Peasant Dreams

Sometimes it seems as though there are more Chinese restaurants in Denver than there are people in China. And sorting through all these eateries isn't an easy task, particularly since one man's moo shu pork is another's dried-out pancake with bland pig.

So my recent discoveries of two true pearls of the Orient were precious, particularly since they followed a visit to a place that served food that might as well have been paste.

When I chase down the so-called friend who sent me to Dragon Palace, he's going to get a bowl of hot egg drop soup dropped on his egg-head. After driving a half-hour through a snowstorm to Lakewood, I was rewarded with hot-and-sour soup ($3) that contained that awful maraschino-cherry syrup and an egg drop soup ($3) that tasted oddly of mushrooms, even though there were no mushrooms in sight--just old, tired remnants of eggs from hens that had dropped by a few days before. Those tough old birds resurfaced in the sesame chicken ($7.50); the dish was the color of an orange lipstick from the Sixties and tasted like it had been sitting around three decades, too. The pork with garlic sauce ($6.25) contained no garlic, and the royal spareribs ($7.50) had been given anything but the royal treatment--the ribs were barely coated with a sauce that tasted like sugar and were literally bone-dry. The fried rice was just as arid, so devoid of moisture that you might as well have been eating the uncooked grains straight from the box.

After that, I had trepidations about trying anything new. But the Princess Garden, a five-month-old establishment tucked into the line of businesses that front South Pearl Street, proved to be a real find. According to the menu, the owners ran a Chinese restaurant in Northern California for fifteen years. Their experience shows: Everything I tried at the Princess, which specializes in Cantonese and Mandarin food, was freshly prepared and well-executed. In fact, the only complaint I had with the place was that items on the menu marked by an asterisk to indicate "hot and spicy" weren't hot and spicy at all. This kitchen needs to add fuel to the fire.

Even without the promised heat, the sesame chicken wings appetizer ($3.50) was outstanding: The eight wings had been coated in a sticky-sweet batter and sprinkled with sesame seeds, resulting in crispy-chewy textures and juicy meat. The hot-and-sour soup ($3.50) was also lacking in fire, and while the good, thick broth was nicely sour, it offered very little in the way of chewables. (Our bowl held just a few bamboo shoots, and I suspect we got the end of the pot.) The seafood sizzling soup ($4.95), however, was packed with ingredients: In the rich stock, shrimp and pollock (imitation crabmeat) bumped up against bok choy, celery, carrots, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and rice.

Over two visits we sampled six entrees, four of which were supposed to be hot and spicy. Only one was--an order of the Szechuan shrimp ($8.95) brought a healthy portion of the crustaceans perked up by a crushed red pepper-blasted sauce (the Princess Garden uses no MSG). The other purportedly spicy dishes--sesame scallops ($11.50), orange-flavored beef ($8.50) and vegetables in garlic sauce ($5.95)--featured the same fresh ingredients and substantial portions, but none of the fire. Even so, they didn't score low in the flavor department. This garlic sauce lived up to its name, and the orange "flavor" on the beef--the Princess Garden menu calls many things "flavored," which makes it sound as though the kitchen doesn't use the actual ingredient--proved to be a thick reduction of orange juice and beef stock that resulted in a not-too-sweet but still strong coating on the just-cooked rectangles of flank steak.

The written description of another "flavored" dish, the walnut-flavored duck cubes ($9.50), also failed to do it justice. Big chunks of duck had been dusted with a batter of chopped walnuts and then tossed with sesame-coated walnut pieces for an intense walnut experience. A better name for this dish would be "duck-flavored walnuts." And why Chinese restaurants insist on giving entrees such nebulous titles as "velvet seafood delicacy" ($10.50), I do not know. When I asked what the heck this title meant, here's how the dish was described: "It's seafood in a sauce." No kidding. Specifically, scallops, shrimp and pollock in a creamy, fish-based sauce--nothing fancy, but plenty good.

Actually, that description applies to just about everything at Princess Garden, from the food to the decor to the service.

We encountered more of the same at Little Yen King, which has been serving up Mandarin and Szechuan cuisines in a Littleton plaza for almost ten years. The setting is fairly austere--booths the color of green beans, a few sculptures--and the staff typically unobtrusive but friendly. But the food here goes way beyond the starchy-sauced, saccharine-sweet fare you find in the majority of this city's Chinese restaurants.

Particularly noteworthy was the hot-and-sour soup ($1.95). Its chicken-based broth was hot not from red pepper but from black pepper, and overflowed with ingredients: tofu, shrimp, carrots, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and onions. Little Yen King also put a lot of thought--and value--into its egg drop soup ($1.25), which was filled with zucchini, carrots, scallions, snow peas, tofu and chicken.

But then, you don't have to pay a king's ransom for any of these dishes. An order of sesame chicken ($7.95) brought mounds of crunchy balls of chicken stir-fried in the traditional, seed-studded sweet sauce. The Hunan double delight ($10.95) was indeed double the pleasure: Shrimp had been cooked two ways--in a sauce of caramelized onions and a curry-style liquid with carrots--and each was a noticeable improvement over the usual cornstarch-thickened glazes. The champagne chicken ($6.95) was another revelation: In a preparation with a decided French accent, pieces of chicken had been stir-fried with snow peas, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots in a light, smooth wine sauce. Little Yen King even added a twist to that old American-Chinese standby, moo shu pork ($7.50), by building on the sauce's hoisin foundation with tons of garlic, seasoned salt and onions.

When you're guided by word-of-mouth recommendations, getting the royal treatment at two out of three restaurants isn't bad.

Dragon Palace, 6400 West 20th Avenue, Lakewood, 237-1386.

Princess Garden, 1529 South Pearl Street, 765-2880.

Little Yen King, 8996 West Bowles Avenue, Littleton, 979-9599.


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