In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
Amidst the clatter of plates, the requests to pass the dan-dan noodles or hand over the black vinegar, and the oohs and ahs as various dishes were sampled and approved, the almost forgotten basket of xiao long bao quickly lost its steam and, with it, a little of the plump appeal that makes soup dumplings such a fun and wondrous appetizer. But the sharp-witted gentleman who takes orders, brings drinks, darts to the kitchen to man the stove, and keeps an eye on any potential blunders from guests of his restaurant, Lao Wang Noodle House, wasn't about to let a group of distracted diners miss the moment when the dumplings achieve the perfect temperature and texture.
"Eat them now before they get too cold!" he commanded. "Everything else can wait."
So we dove in with our spoons and chopsticks, adding sprinkles of vinegar or dabs of chile oil as we savored the tender skins and delicately seasoned ground pork filling. But we were just a touch slow and so missed the burst of hot broth, most of which had absorbed into the dumplings or maybe thickened as it cooled to just below the tongue-scalding range. I blame myself; I've eaten these treasures many times, but usually alone or with my wife. In a larger group, there were too many distractions and so we let the moment pass. Although they had lost their liquid wobble, the xiao long bao were still delightful and -- even better -- were one of many dishes that crowded our table, vying to be someone's favorite.
Despite Lao Wang's reputation as Denver's soup dumpling Nirvana, to put too much emphasis on this single dish would be to miss out on a menu filled with other unique and exemplary flavors and textures. Rigidly fixating on those little dough-wrapped packets might also mean missing out on the single most important ingredient in the secret house blend: the owners themselves, who alternate between rushed professionalism and a kind of stern, avuncular guidance that comes with a wry twinkle.
The spiced tofu jerky was one of those exemplary dishes; it had the firm, dense texture of dry cheese and paired perfectly with the exotic but equally subtle house lager from Caution Brewing (Lao Wang's only alcoholic beverage). Cold sesame noodles added to the picnic-like experience. Tangy shreds of pickled daikon and carrot punctuated a cool, creamy sauce and balanced rich flavors of sesame and peanut. The dan-dan noodles offered a warm variation on this theme, with just a hint of added heat and some extra meatiness from fine-ground pork. Lao Wang's dan-dan definitely leans toward the creamy, nutty side, rather than soupier versions loaded with chile oil. The real star of the table, though, may have been the pot stickers from the "featured dishes" section of the menu. Lao Wang's method is to crowd the dumplings into a pan and let them crisp and caramelize before turning them out onto a plate like a savory tarte tatin. What you see first is the glazed mahogany bottom of the pot stickers in a near-continuous sheet of blistered dough, the plump tender sides temporarily hidden until you grab hold with your chopsticks and pull. Each bite yields equal portions of tender, crunchy and meaty, with a depth of flavor that can only come from a pan heavily seasoned by time and use.
Lao Wang, as one of my lunch companions pointed out, is unique among Denver-area Chinese restaurants, both for the brevity of its menu and for its true noodle-house service and atmosphere. You won't find the standard litany of sauces with the same vegetables and mix-and-match proteins. The flavor combinations aren't just variations on sweet and salty. All the service and food preparation is executed by that earnest and bustling couple who have created a rhythm and flow that come from years of balancing the needs of each table with the reality of serving home-style food to a steady influx of customers.
I can't claim to be an expert in the Taiwanese variations on classic Chinese dishes that have filled bellies and warmed souls for generations. I haven't searched for the perfect bowl of beef noodle soup in the narrow Chinatown streets of Manhattan or San Francisco. But I've sat at the tables of a few restaurants on Federal Boulevard and I can say with certainty that we're lucky to have Lao Wang Noodle House in this town, and that I'm even luckier to live within a stone's throw so I can quickly claim a table each time I visualize the crackling shell of fried dumpling skins or the humble pride in the owner's eyes as he lifts the bamboo lid with a flourish and vanishes back into the kitchen in a puff of steam.
For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.