The prickly, tingly — almost numbing — sensation on our tongues was a sure sign that Sichuan peppercorns were in the bowl of Chong Qing chicken that my friends and I were fighting over with chopsticks in the back booth of Q House.
Chef/owner Christopher Lin, who opened Q House at 3125 East Colfax Avenue last spring, lists Sichuan pepper as an ingredient of the chicken dish on his menu, as he does numbing chile oil in the description of another dish. But even without that written cue, their presence can't be denied. Today you can find the buzzy little flakes (not real pepper, but a dried flower from the prickly ash tree) in a number of Denver restaurants, primarily because of the growing interest in Sichuanese cooking. But up until 2005, importation of the ingredient was illegal (because of the fear of plant-borne pests, not because it's an illicit drug), so outside of a few outlaw eateries in New York City or San Francisco, most Americans hadn't experienced the wondrous numbing heat made famous by certain dishes originating in the southwest Chinese province.
As Lin's chicken dish, bristling with angry red chiles, shows, cooks can up the quantity if they balance it with the anesthetic quality of Sichuan peppercorns. Sure, you get a wallop of heat, but it's tempered just enough so that the roasty, fruity flavors of the chiles are amplified. The combination is addictive; my friends and I found ourselves chasing every last crumb of crackly chicken skin and crust, even nibbling on the dried chiles (typically not meant to be eaten) to see how much our tastebuds would bear.
Go to any neighborhood Chinese restaurant — or their palatial counterparts, where a family-style meal at a round table is preferred to cardboard takeout boxes — and you're likely to find dishes labeled "Sichuan." They will have a little heat, even a visible dried chile or two, but they're not what's being served at Q House or Hop Alley, or Little Chengdu, Szechuan Tasty House and Yum Yum Spice, three traditional Chinese restaurants catering to a wave of recent immigrants, longtime Chinese-Americans looking for a taste of their home country, and Westerners in search of something beyond what's been served throughout Denver for the past several decades. Because of the scarcity of Sichuan peppercorns, traditional dishes were adapted to be made without them, resulting in an entirely different flavor profile (the spice also carries a mild lemony note) and eating experience.
But it's not just Sichuan peppercorns that folks are clamoring for these days. Dumplings have become the new symbol of Chinese cuisine in Denver, replacing the familiar egg roll and crab-cheese wonton. Is this because dumplings seem more authentic (a word that doesn't carry much weight, considering the many culinary regions of China and the differences in preparation from kitchen to kitchen there), or simply because they're fun? Certainly, certain dumplings, like soup-filled xiao long bao, indicate a high level of skill in the kitchen, since the many pleats that form a closure are executed by hand — and "handmade" sells.
At ChoLon, chef/owner Lon Symensma has been serving handmade French onion soup dumplings, a European embellishment on the Shanghai specialty, since the restaurant opened in 2010. And just last week, he added two other variations on xiao long bao at the newly reopened Cho77.
Despite the popularity of xiao long bao on the coasts, they're still not easy to find in Denver's Chinese restaurants. In Boulder, Flower Pepper makes them by hand, and you can also find them at the infamous Lao Wang Noodle House (where you'll probably be served a side of short temper with your dumplings), at Shanghai Kitchen in Greenwood Village, and at dim sum houses such as Star Kitchen and Super Star Asian Cuisine. Not sure if you're getting a handmade soup dumpling? Take a close look at those pleats on top: If they're shallow and uniform, they're probably pre-made, but if the pleats are many and form a tight swirl with a tiny top-knot of dough, they're likely stuffed and folded by hand.
Fortune Wok to Table in Cherry Creek specializes in fried or steamed dumplings filled with pork, beef or vegetables. The blistered exterior on the lightly fried dumplings is a revelation if your previous experience has only been with frozen versions. The restaurant also serves xiao long bao on the first Sunday of every month on a first-come, first-served basis.
Handmade noodles are also in demand in Denver, taking the place of former takeout favorites like chow mein and lo mein. You can find them in Shanghai beef noodle soup at Flower Pepper or Zoe Ma Ma (in Boulder and downtown Denver), or you can visit Little Chengdu in the Denver Tech Center, where hand-stretched noodles are made in full view of the dining room. These are an integral part of the restaurant's hot pot presentation, another trend jumping from big cities in China to new restaurants in Denver. Even neighborhood eateries like D Station near the University of Denver and Yummy Hot Pot on West Alameda Avenue have built-in burners at each seat to keep the broth boiling.
What to look for beyond Sichuan peppercorns, dumplings, noodles and hot pot? You might find Chinese sandwiches (rou jia mo and shao bing) and street-style skewers coming soon — they're both gaining fans in cities with large Chinese populations, like New York City, Las Vegas, Seattle and Houston.
There are still plenty of mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants around town, in case you're craving kung pao chicken, mu shu pork or Hunan beef, complete with egg rolls, steaming rice and wonton soup. These spots represent the evolution of Chinese food as it was adapted to American tastes and available ingredients. But China is a vast country, and we're only just starting to taste the variety of ingredients and preparations becoming more available — and more in demand with Denver diners because of beautifully produced cooking shows, videos and websites offering dishes new, alluring and delicious.
February marks the start of the Chinese calendar, and this will be the Year of the Pig. Now is a perfect time to scout out new dishes for a new year.
For ten options for exploring the scene, see our list of the ten best Chinese restaurants in Denver.