitchen in the name at least rings true.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.