The Lunar New Year is here; today marks the beginning of the Year of the Ox on the Chinese calendar. Celebrations stretch far beyond a single day, though, and involve a bounty of food in the name of hospitality and generosity. While the past year of the pandemic has changed the service style of many Chinese restaurants, great food can still be found, whether you're eating in dining rooms with reduced capacity or enjoying your food at home. Here are the best Chinese restaurants in metro Denver in 2021:
Hop Alley3500 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. On the menu since Hop Alley opened is Beijing duck, normally served whole with pancakes, here reimagined into a wrap, with flaky scallion pancakes forming the shell. The menu changes regularly, so there's always the chance of discovering a new favorite dish. Hop Alley is currently open for takeout, delivery and limited seating in heated outdoor tents.
Little Chengdu Asian Cuisine8101 East Belleview Avenue
Little Chengdu’s exterior 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 find 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 that 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.
Mason's Dumpling Shop9655 East Montview Boulevard
The name of this transplant from California, where parent restaurant Luscious Dumplings has been steaming, boiling and frying good things for twenty years, tells you nearly everything you need to know. But beyond the pot stickers, soup dumplings and chive pockets, Mason's Dumpling Shop has a tempting roster of other handmade eats, such as pork-belly buns nearly as big as sandwiches or noodle bowls guaranteed to warm you up on a chilly day. The dumpling shop is only open for takeout and delivery right now, so if you're worried about how your order will fare on a long drive home, try out the packs of frozen dumplings you can cook up in your own kitchen.
Meta Asian Kitchen at Avanti Food & Beverage3200 Pecos Street
At Meta Asian Kitchen, Kenneth Wan and Doris Yuen have assembled a tight and modern slate of snacks and entrees perfect for Avanti's heated patios or a take-home feast. But the food is all founded on tradition, whether it's handmade, pan-fried chicken dumplings or the spicy Sichuan wings served with blazing-hot Tony's sambal (which you can purchase separately). Amid the bao buns and fried tofu skewers, the standouts are the stir-fried beef noodles, the Hong Kong-style cha siu rice plate, and the unique Sichuan rice cakes with sauce-coated potatoes.
Q House3421 East Colfax Avenue
Traditional Taiwanese and Sichuan ingredients and techniques have found 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; beef tongue and tripe share a plate with jicama and Chinese celery in numbing chili oil; 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.
Shanghai Kitchen4940 South Yosemite Street, Greenwood Village
Since 2000, chef and Shanghai native Harry Zhou has been serving the traditional food of his home region. You certainly can't go wrong with Shanghai Kitchen's American-Chinese classics, but if you delve a little deeper, there's a separate menu of dishes that aren't easy to find in Denver. Start with a bamboo steamer of pork soup dumplings, then choose from whole fish dishes in various preparations (we love the Dynasty fish with pine nuts), cumin lamb and braised eggplant. The spacious dining room brings a taste of old Shanghai to the southeast suburbs.
Sunflower Asian Cafe91 West Mineral Avenue, Littleton
Ask your server for advice at Sunflower Asian Kitchen, and she may steer you rather forcefully 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; or chilled Nanjing salted duck, a marvel of smooth texture and deep, meaty flavor. A truly Chinese meal requires a side of vegetables; we'd go for the 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 that you might be handed when you walk in — it’s difficult to go wrong.
Super Star Asian Cuisine2200 West Alameda Avenue
Southwest Denver is long on decent dim sum, but the most consistently excellent is Super Star Asian, a bare-bones cavern whose back wall is lined with seafood tanks. In normal times, cart-pushers traverse the dining room, offering such standards as barbecued pork buns, turnip cakes, shu mai, shrimp har gow and chicken feet. Fortunately, most of the dim sum packs up well for takeout, and there are also larger entrees that are every bit as good: XO crab or lobster, cod in black bean sauce, pork belly with preserved cabbage, and roasted duck, which should be ordered in advance.
Uncle Zoe's Chinese Kitchen12203 East Iliff Avenue, Aurora
Handmade food and a little Sichuan spice make Uncle Zoe's an eye-opening dining experience in a sea of bland sauces and pre-made dumplings at lesser destinations. The kitchen takes the time to pleat every soup dumpling and season every dish just right — so go ahead, ask for the wontons in spicy chili oil so that you can experience the balance of heat and numbing Sichuan peppercorns. The fried pork buns and "fragrant meatloaf pie" (petite pockets called xian bing filled with meats or seafood) are also not to be missed.
Yum Yum Spice2039 South University Boulevard
Yum Yum Spice offers a sizable menu of standard American-Chinese offerings, but savvy diners skip right past those for a more unusual proposition: dry-pot hot pot. A variety of proteins could anchor that pot; gizzards, duck heads, frog and pork intestine get the same billing here as beef and shrimp. 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. While takeout doesn't offer quite the same experience, it's a good option when tables are few.
Yuan WontonFood Truck
You may not get the comfort of a roof over your head or a spacious dining room with chef Penelope Wong's dumpling-powered food truck, Yuan Wonton, but every item on her concise menu is worth the wait in line, even in the winter. There are always the signature wonton dumplings in chili oil and pan-fried eggplant dumplings, but specials such as pig-shaped bao, soup dumplings (xiaolongbao) and dandan noodles make checking in on Instagram a must to see what's coming (and where). No, Yuan Wonton isn't a restaurant, but we're not going to quibble when the food is some of the best in town, Chinese or otherwise.
Zoe Ma Ma1625 Wynkoop Street, 303-545-6262
2010 Tenth Street, Boulder, 303-545-6262
The first Zoe Ma Ma is based in Boulder; the second opened in 2014 near bustling Union Station. Zoe Ma Ma, named for Anna Zoe, the Taiwanese chef and mother of owner Edwin Zoe, is set up as fast-casual. This isn’t your typical Chinese-American restaurant, with sweet, gloppy sauces, nor does it feature the kind of food that Edwin’s parents used to serve at the restaurant they owned in the Midwest. Rather, these are the dishes that Edwin grew up eating: gingery pot stickers, crisp and browned on the bottom; bao stuffed with pork fragrant with five-spice powder, with charmingly uneven buns; pearl meatballs with rice poking out like porcupine quills; and za jiang mian, with egg noodles made from scratch, then topped with crisp vegetables and saucy pork. In addition to the daily menu, Zoe Ma Ma offers specials such as duck-wonton noodle soup and Sichuan braised-beef noodle soup.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.