Four years ago, we profiled every restaurant on Federal Boulevard in our Federal Case series. Now we're doing the same on Havana Street, from East Hampden Avenue up to I-70. Join us on our journey of one of the city's most diverse culinary stretches.
Chinese food has become a fixture in the American diet, resembling most American-style comfort foods with its saucy meats, pan-fried vegetables and carby-fried counterparts. But what Lucky China at 2000 South Havana Street in Aurora does differently from the masses of strip-mall Chinese eateries sets it apart. Owner Helen Cai’s top priorities at Lucky China are quality ingredients, handmade noodles, healthy cooking methods and carefully prepared traditional dishes.
The dining room at Lucky China is small and simply decorated, with three big fish tanks providing most of the ambience. As you walk around the fish tank at the entrance to be seated, you may notice several signs written in Chinese with dollar amounts next to them. These are the “try it out” specials that aren’t on the menu, but if you ask your server, he or she will tell you about them. I saw many patrons order from this specials board; the dishes came out piping hot on metal carts and looked tasty and freshly made.
Cai says that she creates new dishes periodically to see what’s popular enough to put permanently on her already extensive menu. That’s how her savory Taiwan Style Beef Noodle Dish ($12.99) made its debut on the “chef’s recommendations” list. This specialty gets its start around 4 p.m. the day before, when Cai goes to the butcher to find the perfect cuts of beef for the soup. “You need to find quality beef, with less fat and more meat, for this soup to be good,” she affirms. After procuring the beef, she “washes” the meat in a water bath and then soaks it in a vat of water for two hours. She then marinates it overnight in her special combination of spices and soy-sauce-based liquid.
Early the next morning, Cai and her staff come in to braise the beef in a rich liquid made from beef bone, garlic, ginger, soy sauce and other secret seasonings for at least six hours before opening for lunch at 11 a.m. “The longer, the better — my soup takes eight hours or more to taste great,” she professes.
The broth is indeed rich and meaty and has that slow-cooked taste that can’t be forged. The beef is not tough, but tender and delicate. The handmade noodles are perfectly cooked and have the “Q” texture, which is a Chinese term for “chewy, springy and slightly firm”; the equivalent would be the Italian “al dente.” According to Cai, who has been making versions of this dish since she was a teenager, “pre-made store-bought noodles can get really mushy; that’s another reason we make ours fresh. They add the perfect texture to this soup."
Cai and her kitchen staff also get to work in the wee hours of the morning making and cutting fresh homemade noodles and chopping veggies for the various dishes served up to customers. “We do this every day,” she says. “It makes our food healthy and nourishing.”
Cai notes that steamed dumplings ($7.99) and potstickers ($12.99) are served as an entire meal in China, which is why most of hers come in such large quantities (up to twenty per order). She adds that many restaurants in large cities like Beijing are known specifically for their dumplings and usually don’t make anything else. “People go and have an entire meal of dumplings in China,” Cai explains. “Many Chinese-Americans come here to have that same experience. That’s why we pay special attention to our dumplings by making fresh noodles and meat mixtures to fill the dumplings with daily.”
Likewise, all the buns ($1.50-$7.99), dumplings and pot stickers are made to order at Lucky China, with meat and seafood fillings such as flavorsome leek and shrimp, salty beef and onion, or seafood-forward scallop and shrimp part of the ever-changing lineup made fresh daily. For an experience similar to one you’d have in a big Chinese city, try buns, dumplings and pot stickers as your entire meal, which will be easy with the large variety of flavors.
Speaking of pot stickers, you won’t find bags of frozen pot stickers in Cai’s kitchen. “It’s not healthy to serve people pre-made frozen foods that need deep frying just to make them taste good,” the chef explains. “When Chinese customers taste our pot stickers, they know it’s homemade. The noodles are fresh, and the meats and seafoods are mixed up daily into new combinations. They know it’s homemade, and the taste reminds them of home. We don’t need to hide behind deep-frying any of our foods, because when food is fresh, you can taste the difference.”
Her technique is to use a mixture of 60 percent water and 40 percent oil to lightly brown and crisp their home-made pot stickers while keeping them light and delicate. “Deep-frying pot stickers is an Americanized way of preparing the dish,” she adds.
Many dishes at Lucky China reflect alteration for a different clientele, and if you’re in the mood for American-Chinese fare, I recommend the surprisingly light combination egg foo young ($10.99). The eggs are fluffy and contain bits of tender meat, cabbage, onions and zucchini throughout. Large chunks of shrimp, pork, chicken, beef and perfectly cooked veggies are layered under a savory gravy and heaped onto a four-inch deep dish to hold an impressively large and piping-hot portion. When she brought it to my table, my server immediately said “You’ll need a box — I’ll go get it for you” before I even took my first bite. Indeed, this dish, like many others served at Lucky China, including appetizers, could be split between two, three or even four diners. So bring a companion, or be prepared to feast on delicious leftovers for a couple of days (not that this is a problem).
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Lucky China offers a generous takeout or delivery weekday lunch special: $7.99 gets you one of 58 entree selections, a choice of egg drop, hot-and-sour or wonton soup and a drink, served up with an egg roll, crab-cheese wonton and fried or steamed rice. (As with all menu items, the lunch special is available for takeout or delivery if you’re within a three-mile radius of the restaurant.) If you’re bringing kids to Lucky China, Cai recommends the beef "burrito" ($9.99), which contains slow-cooked beef and veggies wrapped in a housemade wanton skin and cooked in the same 60/40 water-and-oil solution. Also worth trying is the bottled Chinese tea, sweetened and flavored with lemon for a wonderful counterpart to the savory flavors in your meal.
Lucky China stands out in the crowded takeout-and-delivery Chinese restaurant market. Cai’s attention to health and high standards adds up to a distinctively tasty experience that should keep diners coming back for more — unless you’re lucky enough to live or work within delivery distance, in which case they’ll be coming back to you.
Lucky China is open Wednesday through Monday from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. at 2000 South Havana Street in Aurora; reach the restaurant at 303-745-1373.