Fair or Fowl: Quail and Squab Dishes at Three Denver Restaurants

Quail has a reputation as a fussy dish that you only order at white-tablecloth restaurants or stuffy French eateries. But because more farms across the country are raising quality quail — much of it organic and free-range — the delicate bird has landed on a growing number of menus. And while they’re still not common, you can find occasional quail specials around town, especially if you explore some of the more adventurous Chinese and Vietnamese spots.

In 2014, for the first time in a century, chicken surpassed beef as America’s most popular protein; turkey made it into the top four, right behind pork. But smaller fowl prove a more difficult sell because of the high bone-to-meat ratio — and because they’re just kind of cute. If you can get past the notion of eating a tiny, adorable version of a chicken, though, snacking on a little quail can be a tasty alternative. Here are three restaurants offering some good things in small packages.

Skewer Grilled Quail
Sera’s Ramen Enclave
3472 West 32nd Avenue

Sera’s, a cozy noodle house that opened in May in the former home of Bang!, shows both Japanese and Vietnamese influences. While a trip here would be incomplete without a hearty bowl of ramen (especially the “flavorsome” version, made with oxtail broth and shredded oxtail), a starter of grilled quail won’t fill you up so much that you can’t enjoy your noodle soup.

In this preparation, the meat is impaled on bamboo skewers and mopped with a Vietnamese glaze before receiving a light char over wood fire. This bird is partially deboned, which means there are some good-sized meaty pieces you can chomp into without chipping a tooth, along with smaller wing and leg pieces on which to nibble.

Hints of fish sauce, herbs and lime come through in the finished dish, making for a bright, refreshing start to a meal — or a flight of three special quail dishes currently available around town. Here’s the next course:

Salt & Pepper Quail
2215 West 32nd Avenue

A few blocks east on West 32nd Avenue, Uncle has been ladling up some of the best — and most creative — ramen in town since 2012. Beyond noodles, owner Tommy Lee isn’t afraid to feature alternative proteins, especially at sibling restaurant Hop Alley, where beef tongue, duck gizzards, octopus and pig ears have all made appearances. Uncle’s selection is more mainstream, with pork belly and calamari as outliers, but quail pops its head up here, too.

The best way to experience Uncle is to go with a group so that you can sample a few small plates and buns before plunging into a bowl of ramen. (Who wouldn’t want to sample the fried-green-tomato bun out of curiosity alone?) The salt-and-pepper quail is a great starter to split, in part because the bird comes in two halves, making it easy to share, and in part because the powerfully salty quail skin and the accompanying stir-fry of chiles can be a little overpowering for just one person.

Uncle’s quail is drenched in a salt-and-five-spice blend before being deep-fried, so the bird arrives bronzed like a European sunbather. A squeeze of lime adds balancing acidity, and a tangle of whole shishitos and rings of jalapeño tossed with scallions and garlic give your tongue a serious workout. The salt on this dish isn’t just a flavor enhancer; it’s actually a flavor unto itself, meaning that a cold beer or a separate order of chilled tofu could be the perfect foil.
Then you can head for that third bird:
Whole Braised Pigeon
The Empress Seafood Restaurant
2825 West Alameda Avenue

The Empress has presided over West Alameda Avenue for decades, with its spacious dining room, white tablecloths and elegant atmosphere; big groups frequently circle around tables topped with lazy Susans for a long and luxurious meal of dim sum or lavish set-price, multi-course dinners. (Even bigger groups sometimes take over the whole place for wedding receptions and other celebrations.) You’ll find all the standard American-Chinese dishes here, as well as simmering hot pots, a dizzying selection of noodle dishes and seafood highlighted by whole fish and abalone preparations. But there are a few off-menu specials, too; at one time, quail was one of those selections, but now squab — as pigeon is called when it comes from the kitchen instead of the rooftop — takes its place.
You’ll sense it’s about to arrive from the whiff of spice-laden steam that streams off the bird. The Empress prepares whole glazed duck with crispy, glossy skin, and a quick look at the squab will tell you that it receives a similar treatment, glazed to a golden brown. Oh, and when you take your first gander at the dish, don’t be shocked when it gazes back at you; the tiny head and neck come nestled in with the wings, legs, breast and back.

The meat itself is infused with star anise and other five-spice cohorts down to the bone — evidence of slow-cooking in liquid before a final crisping at high heat. Beyond the seasoning, the squab tastes similar to a gamier version of turkey dark meat: a fuller, richer flavor than the milder quail.

Squab and quail both enjoy greater popularity around the world than at most tables in this country, but if you’re craving something a little more all-American, head to the Nickel in the Hotel Teatro downtown, where a whole crispy quail battered and fried like the best country-fried chicken can still be found on the restaurant’s summer menu. Even the least adventurous eaters wouldn’t quail at that.

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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation