According to the Western calendar, this is February 2019. But on the Chinese lunar calendar, the year 4717 — the Year of the Pig — is just beginning. To help celebrate the Chinese New Year, which officially kicks off on February 5 (though celebrations and activities continue through the 15th), Chinese cuisine is in order. Here are the ten best Chinese restaurants in the Denver area to help you start the year right:
Flower Pepper Restaurant
2655 Broadway, Boulder
Homey and handmade; that's how the chalkboard menu at Flower Pepper reads. Big bowls of noodles in broth, some streaked with the house chili oil; an array of traditional dumplings served pan-fried, steamed or in comforting soups; and rice dishes ranging from Sichuanese mapo dofu to Taiwanese stewed pork belly are what keep customers coming back. The place is tiny but has a big heart, so you'll never leave hungry. Make sure to order something with flower pepper powder, also known as Sichuan peppercorn, for a numbing sensation that balances the heat from chiles.
3500 Larimer Street
This RiNo restaurant's name pays homage to Denver’s own Chinese history: Hop Alley was the once-thriving Chinatown that was burned down during riots in the 1880s. But the cooking — like the sleek, hip-hop-infused restaurant — is all modern. Dishes have their roots in regional specialties but are interpreted liberally: Blending bone marrow into fried rice, for instance, is a stroke of genius; it gives the grains a nice, silky mouthfeel and umami addictiveness, upgrading fried rice from what’s basically a throwaway dish to a star. Other favorites since the restaurant opened three years ago include Beijing duck, normally served whole with pancakes, here reimagined into a wrap, with flaky scallion pancakes forming the shell. And we never skip the garlic shrimp noodles; a generous hit of black pepper gives the chewy strands a compelling boost not unlike a cacio e pepe pasta. Also an upgrade on the standard offering: Hop Alley’s drinks list. The cider and wine collection, in particular, is undersung and excellent.
Hong Kong Cafe
10890 East Dartmouth Avenue
Straddling the border of Denver and Aurora, this charming cafe also straddles the intersection of European and Chinese cuisine as found in Hong Kong's teahouses. Traditional scallion pancakes and Shanghai-style beef tendon noodle soup share menu space with Italian-influenced baked spaghetti and rice dishes and Hong Kong-style French toast. Finger food like shrimp toast and classic egg rolls and fried wontons pair perfectly with a bracingly strong iced milk tea. The choices are a little mind-boggling, but you'll find comforting favorites as well as fun and unique offerings served nowhere else in town.
Little Chengdu Asian Cuisine
8101 East Belleview Avenue
Little Chengdu’s English sign reads Blue Ocean, a generic name befitting the generic American-Chinese menu that the restaurant offers its non-Chinese patrons by default. But don’t settle: Ask for the Chinese menu, which has been translated into English. Here you’ll access a raft of regional Chinese specialties, including two main highlights. The first is an all-you-can-eat hot pot experience; order your soup spicy or not (we prefer spicy), and eat your fill of shaved beef, meatballs, mushrooms and greens, cooked fondue-style and then swiped through a dipping sauce you assemble from the condiment bar (our perfect mix includes sesame oil, sesame paste and garlic). The second is the list of hand-pulled and Shaanxi-style knife-shaved noodles, which get pooled with chili oil or dropped into heady Lanzhou-style beef soup. You’ll need to go at night if you want to catch the noodle-stretcher in action.
3421 East Colfax Avenue
Q House is doing for Denver Chinese cuisine what Julep is doing for Southern food. Traditional Taiwanese and Sichuan ingredients and techniques find their way out of obscure neighborhood joints into the heart of the action on East Colfax Avenue. Racy red chiles are tempered by numbing Sichuan peppercorns in Q House's Chong Qing chicken and other dishes; thin-sliced pig ears stand in for bacon in a deeply flavorful salad; and fried eggplant in General Tso's sauce show how a tired takeout classic can be remade into something fresh and wonderful in the right hands. Watch the flames leap beneath sizzling woks while indulging in house cocktails infused with Asian ingredients at the long bar and chef's counter, the best seats in the house.
