Before I left on a trip to New York many years ago, I called an old college buddy who'd grown up there and asked him for restaurant recommendations. He gave me about ten names, including an eatery on the edge of Chinatown that he said served some of the best Chinese food he'd ever eaten. Since my friend was from Taiwan originally, I visited the restaurant with high expectations. So imagine my disappointment when I was handed a menu filled with the usual tired sesame-chicken and orange-beef offerings; I then proceeded to eat one of the more humdrum meals of my Big Apple experience. After I returned home, I called my friend and asked what was up--at which point he sheepishly admitted that he'd forgotten to give me a crucial bit of information: To eat the real Chinese food at this place, you had to go around to the alley and enter through the back door of the restaurant.
Lucky for me, I returned to New York that year and went to the same Chinese restaurant, this time nervously sneaking around to the rear of the building. My companion and I expected to meet up with a bouncer who'd reject us as obvious Caucasoids, but instead we were greeted warmly and taken to a smoke-filled room lined with banquet tables overflowing with diners--Asian, Caucasian, you name it. They sat patiently as large, steaming platters of food appeared, each one more colorful and appetizing than the last. There were crispy smelts that had been fried with onions, pan-fried shrimp tossed with caramelized lemon slices, goat casserole with tofu, eels braised in a brown sauce. It was all stuff I'd never seen on a standard Chinese menu, stuff that Chinese cooks assume most Americans don't want to eat. (And they're probably right.) Well, we ate until our cheeks started to bulge, played hide-the-chopsticks games with a couple of children at our table, paid a ridiculously low tab for the amount of food we had consumed and then went back to our hotel and collapsed. Alas, when I returned years later, the restaurant had closed and a bank had moved in. Since then, I've had other Chinese-food fans tell me of similar spots in San Francisco, places where those in the know slip into back rooms or ask for the "other" menu in order to get real, honest-to-goodness Chinese cuisine.
Guess what: Such a place exists here in Denver--although you'd never know it to look at Pavilion, which is innocently tucked between India's and Souper Salad in Tamarac Square. I've walked past this restaurant a few times since it opened a year ago, looked into its bright-white tidy dining room, read the sign for the "$3.95 vegetarian lunch" and checked out the posted menu, with its moo goo gai pan and its shrimp chop suey, then walked on. That is, until a co-worker tipped me off to Pavilion's "other" menu. This I had to try.
When we first stopped in for lunch, though, the hostess seated us and handed over the same old boring roster. Smiling confidently, I asked, "Could we have the other menu?" Immediately her face lit up and she grinned. "Oh!" she said. "The other menu!" Then she raced to the cash register for it, at the same time pointing us out to the sole waitress and generally calling attention to our table. An Asian family across the room looked back at us and smiled; the couple at the table behind us wondered what the heck was going on. We felt like we'd won the cross-cultural lottery. Then we tried the food, and we knew we had.
Although we'd said the magic words, our hostess still was concerned that we were about to go somewhere we weren't ready for. When I ordered the five-flavor squid appetizer ($6.95), she grimaced. "It's steamed, you know," she said helpfully. Great, I answered. The squid turned out to have been steamed and then chilled, and the result was wonderful. Each pink chunk had been snipped to look like a little rocket ship; the flesh had the yielding consistency of overdone Jell-O, and the five-flavor sauce that came on the side had about ten more flavors than advertised. We saved some of that sauce for the scallion pancakes ($4.50), two dinner-plate-sized discs that were the best I've ever had, with just the right amount of scallions. These perfect pancakes weren't greasy but had enough oily moisture to keep them from becoming dry; they weren't thick and doughy but had enough heft that we couldn't see through them. While we were still tearing into the pancakes, our Shanghai leek dumplings ($5.95) arrived. Also known as dai suen or quingsuan in China, these miniature leeks are the size of scallions but have thicker green portions; they're slightly bitter, reminiscent of spinach, but with a mellow onion quality. Here the leeks had been chopped and mixed with the pork stuffing; when we bit into each freshly made dumpling, it burst with a soft, steamy pop and leaked intense leek juice all over the place. The sauce that came with these wonderful dumplings was so incredible, so multi-layered, that we couldn't pick out any one element. The hostess saw our pleasantly puzzled faces and nodded at us knowingly. We knew enough to eat every one of the eight dumplings and then pour the remaining sauce out onto our plates, where it was absorbed by the rest of the pancakes.
By now we were slavering in anticipation of the main course--and Pavilion again pulled through. The Taiwanese stir-fried vermicelli ($6.95)--chef and part-owner Alex Chang is from Taiwan--featured a mound of the noodles tossed in a wok with all the important Chinese vegetables, a smattering of egg and a lot of chicken and shrimp pieces that lent flavor to the thin coating of sauce. An order of tea-smoked duck ($9.95) brought half a bird hacked up, bones and all, into pieces the size of chicken drumsticks, just right for picking up and then picking at the crispy-skinned meat. The duck's exterior had the flavor and texture of crunchy bacon; the juicy pink meat inside smelled faintly of just-brewed tea.
On our second visit, we tried the crispy garlic chicken ($8.95). The fowl had been butchered in the same manner as the duck, but this time the skin tasted of garlic. More garlic sat at the bottom of a bowl of sweet sauce; combining this with the moist chicken made for some heady eating. The salted cabbage sauteed with shredded pork and sliced bean cake ($8.95) was beautiful to look at, a tangle of sliced green cabbage, beige tofu, brown pork and thin strands of red chiles. It was even better to eat, with the slightly salty cabbage adding tang to the otherwise spicy dish.
With the pot-roasted pork ($8.95), there wasn't a whole lot to look at, but it tasted delicious. The hostess had tried to steer us away from this dish, too, patting her rear end to indicate that we were about to encounter the fatty butt end of pork. But we ordered it anyway and were glad we did. Although the big chunks of pig resembled baseballs of blubber, in the center of each one was tender, succulent meat. And the condensed sauce, more like a rich, porky demi-glace, was just the thing to perk up steamed white rice. Enlivening a platter of pan-fried noodles with carrots and scallion tops ($8.95) was a simple, thick, seafood-based sauce that contained chicken and beef as well as shrimp and pollock. This kitchen clearly has mastered the foundations of stock and knows how to build on them.
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This expertise carried over to the regular menu. We felt obligated to try at least a few of the standard offerings and were rewarded with above-average renditions. An order of egg rolls ($1.95) brought two nicely fried, non-greasy, crispy rolls filled with a savory pork stuffing; the hot-and-sour soup ($5.95 for a quart) was indeed hot and sour, with none of that cloying sweetness that's oddly popular around here. Although there was a hint of sweetness to the luscious lemon sauce that bathed the lemon chicken ($9.95), it worked. And even the heavy sauce that covered the sweet-and-sour shrimp ($8.95)--eight large, very thinly battered shrimp--avoided tasting too candylike. It was all good, but not as stunning as the more adventuresome dishes we'd tried.
In a town marked by mediocre Chinese joints, it's good to know there are other options. And with Pavilion's "other" menu, you don't even need to sneak down any back alleys.
Pavilion Chinese Cuisine, 3333 South Tamarac Drive, 743-9777. Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.