The lobster was just sitting there, taunting me. I'd ordered it some time ago, before we'd munched through a few appetizers, and now my friend was halfway through his entree. From my seat in the dining room, I could see my lobster waiting on the edge of the server's station, losing heat even as I watched, while the restaurant's employees raced around taking care of other stuff, so busy that I couldn't get their attention.
I thought about just getting up and helping myself. But then again, I wanted to see how long it would take for someone to notice that my friend was well into his meal while I had yet to be properly introduced to my lobster. It turned out to be quite a while. His plate was nearly empty by the time I finally got to pry cooling crustacean flesh from its shell.
At least the server said "Sorry" when she set the plate down.
T-Wa Oriental Cuisine
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.
Spring rolls (2): $2.50
Fried or steamed dumplings (6): $3.95
Soft-shell crab (2): $12.95
Seafood fried rice vermicelli: $7.95
Fried crab cheese wontons (8): $4.25
Egg rolls (4): $4.95
Barbecued pork lo mein: $6.50
Scallops in Szechuan sauce: $11.95
House special baked lobster: $14.95
Sesame chicken: $8.95
Sea cucumber with brown sauce: $13.95
Chicken and sweet corn soup: $1.25
Beef steak Hong Kong style: $8.95
But I was the one who was sorry. Hot, the lobster might have been wonderful, since barely lukewarm it was still tender and juicy, coated in a gooey, salty sauce and baked until the edges of the meat had turned slightly crispy. In fact, my lobster was pretty indicative of how our meals would go at the revamped T-Wa Oriental Cuisine. Most dishes were decent but a little off, details kept falling through the cracks, and we had a constant sense that everyone working there had a little more on their plates than they could handle.
Those workers were a cheerful lot, however. New T-Wa owner Vinny Tian, who used to be a partner in King's Land Seafood Restaurant (this year's winner for Best Dim Sum), was a constant presence in the dining room -- smiling, chatting, taking orders and checking on everyone -- when he wasn't too busy running around, leaving the jovial servers to fend for themselves when the place got busy.
And T-Wa did get busy. When Tom Lam sold the T-Wa Inn, Denver's first Vietnamese restaurant (it was founded in 1984), to Tian four months ago, he left behind a large, loyal clientele. ("I have no 'me' anymore," Lam explained at the time. "I need to go find me.") To keep those longtime customers happy, Tian kept T-Wa's Vietnamese menu, even though the chef he brought over from King's Land, Tam Wan, is from Hong Kong. So to an already large roster, Tian and Wan added more than a hundred dishes, each named in both Chinese and Vietnamese, which made for nearly 300 menu items -- and one very large, confusing menu.
Since New Saigon, T-Wa's main competitor and the second-oldest Vietnamese restaurant in Denver, is but a block away, retaining some of T-Wa's old dishes might not have been a bad idea; this section of Federal Boulevard has a large Vietnamese population. And Tian even kept prices low and portions large. But for a new restaurant trying to find its way, a menu this vast is overwhelming -- to employee and customer alike.
Like most Asian eateries, T-Wa features many dishes that are really variations on a theme, such as sesame chicken, sesame pork and sesame beef. But T-Wa has also tried to incorporate some unique offerings, including those live lobsters fretting in a large tank in the corner. First you get to hand-pick your dinner, and then you can choose from eight preparation possibilities. The tank makes for a good conversation piece as well as some good eating -- if you can get your meal while it's still hot, that is.
That lobster tank was just one of the physical changes that Tian made to T-Wa. He also repainted the dining rooms a vivid blue, put in some new chairs and tables, and placed Chinese-style pottery in the nooks and crannies. Yet the place still has an old feel to it, and many people don't realize that it's now under new ownership -- until they take their first bite.
We found it difficult to gnaw through the too-hard, chewy rice wrappers on the Vietnamese spring rolls, once a T-Wa mainstay. Inside, there was far too much vermicelli and not enough mint or cilantro to give the noodles and a few fresh shrimp a needed flavor boost. The accompanying peanut sauce was so choked with chopped nuts that we couldn't dip our rolls in the stuff; instead, we used our forks to apply sauce to each bite. The fried dumplings were stuffed with ground pork, but they lacked the crispy bottoms that make these little packages so delicious and usually worth the extra cholesterol. The steamed dumplings were unbelievably blah, and so watery that we resorted to cutting them open on the plate rather than risk spurting hot water into our laps as we bit into them. And an order of soft-shell crab, once another T-Wa specialty, brought two tough little critters coated in a dark-yellow batter so soaked through with oil it turned our stomachs.
Grease proved a recurring problem at the new T-Wa. Vietnamese dishes that should be lightly oily, such as bun xao, arrived soggy with the stuff; although the shrimp and scallops were well-cooked, augmented with crisp scallions and carrots, they sat on greasy, fried rice vermicelli. And Chinese dishes that are supposed to be slightly oilier, such as egg rolls and wontons, were true oil slicks. Underneath many layers of greasy egg-roll wrapper, we found about a square centimeter of cabbage. At least the wontons contained something to cut the outside's oily richness -- even if it was just cream cheese and not the promised crab. Also oddly oily were the noodles in the barbecued pork lo mein; they were dripping with a greasy, salty sauce, while the pork itself was dry as a bone.
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Other Chinese dishes fared somewhat better. Grease actually helped the sesame chicken, which glued a not-too-sweet sauce to the thick, crackly batter covering still-moist chicken chunks. An order of scallops in Szechuan sauce brought lots of small sea scallops, sliced thin and swimming in a spicy, chile-pepper-flecked sauce that lacked depth but still offered a nice bite. Fans of sea cucumber -- an animal related to the sea urchin, or starfish, which has a rubbery, tubular body that turns into dense Jell-O when it's cooked and has a marvelous way of soaking up any liquid that comes near -- would enjoy the sea cucumber with brown sauce, a delectable mishmash with hunks of the sea creature awash in one of those nebulous but rich Chinese sauces that tastes so very...brown. And then there was my house special baked lobster, half of a crustacean hacked up so that the meat was accessible, if tardy.
Then again, two more Chinese dishes were absolutely inedible. A cup of chicken and sweet corn soup boasted an unthinned commercial soup base that had the consistency of rubber cement; even though it tasted as if a can of creamed corn had been dumped into this glop, we couldn't discern any chicken. It was impossible to determine what had befallen our beef steak Hong Kong style; someone had either dumped an entire container of salt into the runny brown sauce by accident or was intentionally trying to lure a deer in through the back door.
But just when I thought T-Wa was beyond hope, the restaurant would suddenly try harder. On one visit, we got eight dumplings instead of the usual six. For a to-go order, Tian threw in four Cokes. And at the end of every meal, a bowl of syrupy lychees was set down in front of each diner to sweeten the pot.
The new T-Wa is like my lobster. It has so much promise, but it's not delivering. And for a restaurant that was once a Denver institution, that's downright disorienting.