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Hong Kong Barbecue: Finding comfort in unfamiliar flavors

In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the...
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In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...

I can't say that I've ever been a fan of cooked greens. I can manage slow-braised collards, provided that they're wilted in plenty of bacon fat and dosed with garlic and vinegar. I'll crunch my way through a serving of salty kale chips if I have a crisp, cold pilsner to wash them down. I occasionally even crave a pile of mustard greens alongside some hoppin' John. But I burn out quickly on Swiss chard, and you might even catch me hiding the beet tops under a napkin or spreading them around on the plate to make it look I've eaten more. (My parents never fell for that one.) That's basically how I felt about Hong Kong Barbecue's stir-fried water spinach in garlic sauce. I appreciated the sheer mineral concentration and healthful qualities, but the swampy flavor and overwhelming metallic twang made my taste buds recoil. The silky, even buttery, sauce that coated those vibrant green stems and leaves, though, was enough to get me to down a few forkfuls. To fail to try water spinach is to try to fail, or something like that.

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This was my experience with most of the dishes I ordered at Hong Kong Barbecue, although the water spinach was the only that didn't eventually win me over. Everything else was a strange combination of almost-familiar comfort food with either an unusual preparation, a subtle background flavor that I couldn't quite place, or ingredients that have been on my culinary bucket list because of their reputations as "difficult" for Western palates. I toted home several bags straining with Styrofoam containers, and almost all of it was curiously good -- if not downright addictive.

My original plan was to meet a group of friends in the tiny but welcoming dining room so that we could sample our way through as much of the menu as possible. But Amy was sick at home with a crushing head cold and the others bowed out due to family or work commitments. So I found myself alone, scanning the menu for the best options to take home for an early dinner. And by alone, I mean in the entire restaurant, not just my party of one. Only in Florida, surrounded by snowbirds, would I find company in a restaurant at this early hour. The good news was that the hostess was friendly and patient, helping me choose dishes that would go well together, would stay hot and crisp on the short drive home, and would allow me to sample some of the Cantonese-influenced specialties of Hong Kong.

Anyone entering Hong Kong Barbecue will be immediately drawn to the whole lacquered ducks hanging in the display window, if not by their burnished, glistening appearance alone, then by the intense aroma of rendered fat, exotic spices and slow-roasted meat. And if duck is not quite your thing, the pork that has been given the same treatment should do the trick. And so the duck made it into my take-out bags, along with sweet and sour pork ribs, a tub of congee and that batch of sautéed greens. At home, I unveiled my haul to my sick but hungry wife. She had no problem with the water spinach, whether because of her dulled palate or her natural fondness for bitter greens. We both stared in admiration at the mahogany-skinned slices of duck arranged like a game of solitaire, almost too perfect to eat. Tucked into steamed buns with a dab of sweet, black sauce, those rectangles of flesh revealed a warmth of flavor that completely permeated the meat and skin with star anise and other deeply autumnal spices. What the cooks do to those ducks is probably locked away in some secret recipe hoard guarded for centuries through dynasties, wars and trans-continental migrations. Or maybe it's all laid out in Wikipedia. Whichever the case, the flavor and texture of that duck signified a magic that extended past the point of technique alone.

The sweet and sour pork ribs, while not as imbued with mysterious layers of flavor, still offered a perfect balance of chewy and tender meat hidden beneath a delicate layer of lightly fried batter. While a little under-seasoned on their own, the accompanying sauce and paper-thin slices of green chiles added the right amount of heat and tang with just a touch of sweetness.

Hong Kong Barbecue's menu lists about a dozen congee variations, with options like sliced fish, salted egg and fresh shrimp stirred into the rice porridge. I went with the pork and preserved egg version, mostly because I've read about the bold flavor of these delicacies -- also called black or century eggs -- but have never encountered them on a menu before. The traditional method of preserving the eggs involves packing them in a mixture of mud and quicklime for a few months, a process that transforms the proteins and renders the whites and yolks in vivid, greenish-black hues. There's nothing rotten or spoiled about a century egg; no microbes could possibly survive this caustic mud bath. The dark, opalescent bits of egg in my congee added a noticeable funk and a chewy texture similar to well-cooked shrimp. While the aroma has been likened to horse urine, I don't spend enough time around horses to make that comparison. Imagining the sulfurous aroma of a hard-boiled egg while camping in a damp, lichen-covered forest might give a close approximation. A few splashes of soy sauce tamed the earthier flavors and made for a distinct and wonderfully comforting dish that stood somewhere between oatmeal and risotto on the scale of savory starches.

If you are going to Hong Kong Barbecue, bring friends, an appetite and an open mind. I only scratched the surface of the extensive menu filled with dishes both familiar and intriguing. Foods from other cultures have been presented to us in various media formats as bizarre, disgusting or even inedible. The pleasure of experiencing something new comes not from overcoming the dare factor, but realizing that food is an emotional experience that anchors us to our beginnings. Sharing the food of other cultures is a chance to exercise our empathy. One kid's grilled cheese sandwich with a pickle spear is another's congee with black eggs. I like the idea of becoming a part of another family, if only for a few bites.

For more, visit our full A Federal Case archive.

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