Word of Mouth

Imperial Chinese Restaurant owner Johnny Hsu reflects on the evolution of Chinese restaurants in Denver

Before Liu Zeng Qun opened Chef Liu's Authentic Chinese Cuisine, his Szechuan restaurant in Aurora (which I review this week), he spent eight years working for the man who secured the visa that brought him over here: Johnny Hsu.

Hsu is the man behind Imperial Chinese Restaurant; he's owned restaurants in Denver since 1980, just one year after he immigrated here from Hong Kong. "I came to Denver because most of my family members were in Denver," he explains. The family had fled to Vietnam from China with the rise of communism in the 1940s; the Vietnam War forced them to flee again, with Hsu going to Hong Kong and the rest of his family across the Pacific.

Hsu attended culinary school in Hong Kong, with the goal of someday working in a kitchen in the United States. "I learned all kinds of cooking there: Cantonese, Szechuan, barbecue, even French cooking," he says. "I knew I was going to work in the restaurants in America."

In 1979, he made the move, settling here and landing a job at a Holiday Inn hotel restaurant on Colorado Boulevard, where he manned the stoves. A few months later, he joined his brother at Little Shanghai in Evergreen. And in 1980, he and his sister jumped at the chance to take over a flailing Chinese restaurant in the Tech Center.

"We bought a restaurant on Arapahoe and changed the name to Jade Garden," he recalls; they also revamped the menu to include more authentic dishes from China. "I owned it for five years, and it did very well at the time. It was considered one of the best Chinese restaurants."

Opportunity knocked again in 1985, when a developer working on 1 Broadway approached Hsu and asked if he'd like to take some space for a restaurant. Hsu said yes, leaving his sister to run Jade Garden and building out his own place: the original Imperial.

"There weren't many Chinese restaurants then," he remembers. "Most that existed were family-run. I saw the niche for a good restaurant with good service. And that's what I did at Imperial."

With its opulent decor and country-spanning cuisine, Imperial flourished. "I got a chef from my brother," he says. "I had the best people at the time: the chefs, the front of the house. We did good business for ten years in that 1 Broadway location."

In 1995, the space at 421 South Broadway became available, allowing Hsu to build an entirely new restaurant from the ground up. He jumped at the chance, and created a new place with a richly appointed dining room that seats more than 100 people.

Hsu's first chef left soon after. With each subsequent chef, the restaurateur has tweaked his concept to reflect the evolving tastes of Denver diners. "The Chinese restaurant business is not like before," he explains. "The menu keeps getting bigger, but we try to keep it smaller."

The current Imperial menu isn't committed to any one region of China. "It's hard to say, 'We just do Szechuan,'" he says. "The food is from everywhere now. Szechuan, Cantonese, Mandarin -- even Vietnamese and Thai." The roster includes a Thai noodle dish similar to pad Thai and Vietnamese spring rolls, in addition to Szechuan dishes like kung pao chicken, Peking duck from Beijing and mu shu from northern China. They're all dishes that have been Americanized, adapted to the tastes of the country that the restaurateur has called home for over thirty years.

But while Hsu says he's careful to listen to his diners, he also tries to stick to his original vision. "I don't want to adapt with a trend," he says. "We have to be true to ourselves and put the best items we can make on the menu."