By the time we cracked open this cookie, we were looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. And skull-shaped glasses. And flaming volcano glasses. In short, it had been another wonderful evening at Twin Dragon, and the smiling staffers knew their market when they passed out those special, R-rated fortune cookies while admonishing, "Just for fun. It's just for fun." The same can be said of a meal at Twin Dragon. The food may not be as haute as you find at P.F. Chang, it won't be as cheap as at that cornstarch-sodden neighborhood joint, but stir in the atmosphere and the service and those drinks and you've got a throwback to the old days of Trader Vic's, when Chinese food was as exotic as it got, even if Chairman Mao never slugged back an umbrella drink.
We did, though, cuddling close to a Scorpion ($6.50), a deadly combo of Amaretto, orgeat, brandy, gold rum, triple sec and the Twin Dragon's own "special fruit juices," all served in a bathtub-sized brown bowl held up by three cranky, fat-bellied clay boys. The Love Potion ($6.50), which tasted so much like crushed pineapple that it didn't seem to contain any of the promised banana liqueur, rum and triple sec -- not until we tried to stand up, that is -- arrived in a frowning Asian god with two long straws poking out of his head. The Bahama Mama ($4) filled a gleeful Buddha; we sipped a mix of coffee liqueur, rum, triple sec, coconut creme and pineapple and apple juices through a straw in his belly. More straws accessorized the Flaming Volcano ($7), Twin Dragon's biggest seller, which put two kinds of rum, brandy, triple sec and those same special fruit juices inside a ceramic pu pu platter of a bowl, centered with a Sterno-fired blaze. But my personal favorite was the Zombie ($4), two kinds of rum, triple sec and more fruit juices within a white skull, the hard, ceramic texture of which is remarkably similar to the way your head feels the day after drinking, oh, two of them. (Our party attempted to pace itself with a Chinese beer that goes by the unlikely name of Snowflake, which comes in a bottle the size of a bowling pin.)
The drinks, deceptively innocent-tasting elixirs that in a matter of moments might have you making up your own dirty fortune-cookie lines, were concocted by Shiou Jefferson and her husband when they opened Twin Dragon 24 years ago, in a space across Broadway and one block away from where the restaurant sits today. "I tell you, we were the first ones to have those fancy drinks," Jefferson says. "Everybody else started having drinks like that, but we started it here in Denver. They were a big hit right from when we first opened."
So was Twin Dragon's food, a more upscale version of Chinese cuisine than chop suey-loving Denver was used to at the time. In the early '80s, Twin Dragon moved to its current space, which is both colorful and comfortable, with a bar area that's ideal for raucous behavior and intimate booths that are perfect for people-watching. In the early '90s, Jefferson wound up owning the entire fun place as part of a divorce settlement. "I've been working very hard ever since I took over," she says, then laughs. "I thought I'd be rich and retired by now, but that didn't happen, did it?"
It didn't happen for many of her longtime customers, either, folks who still come into Twin Dragon to reminisce about its heyday and theirs, back when you could drink ten Zombies and it was okay to pass out on the floor. A decade ago, there were actually little areas off the dining room set aside for the fun-loving troublemakers who frequented the place. "Now it's an older neighborhood," says Jefferson. "At nine o'clock, there's no one out on the street. They're all in bed. They're too tired to have fun anymore."
But we weren't -- or at least, we weren't going to admit it -- because one member of our party, an old hand at Twin Dragon frolics, was celebrating a birthday. The staff cheerfully acknowledged this august occasion by sticking an industrial-sized sparkler in a potato half surrounded by plastic flowers, then lighting the thing up as they sang and passed out those fortune cookies. By that time, we didn't require any sparklers of our own in order to stay lit.
But by then, we'd also powered our way through some wonderful food -- and some that was less wonderful. The spicy baby wontons ($5.95) were our best starter: soft, wet, noodle-textured bundles filled with spicy pork and nestled in a fiery, bright-red broth speckled with chile flakes. The dumplings in a Szechuan chile oil ($5.95) weren't quite as good; their pork filling was milder, and a little on the dry side. So was the giant scallion pancake ($3.95), whose exterior had overcooked to chewy, but whose oniony center had the pleasant consistency of mashed potatoes. The hot-and-sour soup ($4.50 for a bowl that served five) was close to heavenly: Heavy on the vinegar, with just enough egg white to create the proper velvety consistency, it held enough spicy heat to make our noses run. Still, we gulped big, smooth mouthfuls, pausing only to chew on an abundance of peas, bamboo shoots, a few cloud ear mushrooms and a generous quantity of medium-sized shrimp. This was one hot hot-and-sour.
Since we'd had starters and soup, we opted for just three entrees. And at that, we barely touched the lame kung pao chicken ($7.25). We couldn't unearth a single peanut, which was odd for kung pao, and every ingredient we did find was approximately the same size and shape, and tasted oddly of scallops. Our other entrees more than atoned for the kung pao's sins, however. The crispy tangy beef ($8.95) was fabulous -- not very tangy but definitely crispy, with each gnarly-shaped, well-pounded strip of meat possessing the texture and flavor of crisp bacon that had been coated in a brown-sugar syrup. The plate also held bits of red pepper and maybe something else, but we were too busy fighting for every last shred of beef to find out. Our chopsticks also clashed over the twice-cooked pork ($7.95), a generous helping of tender, sweet-and-salty slips of pig mixed in with fresh veggies and more red pepper.
Even before we opened our cookies, we were blessing our good fortune.
While our group had been the rowdiest at dinner that night, a recent lunch at Twin Dragon was a chaotic party from beginning to end. The place was unbelievably busy, with servers hustling and bustling to bring out big plates of bargain food; it was impossible to have anything other than a harried-feeling meal. But no one seemed to mind, particularly not the gathering of secretaries who were there to drink a few Flaming Volcanoes and complain loudly about their boss, who apparently is the biggest asshole in the world (and that's a direct quote). They were also there to get one of the best lunch deals going.
Twin Dragon's midday meals are divided into meat categories, with all beef versions costing $5.95, all poultry $5.75, all shrimp $6.95, and so on. Each meal comes with soup (during our visit, a cabbage-choked egg drop boasting a salty chicken stock and a few mushrooms), two hot appetizers (they change daily; ours were a greasy, batter-coated chicken wing and a wonton filled with cumin-spiced beef), and a pile of rice the size of a cereal bowl. All told, it was plenty of food -- and we certainly had more than we wanted of the sweet-and-sour shrimp, over a dozen crustaceans enclosed in a dough casing so thick it was like eating donuts, and then coated in the usual sugary goo the color of cough syrup. A similar sauce came on the sesame chicken ($6.50), a chef's specialty that day even though there wasn't anything special about it, and certainly no chile heat to balance out that sweet sauce. The noodle bowl ($5.95) was the best of the lot, a huge bowl -- sadly, no fat boys kept vigil around the edges -- filled to the brim with sliced pork, bok choy, bamboo shoots, carrots, celery, broccoli, baby corn and snow peas, all of which poured their essence into the flavor-packed broth.
It was a lot of food, even if it wasn't the best food, and we wound up carrying out packed to-go containers. So did the secretaries. One apparently had ventured too close to that Flaming Volcano, because she tripped on her way out the door, spraying leftover soup on everyone in her group. They just laughed.
Confucius should say: Twin Dragon, it's just for fun.Twin Dragon, 3021 South Broadway, 303-781-8068. Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; noon-9:30 p.m. Sunday.