The Year of the Rat begins on Saturday, January 25, bringing with it two weeks of Chinese New Year celebrations in Denver. The rat symbolizes wealth and surplus, so what better way to usher in this year than with a bounty of great Chinese cuisine? This city's Chinese restaurant scene has exploded and diversified in recent years, giving us more choices of both modern and traditional dishes than ever before.
Here are the twelve best Chinese restaurants in metro Denver in 2020.
Chinese Noodles12393 East Mississippi Avenue, Aurora
Slotted in alongside Aurora's Pacific Ocean Marketplace, Chinese Noodles makes no bones about what's being sold inside. But the kinds of noodles you'll find — the rice noodle soups of China's Guangxi province — are new to the metro area. Two signature bowls stand out: Luosi rice noodles and Guilin rice noodles. The first comes with a deep, dark broth made with beef bones and snails (you won't find escargot-like pieces in your bowl, though), along with wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, pickled vegetables and crunchy peanuts. The second comes as a bowl of thick, chewy rice noodles coated in a small amount of clingy sauce and served with slices of brisket and pork belly, along with pickled green beans, peanuts and scallions. A side of mild broth is provided as a palate cleanser between bites; you can also add the broth to the bottom of your noodle bowl so that you can spoon up the last of the tasty bits.
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: 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 to a star from what’s basically a throwaway dish. 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. The menu changes regularly, so there's always the chance of discovering a new favorite dish. Also an upgrade on the standard offerings: Hop Alley’s drinks list. The cider and wine collection, in particular, is undersung and excellent.
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. You’ll need to go at night if you want to catch the noodle-stretcher in action.
Meta Asian Kitchen at Avanti Food & Beverage3200 Pecos Street
Kenneth and Doris Wan have assembled a tight and modern slate of snacks and entrees perfect for the fun-loving crowd at Avanti. But the food is all founded on tradition, whether it's handmade, pan-fried chicken dumplings or the spicy wings served with Thai basil ranch dressing (don't scoff, it's the perfect accompaniment!). Amid the bao buns and fried tofu skewers, the standouts are perhaps Mama Wan's braised pork belly over rice (Kenneth's mom's recipe) and the unique Sichuan rice cakes with sauce-coated potatoes. Come for lunch so you don't have to fight for a place in line during Avanti's packed weekend nights.
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. 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.
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 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 barbecued 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 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.
Szechuan Tasty House1000 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 at 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 chili-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.
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. While some of the restaurant's opening house specialties are currently off the menu, there are still enough dishes seldom found in metro Denver to tempt any adventurous diner.
Yum Yum Spice2039 South University Boulevard
Yum Yum Spice offers 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.
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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, but every item on her concise menu is worth the wait in line, even in the winter. Most of the time, though, the bright-red truck is parked at brewery taprooms, so indoor seating isn't an issue. 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 10th 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, with orders placed at the counter and names called as food is ready. 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 potstickers, crisp and browned on the bottom; bao stuffed with pork fragrant with five-spice powder, the charmingly uneven buns the sign of the various hands that made them; 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.