After dark, certain stretches of Denver's suburbs may as well be rural farmland; what few lights there are appear distant and twinkling and the black silhouettes of trees stand in for strip malls and rows of houses in more populous areas of town. A half hour drive down Santa Fe Drive and across County Line Road to find Centennial's China Taipei (which has held its ground in the Willow Creek Shopping Center since before Centennial was a town) feels like a late-night, cross-country road trip, even at prime dinner hour on a Friday night. The same thirty minutes in the opposite direction would cover a few miles of stop-and-go traffic downtown and jockeying constantly for lane position with barely enough time to find parking for a 7:30 p.m. dinner reservation. Once there though, the parking lot at China Taipei, which opened 23 years ago, is overflowing to the point where customers are even poaching handicapped parking spots. It seems that my favorite "secret" Chinese restaurant is not such a secret to its suburban neighbors.
One thing that does seem a bit of a secret is the Chinese menu, which I still have to ask for despite several visits to the place. Not that the kitchen doesn't do an admirable job with the regular lunch and dinner menu, but the supplemental Chinese menu (don't worry, selections are written in English, too) covers more interesting territory, primarily in the form of traditional Taiwanese soups, appetizers and a much more constrained selection of entrees than what you typically find in Chinese restaurants.
Once inside the brightly lit, wedge-shaped dining room with its dangling chandeliers reminiscent of disco lights, service is swift and friendly. A full bar near the host station with a couple of bar stools seems like an awkward setting for a meal, until I see an older couple settle in to chat with the owners across drinks and dinner. The rest of the space is filled with spacious booths and white-clothed tables in various sizes -- the larger ones topped with lazy Susans.
This month, I'm looking for dishes traditionally served for Chinese New Year (since this year the celebration falls on February 19); I asked our waiter if he could recommend anything in that direction, but he said there wasn't anything specific that he could think of. Chinese New Year dishes are generally associated with good fortune, prosperity and longevity and include whole fish and whole chicken, but I wasn't in the mood for tilapia and the salt and pepper squid seemed like an excellent seafood choice. Mustard greens -- and other leafy greens -- are another good one: served whole they represent long life and the verdant green color, even after cooking, is certainly a symbol of health in any culture.
The pork belly with pickled Chinese cabbage seemed like a close enough approximation (I was clearly making things up at this point so that I could just order what looked good), and appetizers of cold jellyfish salad and scallion pancakes rounded out the choices.
Jellyfish prepared for Chinese and Vietnamese dishes is not nearly so intimidating as you might think; those gelatinous blobs you found washed up on the beach as a kid get salted and preserved to the point where the consistency is firm and the color is similar to cooked noodles. Sliced thin and mixed into a salad with a light dressing of sesame oil, the texture comes in somewhere between julienned carrots and cold cellophane noodles. The flavor is mostly salty with the barest hint of the ocean, far less pronounces than even fresh clams or oysters.
Scallion pancakes, on the other hand, are something nobody could possible hate. Golden and crunchy on the outside and just slightly doughy on the inside, the thin, crisp triangular slices soak up the sweet and salty sauce to make a perfect savory snack. These are available on either menu, so if you're sticking with sweet and sour chicken or kung pao shrimp, you'll still be able to get a plate.
The salt and pepper squid came, like the jellyfish, amid a nest of shredded iceberg lettuce. But also hidden in the pile were caramelized bits of garlic, onion, ginger and jalapeño, perking up the dish considerably. And the squid, cut into strips rather than rings, sported a light breading -- possibly of rice flour -- imbued with salt and ground Szechuan peppercorns rather than standard black pepper, creating a warmer, buzzier sensation on the tongue.
The pork belly was served as a mahogany hill of sliced meat, slow cooked and glazed with an almost black sauce. A ring of braised pickled greens surrounded the meat, creating a moat of bittersweet from mixture of the slow-cooked greens and bean paste based sauce. The pickled vegetables also had an undercurrent of funky, fermented flavor -- not sour like store-ought sauerkraut but earthy like naturally fermented pickles or beets.
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Around us, pupu platters blazed with blue flames and groups of friends sat chatting long after their bills were paid and to-go bags delivered to their tables. I was surprised by the energy of the place compared to many other forlorn ethnic eateries in the suburbs, but the place cleared quickly as if by some hidden signal and by 8:45, we were just about the last to pay up, other than the couple at the bar. I may have fudged my Chinese New Year ordering, but good fortune smiled on me anyway. A great meal followed by auspicious fortune cookie messages surely meant good things: "You will soon embark on a business venture," followed by "You will be successful in a business of your own."