2917 West Mississippi Avenue
Like many of Denver's best Asian restaurants, Star Kitchen is tucked into a strip mall and doesn't look very inviting. But step through the front door and you'll find yourself in one of the best dim sum joints in town, with fantastic dumplings and buns coming at you fast and furious from the friendly servers wheeling their carts around the dining room. Star Kitchen offers more standard dinner fare into the later hours, too, but the real draw here is the dim sum. Bring a friend or two — actually, bring six or seven — and settle in for a meal of delicious bites. Bonus: Star Kitchen has a liquor license, so you can sip your lager while perusing the seemingly endless parade of goodies.
Sunflower Asian Cafe
91 West Mineral Avenue, Littleton
Ask your server for advice at Sunflower Asian Kitchen, and she may rather forcefully steer you toward the Sichuan specialties, especially if you indicate that you like spice. Heed her nudging: This strip mall restaurant offers regional specialties from across China, but it’s deft at balancing tingling Sichuan peppercorns and hot chiles in dishes like the Sichuan-style boiled fish, in which hunks of white fish swim in a trough of angry-looking broth liberally flooded with chili oil. Consider starting your meal with the tea-smoked eel, a Sichuan specialty that comprises fish marinated in, and then smoked with, tea and sugar. And a truly Chinese meal requires a side of vegetables; we'd go for garlic-spiked sautéed greens or the dry-fried green beans. But, really, as long as you’re working off the Chinese menu — as opposed to the American-Chinese list you might be handed when you walk in — it’s difficult to go wrong.
Super Star Asian Cuisine
2200 West Alameda Avenue
Denver is long on decent dim sum, but the most consistently excellent parlor is Super Star Asian, a bare-bones cavern whose back wall is lined with seafood tanks. Cart-pushers traverse the dining room, which is full even on weekdays, offering such standards as barbecue pork buns and shu mai, shrimp har gow and chicken feet. Selections are most plentiful on the weekend, but if you don’t see what you want from the extensive list of dumplings and snacks, you can always ask for it. We always make sure to get the turnip cakes, crisp-edged and sided with plummy hoisin, and custard tarts, our favorite dessert. Nighttime at Super Star gives way to feasts: XO crab or lobster, cod in black bean sauce, pork belly with preserved cabbage, and roasted duck, which should be ordered in advance.
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Szechuan Tasty House
1000 West Evans Avenue
Despite its name, not all of the best dishes at Szechuan Tasty House hail from Sichuan province. The chef here, who's from the northern city of Tianjin, is skilled with Imperial Cuisine, which encompasses highlights from all of China’s regions. Ask for the English translation of the Chinese menu, then take your cues from parties around you, and you'll see that you should order a spicy chile-oil dish (fish, beef, or half-and-half of each) and the zha jiang mian — the chewy noodles come topped with sweet-savory stewed pork imbued with five-spice and topped with slivers of fresh, verdant cucumber. Szechuan Tasty House also does a good version of Mao’s favorite dish, hong shao rou — translated here as home-style braised pork in brown sauce — and baseball-sized lion’s-head meatballs made from pork.
Yum Yum Spice
2039 South University Boulevard
Yum Yum Spice deals a sizable menu of pedestrian American-Chinese offerings, but savvy diners skip right past those for a more unusual proposition: dry-pot hot pot, listed here as griddle-cooked foods. A variety of proteins could anchor that pot; gizzards, duck heads and pork intestine get the same billing here as beef and shrimp. Our pick, though, is the bullfrog; the amphibian, whose texture is somewhere between halibut and chicken, is a popular feature on one of the most famous dry-pot streets in Beijing. No matter what you choose, it'll be served still sizzling in a massive wok, tossed with cauliflower, celery, bean sprouts and lotus root, and inundated with both hot chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. Choose your heat level accordingly; asking the kitchen to dial it up to full force guarantees you'll not only sweat, but also feel the effects of those peppercorns, which leave a mild Novocaine-like numbness on your lips and tongue — a sensation that's addicting once you get used to it.