Let's get one thing straight before we proceed with this list of the ten best Chinese restaurants in Denver: "Chinese food" is a bit of a misnomer. China is a massive country with distinct regions, each of which has its own ingrained culinary tradition. It's more accurate to say Sichuan food or Yunnan food; the canons from these two provinces are about as similar to one another as German food is to Spanish, and that's before you dial into village-level dishes or techniques. In America, "Chinese food" has been a misnomer for a different reason: It's a descriptor of dishes you can only find in this country (although American-Chinese restaurants have begun to pop up in cities like Shanghai, for novelty). Luckily, long gone are the days when eating Chinese food in this city meant dipping into a carton of orange chicken and a bowl of egg drop soup. Now, regional highlights abound. By way of proof, this list traverses specialties from all over the Middle Kingdom, from Cantonese dim sum to spicy Sichuan fare to iconic Taiwanese beef noodle soup. We threw in a particularly good American-Chinese place, too, in case you occasionally feel nostalgic for the sweet-and-sour sauce of your youth.
12203 Iliff Avenue, Aurora
Hunan, Fujian and Sichuan fare dominates the Chinese menu at China Jade, an Aurora strip-mall restaurant where mid-afternoons find large gatherings of Chinese friends settling in for massive feasts. Start with the best Sichuan wontons in town — they’re on the menu here as "spicy taste shepherd’s purse wonton." Delicate wrappers hold aromatic pork meatballs in an exhilarating pool of lip-tingling chili oil; the same bold heat infuses the thick stew of mapo tofu. More adventurous eaters might appreciate all the fuss about Chinese chicken feet (it’s a textural thing; they’re fun to gnaw on), or dip into some stir-fried offal (pig’s blood, stomach and intestine all make the list). China Jade is a good place to push your horizons, but even a platter of stir-fried Napa cabbage can be transcendent here, deftly flash-fried as it is and presented crisp and slicked lightly with soy sauce.
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. Beijing duck, normally served whole with pancakes, is 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.
8101 East Belleview Avenue
Little Chengdu’s English sign reads Blue Ocean, a generic name befitting of 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.
New Peach Garden
1111 Washington Avenue, Golden
If Golden’s New Peach Garden served just the rou jia mo — unceremoniously named “pork sandwich” here —
the restaurant would still warrant a slot on this list. The ultra-savory stewed-pork sandwich is a northern Chinese specialty, built on sturdy flatbread and topped at New Peach with zippy green chilies. Unctuous and juicy, it’s an exceptional snack that surpasses other versions the world over. That you can supplement it with fare culled from the very best of rustic Chinese cooking — cumin lamb, tomato with egg, sautéed eggplant — is a bonus. If you order ahead, you can partake in a Beijing duck feast.
Peter's Chinese Cafe
2609 East 12th Avenue
Is American-Chinese food on its way out? After all, we spend most of our time ferreting out regional specialties these days, forsaking the takeout dishes that defined not only our childhoods, but also this country’s perception of Chinese cooking for at least a generation. It’s hard to go back to mu shu when you’ve had real Beijing duck, and wonton soup is much less interesting against fiery Sichuan dumplings (or chao shou). That said, if you occasionally feel nostalgic — as we do — for the egg drop soup, sesame chicken and General Tsos of a different era, your best bet in Denver is Peter’s, which has been serving the metro area well-executed versions of American-Chinese classics since the ’80s. Highlights here include the shatter-crisp sesame chicken, sticky with caramelization, and the thick-set, burnished scallion pancake, served with a deeply savory ginger-soy dipping sauce. Go at lunch, and your meal comes with fried rice and a delicate egg roll, sided with sweet-and-sour sauce and hot mustard. Don’t forget your fortune cookie, a distinctly American-Chinese invention inspired by a Japanese pastry.
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 hails 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.
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 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 first walk in — it’s difficult to go wrong.
Super Star Asian
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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Yum Yum Spice
2039 South University Boulevard
Yum Yum Spice deals a sizable menu of rather 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 you'll also feel the effects of those peppercorns, which leave a mild Novocaine-like numbness on your lips and tongue — a sensation that's addicting after you get used to it.
Zoe Ma Ma
2010 10th Street, Boulder; 1625 Wynkoop Street
Zoe Ma Ma’s success is thanks to proprietor Edwin Zoe’s mother: the owner co-opted her into running the kitchen at his original Boulder restaurant and cooking recipes from her native Taiwan and his father’s native Shandong that he loved as a child. Those recipes include a heady Taiwanese beef noodle soup, one of that country’s most famous and revered dishes; zha jiang mian, or chewy noodles topped with stewed pork and shreds of raw cucumbers and carrots; and the CPR, a five-spice-laced stew of chicken and potatoes served over rice (we sometimes substitute noodles). The dishes were such a hit in Boulder, Zoe opened a second Zoe Ma Ma at Denver’s Union Station in 2015. Keep an eye out for the special lion’s-head meatballs, served only on Wednesdays and Thursdays.