Unlike Forbidden City, Mr. Panda is spotlessly clean, bright and cohesively decorated. Everything on the multiple buffet tables -- which hold over a hundred items -- is piping hot and refreshed with a frequency that's machine-like and efficient and comforting. The shrimp are held on ice, the ice cream and yogurt machines gleaming like the chrome on a muscle car.
Then again, Mr. Panda is also dry as a Mormon wedding and about as exciting as a flat roller coaster. There's nothing on the rotating board of fare that's surprising or exciting or has the potential to kill you. The wok-fried rice is admirably fresh, if a little bland. The breaded chicken is tender, cut into generously huge slices and actually tastes like chicken. The teriyaki beef is sweet and tender, as it should be, and slathered in teriyaki sauce that's sugary-smoky, thick and glossy, exactly as it should be. But the sauce on the chicken with broccoli tastes like water thickened with cornstarch. The spare ribs are huge, glazed in a honey-sweet sauce and look great, but the meat is so soft, so textureless, that the bone slides out clean. The egg rolls, spring rolls and vegetarian rolls are perfectly serviceable, but not memorable. The golden buns don't begin to approach the level of suicidally-bad-for-you greatness of those at Forbidden City.
And there's no real reason to stalk the regulars -- those truly committed buffet aficionados -- because everyone here has come for one thing only: snow crab, the cheaper, less popular, ugly cousin of king crab. On a good night, Mr. Panda staffers carry out hotel pans full of legs and claws every ten minutes, place them in their spot on the hot table, watch them empty, then crank up the rack steamers and do it all over again. And again. And again.
You know why we don't eat otters in this country? Because otters are cute. Snow crabs, on the other hand, are hideous, ugly, nasty, mean and brutish critters, armored from lips to asshole, covered in stiff hair and wicked spikes and a paint job like an unsightly rock suddenly come to life. They look like something out of Jules Verne, something that Giger would've kept as a pet. Of all the fucked-up-looking creatures of the deep, the snow crab is among the fucked-uppest, and even dead and disassembled for consumption, the bastard can tear you up if you're not careful how you handle it. These things are monsters. Unlike otters, they probably deserve to be killed and eaten just to make the oceans better-looking.
Also, otter probably tastes like shit. Snow crab, on the other hand, is delicious.
Which is why Mr. Panda is so friggin' popular that the house fills on Monday night, Tuesday night -- any night, really -- and why it's worth ten bucks to me to ignore everything else on the buffet tables (except the ice cream) and eat nothing but the big-ticket uglies as fast as I possibly can.
To its credit, Mr. Panda understands this compulsion. Mr. Panda is so understanding, in fact, that it foils any temptation to eat the place empty of crab legs every night -- in gloating vengeance for every poor sucker who's ever been ripped off by some seafood restaurant that charges twenty or thirty bucks for a pound of spindly king crab legs, or $19.99 for a half-dozen shrimp in a cheapjack scampi sauce -- by simply offering more crab than any single human could possibly consume in a single sitting. It's amazing, really, this overwhelming generosity, this all-you-can-eat abundance. And Mr. Panda's psych-out tactics be damned: If I were a really fat man (rather than the scrawny Irish peckerwood I am), I'd eat crab until the staff made me stop, until they slung a tow chain around my ankles and dragged me out of the place behind a tractor.
Mex and match: The former Papillon/Indigo/ Go Fish Grille space didn't stay vacant for long. Chris "Cactus" Douglas -- a former artist, former helicopter pilot and relative food-world short-timer, with only a half-dozen years in the business -- will open Tula there next month with his wife, Kerri (a veteran of the Kevin Taylor empire, like her husband). While she handles the front of the house, Chris will see to the back.
"All my training is in fine dining," he says over the phone, while standing in the gutted room at 250 Josephine Street. "I love the fine-dining thing, the gelees and foams -- even though foams are kind of over right now -- and the foie gras with peanut butter and root beer, you know? But, look, I'm a pretty young chef. I understand that. And I didn't think it was right to open that kind of place for my first restaurant. I don't know if people would've been willing to accept that."
So instead, Douglas -- whose professed and primary loves are for sushi and, apparently, that modern Kellerian juxtaposition thing of goose liver and Peter Pan Crunchy -- decided that the right thing would be to open a Mexican restaurant. "Modern Mexican," he stresses, borrowing a page from Richard Sandoval's book of tricks. "Not necessarily traditional, but simple, clean Mexican. None of that Tex-Mex stuff." He says epazote. He says huitlacoche. He says the kind of food that you might get in Mexico if you had the pesos to get the really good stuff or the guts to eat the really good stuff.
He plans on doing lunch and dinner, and is still in the process of assembling menus. The day before, he'd come up with a blood orange-chipotle salsa that he liked -- but then he killed it, replacing it with a simple yellow-corn salsa. "I didn't know if people would want to eat blood orange-chipotle three times a week," he tells me. "I don't want to be too crazy or too out-there. I don't want to be Denver's next hot chef."
He and Kerri are renovating the place themselves. They want diners to feel like they're in a new restaurant -- not just a new version of an old place. And with the scheduled opening date of December 8 just three weeks away, it looks like a bomb went off. Still, Chris feels confident about Tula's chances.
"You know, the tile has already come in," he points out. "Things are coming along. All the ducks are in a row, but you know how it is. Anything could still happen."
Leftovers: I'm sorry to report that Kabul Kabob, my other Best New Restaurant pick of 2004 (it shared honors with Brasserie Rouge, and we all know what happened there), has closed. Its spot at 11002 East Yale Avenue in Aurora is now occupied by Afghan Village, a new restaurant complete with a new (but still Afghan) menu and staff.