My meals at Jing (see review) convinced me that the problems at Charlie Huang's other restaurants come not from the rigors of cuisine or the classic chef's tug-of-war between art and commerce, but simply from age and popularity. And in the interest of science, last week I stopped by his first Denver outpost, Little Ollie's, which I've never found anything more than serviceable ("Remember Yen?," January 8, 2004). To further my experiment, I ordered the same dishes (or as close as I could come) as those of my first meal at Jing: chicken lo mein and steamed shu mai, rounding things out with kung pao chicken, a big bowl of wonton soup and Shanghai egg rolls.
But while Jing's lo mein had been a wonder of flavor and sweet subtlety, here it was virtually tasteless, the garlic raw, the sauce like water with a little bit of salt thrown in. The kung pao, though tinted a fiery shade of red and studded with fierce Chinese peppers, was basically a big bowl of random, unlovely vegetables and some chicken sitting in a sauce that was neither hot nor sweet, but just fence-sittingly mild. The egg rolls tasted like they were filled with leftover Thanksgiving stuffing roughed up with shredded cabbage. And the shu mai -- though certainly better than the gloppy lobster har gow I'd gotten at Jing -- didn't even come close to the shu mai I've had at Super Star and Spicy Basil. But I did enjoy the soup, which is one of the few things I order regularly at Little Ollie's. I don't like anything in it, necessarily -- not the limp, dissolving wontons, the bobbing mushroom caps or scattershot inclusion of vegetables – but the broth is good, and after picking up some soup to go, at home I'll often decant it into a mug and drink it like a warm cup of meat-and-vegetable tea.
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Little Ollie's has always done a good business. I know failing Cherry Creek operators who've skulked outside the joint on weekends, trying to figure what makes the crowds keep coming back, and people who ought to know better who list Ollie's as one of their favorite restaurants. And though I can understand (somewhat) the attraction of a safe place where nothing ever changes, what I don't get is why it isn't better. Obviously, Huang is a good operator, and he and his cooks clearly know a thing or two about excellent Chinese food. Maybe the explanation is simply that no one has ever demanded more of Ollie's -- that good enough has always been good enough. But now that I know what Huang is capable of, it makes me wonder why all of his restaurants can't remain as outstanding as Jing is today.