Kenneth and Doris Wan are both "restaurant kids," as Kenneth puts it. "My parents came from Hong Kong and opened a little takeout place in Boston," he explains. "And Doris was born in Hong Kong and her dad was a chef there."
And now, after years in the New York City restaurant scene, the husband-and-wife business partners have moved to Denver and will open Meta Asian Kitchen inside Avanti Food & Beverage this fall. The couple decided to move to Denver before they signed on with Avanti, but Kenneth says it was their top choice on where to open their eatery. "We moved here on July 3, and we've been hustling, going to meetings," adds Doris. "And it's all been blessings since then, so we feel really grateful to be there."
Kenneth worked in several notable Asian restaurants in New York City, including Xi'an Famous Foods, the Lucky Bee, RedFarm and Momofuku Ssäm Bar. He says that working at RedFarm was among the most important experiences in his culinary education. "The chef is Joe Ng, and they call him the Prince of Dim Sum," he notes. "He knows about a thousand different dim sum folds; it set the bar for me for what good dumplings should be."
So, yes, dumplings will be on the menu at Meta — chicken and chive dumplings handmade by Kenneth and Doris. Another signature dish will be Mamma Wan's, a braised pork and rice dish that's a tribute to the chef's mom. "She makes this dish that's spare ribs braised in Coca-Cola," he explains, adding that real Coke (not a cheap substitute) is crucial to getting it right. But the dish, in all other respects, is traditionally Chinese and comes topped with pickled vegetables.
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Sichuan rice cakes will also be on the menu; Kenneth describes the rice cakes as similar in size and texture to gnocchi, which come doused in a sauce of buzzy Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, onions and other ingredients. "There's definitely a void to fill in the kind of food I want to make," he adds. "Sichuan food is making a huge splash right now."
The chef points out that Avanti's clubby vibe after the main dinner rush is ripe for late-night eats, so he's looking at introducing edamame, scallion pancakes and skewers of chicken gizzards or fried tofu.
Despite New York City's reputation as a culinary mecca, the Wans aren't dismissing Denver's Asian restaurant scene. They've already been to Szechuan Tasty House (at 1000 West Evans Avenue), where they found a great version of sliced fish in chili oil, and they're beginning to explore the city's pho houses. Their curiosity and dedication to exploring the scene are a good sign of what's to come with their own restaurant.
Look for Meta Asian Kitchen to open in mid-October; it will take over the ground-floor space currently occupied by Chicken Rebel, since that eatery's founder, Lydie Lovett, is opening her first brick-and-mortar restaurant at 3622 Tejon Street (next door to Mythology Distillery) later this year.