Q House, which opened last spring on a transitional stretch of East Colfax, is a modern Chinese restaurant. You can see it in the sleek gray walls and red patio chairs mirrored by glossy red chopsticks, in the turmeric cooler and aloe spritz cocktails, in the abstract painting that wouldn’t be out of place in a gallery. You can also see it in the menu, which has precious little in common with the menus of those Chinese-American restaurants you grew up with.
Executive chef/managing partner Chris Lin is on home turf with this cuisine. The son of Taiwanese immigrants, he worked at his parents’ Chinese-American restaurant in New Hampshire, decided he liked cooking more than computer programming, and parlayed a degree at the Culinary Institute of America into a sous-chef position in David Chang’s empire. Lin knows his way around everything from chile oil to duck confit, and puts them together in ways that could make you forget a dish like moo shu pork ever existed.
Flakes of local trout, gently smoked in-house over cherry wood, team up with bacon in fried rice that shows how far humble grains can go. Bang Bang chicken, a Szechuan classic, is reimagined as a salad, with tender chicken that’s been poached in chicken stock for extra oomph, slicked with a spicy sauce that might remind you of Szechuan noodles, then paired with plenty of cabbage, cucumbers and fried wonton wrappers; Chinese sesame paste, akin to tahini, lends a luscious mouthfeel. Lo mein is evenly but not overly sauced, and studded with confit duck leg, a definite upgrade from the norm. While you might want more duck, this nod to the original is all about noodles — extravagantly long, chewy and fun to eat.
While fried eggplant sounds like the odd dish out, a relic of the Americanized cuisine that Lin is trying so hard to reinvent, this is one of the most craveable vegetable dishes I’ve tried all year. The logs of Chinese eggplant, their purple skins left on for lovely color, are a study in contrast: Lightly battered in a mix of potato starch, rice flour, vodka and water, their outsides crackle while the insides remain as soft as custard. Stacked crisscross, they come with a house version of General Tso’s sauce that is less sweet and more sour than the namesake, in all the right ways. I dare you not to eat more than your share.
If only the menu format didn’t get in the way of finding such terrific fare. Q House tries so hard to seem contemporary that it skips such helpful markers as the headings used at old-time Chinese-American joints to list dishes in all their permutations, such as kung pao chicken, kung pao beef, kung pao shrimp, etc. It also shuns signposts like appetizers, soups and entrees, and even pushes past modern menu divisions of small plates/large plates, stripping down to the barest minimum: four short sections, no headings, just the name of the dish followed by a dash and a few ingredients.
This minimalism matters because of the kitchen’s over-reliance on frying. Without in-depth menu descriptions, you might assume that dishes listed first — where snacky items are usually located — are where the fryer makes its biggest mark, but that’s not the case, and it’s easy to order too much fried food when building a meal. “We definitely notice the number of fried items,” says Lin, who explains that he designed the menu this way because it’s “more conducive to the snacky, modern eating style.” However, he adds that going forward, “we’re going to try to move away from it.”
In the meantime, the staff could serve as better guides. When I asked what dishes were good or went well together, I was steered toward deeply flavored buns, with thick-cut pork belly that’s marinated, then braised in soy sauce: delicious, but pricey at $5 a pop. The recommended fried chicken wings were extra-crispy from potato starch mixed into the batter. While stir-fried Brussels sprouts had seemed like a welcome seasonal addition, it turned out they’d been deep-fried before being stir-fried, a one-two punch that left them full of fat and mushy from double cooking.
Not once did servers recommend more unusual dishes, like the pig-ear salad or mussels in black-bean sauce. Instead, they like to push the Chong Qing chicken, which could explain why the $25 entree has become something of a house specialty. I can’t figure out another explanation: The dish resembles sauce-less fried nuggets tossed with dried red chiles, and some bits didn’t have any meat at all; these were chicken cracklings, an uber-rich addition that it would have been nice for the server to tell us about so that we could’ve compensated with lighter fare like pao tsai (pickled vegetables). And I had to wonder why the menu, too, failed to mention the cracklings but did list the far less obtrusive preserved mustard root. Even the entree-priced spareribs got a dunk in the fryer, which dried out the meat and detracted from the sultry umami of the initial braise. The bed of house barbecue sauce, spiked with Bull Head-brand shacha common in Taiwan, couldn’t offset the dryness. The unexpected glut of deep-fried food left us overly full — not from quantity, but simply from fat, a phenomenon known to anyone who’s ever eaten too many onion rings to make a dent in the entree.
That meal had been based entirely on the server’s recommendations, so on other visits, I vowed to find a better balance. It was harder than expected, given how much comes out of the fryer: fried smelt, fried monkfish, salt and pepper shrimp and so on. When Lin describes Q House as modern Chinese, he says, “We want to cook traditional recipes, but in a modern eating format — snacks instead of formal entrees.” But how modern is it to assume that Americans want so much fried food? That concept seems as outdated as beef with broccoli. A truly modern format would lighten up dishes, deconstructing them, nodding to the original while doing something new, such as making that lo mein mostly duck with a spray of noodles. It would also mean pushing deeper into regional fare, a move that Lin says is coming.
The restaurant’s name refers to Q, the Taiwanese term for starchy foods, such as rice, buns or dumplings, that are perfectly cooked. It’s similar to the Italian use of “al dente,” though Q refers to a bouncy rather than toothsome texture. But the tiniest of details can push a place far from perfection. A menu with better balance, as well as more information from servers and/or printed descriptions, would help Q House come closer to living up to its name. So would more dishes like that eggplant.
“I don’t want to say we dumbed it down, but we did start with some classics that people can recognize,” Lin admits. Now it’s time for Q House to show its smarts.
Q House, 3421 East Colfax Avenue, 720-729-8887, qhousedenver.com
Open 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Select menu items
Pork belly bun $5
Bang Bang chicken salad $11
Fried Chinese eggplant $10
Duck lo mein $17
Fried rice $14
Stir-fried Brussels sprouts $10
Chong Qing chicken $25
Shacha BBQ spareribs $24