Spicy soup and some of the best dumplings in Denver are on the menu at Lao Wang Noodle House
Before the Communist takeover of China forced thousands of people to leave their homeland for an island off shore, the Taiwanese had an aversion to eating beef. The ox was a working animal on Taiwan, worthy of reverence for its essential place in daily life and considered sacred by Buddhists who inhabited the island. But in the 1940s, that began to change, because the influx of Chinese immigrants didn't share the tradition — or aversion. Bowls of fat noodles and tender, braised beef swimming in a savory broth worked their way into the culinary culture, first slung by displaced mainlanders who set up roadside stalls, then by established restaurants. Today, beef noodle soup has achieved the status of a Taiwanese comfort food, rib-stickingly hearty, made by Taiwanese mothers to bring families together around the dinner table.
If you don't have a Taiwanese mother — or if yours lives thousands of miles away — Chung-Ming Wang would be happy to take you in. She and her husband, Tse-Ming, own Lao Wang Noodle House, a tiny restaurant in a South Federal strip mall. They're a good-spirited, older couple less interested in running a restaurant, it seems, than constantly feeding the regulars who become their adopted children and grandchildren, flocking to this dark, frill-free spot for dumplings and noodles. The regulars easily overlook the stained tablecloths beneath glass tops and grubby red-and-yellow walls holding just a couple of black-and-white photographs of the old country: You wouldn't comment on a smudge of dirt in your grandma's house, and you shouldn't worry about it here, either. Besides, the kitchen — visible through a tiny window in the back wall — is clean, and that's what counts.
If this were your grandma's house, you would clean up after yourself, too, and that gesture distinguishes the true regulars at Lao Wang. During one visit, a woman sitting near me knocked a bottle of vinegar to the floor, breaking the midday silence that hung over the room with a tinkle of glass and a small gasp. As liquid seeped over the cracked linoleum and the abrasive smell wafted into the air, she jumped up, chattering in Mandarin, and wandered back to the kitchen for a broom. After she swept up the glass, she found a mop for the vinegar. Through it all, the Wangs just kept working: The stubble-chinned Tse-Ming chuckling through the kitchen window while Chung-Ming served other customers, offering a comment or two in Mandarin to the offending guest.
The Wangs were part of that migratory wave, fleeing the Communist Party in mainland China and setting up shop in Taiwan in the 1940s. In 1985, they brought their young son, Danny, to Colorado, where they worked in restaurants in Loveland before sinking their savings into their own place in Denver ten years ago. Danny Wang describes his parents' food as traditional, noodle-based Chinese cuisine — there's no rice here, he emphasizes — that got its own twist in Taiwan.
The beef noodle soup is the menu's mainstay: chunks of fat-marbled loin and flat chewy noodles in rich, dark broth livened up with a couple of crisp leaves of bok choy and as much five-spice as your sinuses can handle. Chung-Ming, the lone server at Lao Wang, will ask you how spicy you want it, grinning broadly while peering at you through her round glasses. Hot means hot, and even medium makes me sweat. I'll crave that soup in the winter, and I'll prescribe myself a good dose of it the next time I'm sick and needing natural Sudafed to clear my stuffy head. The soup is arguably the best dish here, and even in the heat of summer, it takes a lot of resolve to order anything else from the menu.
Fortunately, I have plenty of resolve, because the dumplings here are almost as good as the soup. My favorites are the xiao long bao, soup dumplings that originated in Shanghai but became so much a part of Taiwan's cuisine that the most famous version in the world is made at a Taipei-based restaurant chain called Din Tai Fung. Dumpling connoisseurs on both sides of the Pacific spend plenty of time debating what makes a great dumpling, analyzing everything from the number of tiny folds that artfully close the dough over the contents to the best source of gelatin for the broth. Lao Wang's dumplings are some of the best in Denver, with doughy rice wrappers encapsulating peppery pork meatballs and pungent broth, served ten to a steamer. They're so mouth-wateringly succulent that I scald my mouth every time I get an order, shoving them into my face and paying the price when the steaming hot broth bursts across my tongue. A friend from Shanghai laughed when I told him that; the correct way to eat xiao long bao, he explained, is to bite delicately, slurp the soup, and then eat the wrapper and pork. Still, I prefer the rush of the explosion, dangerous as it is.
Lao Wang's menu also features a more familiar dumpling: the potsticker, touted as the best in the country, and definitely the best in town. Pan-fried and glistening with a little oil, these dumplings are crispy on the outside and soft and porky within, indulgent and belly-filling, but not so heavy that they'll leave you with you a fried-food hangover.
For lighter summer meals, Lao Wang offers crisp, cold cucumbers slicked with a little chili oil, as well as cold noodles in sweet peanut sauce with chicken. I liked that second dish, as it came, inoffensive, with shreds of moist chicken atop a nest of the same noodles that were used in my favorite soup. It was even better, though, after I added a healthy spoonful of garlic and five-spice to the mix.
You can also get those cold noodles with gristly beef tendon — just one of the more exotic dishes at Lao Wang, dishes that incorporate ingredients I once imagined hanging in a foreign window or floating around in big pickling jars but now see in action in Denver. Sweet, spongy tripe is laced into several offerings here. And then there's the pig's ear, advertised in Mandarin on a slate on the wall but not included on the translated menu. I've put a lot of weird things in my mouth just to be able to say I've eaten them, and I've found most of those things surprisingly enjoyable. But now that I've checked pig's ear off the list, I hope to never eat it again, unless maybe it's braised or chopped finely over something. At Lao Wang, the tough shreds of cartilage were served with nothing but a pinch of scallions as a garnish; I felt like I was chewing on a dog's rawhide.
I could have used a beer to wash it down, but Lao Wang doesn't sell alcohol. That could soon change: Danny Wang will open an Asian-inspired brewery this summer, and after that, he says, his parents plan to secure a liquor license so that they can carry their son's (and only their son's) beers. In the meantime, the best possible pairing is an ice-cold can of Coca-Cola; Coke's effervescent sweetness goes well with spicy Chinese cuisine, if not pig's ear.
I'm accustomed to a red-bean pastry at the end of a Chinese feast, but sadly, the Wangs don't fuss with dessert. They also won't fuss over you after you've finished your meal, so you may have to wander into the kitchen to find Chung-Ming and your check, which will likely never climb higher than $20 a person, even if you stuff yourself. Don't worry about overstepping your bounds, either: At Lao Wang Noodle House, you don't have to speak Mandarin to be one of the family. You just have to come ready to eat.
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