Cafe Society

Mouthing Off

Chinese checker: I visited seven Chinese restaurants before I could find one to recommend, and even that one, Fu Lin (see review above), wouldn't make it onto a list of the city's best Chinese restaurants. But then, that list is short: I can't think of ten Chinese joints in this town that I'd gladly return to. Still, like so many Mexican restaurants here, every Chinese place always seems to have one dish worth checking out.

For instance, at Sweet Rice Cafe (942 Jersey Street), the Szechuan beef ($7.25) was truly something special, with beautifully sliced vegetables and a heavy ginger flavor that balanced a dish that's so often all about heat. The vegetable spring rolls ($2 for two) were also commendable, since they contained more than just shredded cabbage and had a nice ginger flavor. But the chicken with garlic sauce ($6.75), which was supposed to be spicy, wasn't; the vegetable lo mein ($5.50) that the menu described as having a "round, tasty sweetness" was in reality flat and tasteless. And the sesame chicken ($8.25)--a dish for which I get more recommendation requests than any other--featured too much batter and not enough heat. The staff was very friendly, though, and most dishes had eye appeal. But you'd be well-advised to enjoy them in the privacy of your own home: This spot is more take-out than dine-in, with only a few tables in a small space that's often heavy with wok smoke.

Jasmine Chinese Cuisine (203 West Hampden Avenue) is another strip-mall joint, but one with a much nicer atmosphere than that at Sweet Rice. The sesame chicken ($7.95) is better, too, with a well-rounded spiciness and just enough sweetness to balance the heat without it tasting like candy. The garlic chicken ($6.75), however, had so little garlic flavor that I thought they'd given me the wrong dish. The hot-and-sour soup was so thick it was like eating Jell-O, and while the egg rolls ($2.95) were decent, the dumplings ($3.95 for six) were watery and all dough. The most disappointing dish was the shrimp with lobster sauce ($7.95), with an overly cornstarchy glue holding together some of the most overcooked crustaceans I've ever seen--they made tires seem like butter by comparison.

Hey, I even went all the way to Boulder to check out a place a reader called "the real thing," but Hunan Garden (949 Walnut Street) was more like a real letdown. The space, on the second floor of an old building, is wonderful, with exposed brick and lovely old Chinese chandeliers and other knickknacks. (Don't lean against the wooden counter when you pay, though, because it's not attached to anything.) But the food was a typical combination of a few good dishes and a lot of lousy ones.

The hot-and-sour soup ($1.25) was tasty and packed with prime ingredients. But the soft-shell crab ($4.50) had been suffocated in a too-heavy batter, and the egg rolls ($1.25 each) were all crunch--cabbage and wrapper--and no spices. The pan-fried dumplings ($4.50) and the steamed pork buns ($4.50) were both exquisite, but the lovers' shrimp ($13.95) was a loser. The shrimp were supposedly deep-fried in a "hot, tangy" sauce and then tossed in a white one, but both sauces were too dull to like, much less love. The shrimp with lobster sauce ($9.45) was less goopy, but it also had even less flavor. The orange beef ($8.25) was no better than average, with none of the cornstarch goo of typical versions but none of the expected orange flavor, either. But then--surprise!--came the great eggplant with garlic sauce ($6.45), sharp with garlic.

But our thrill over that taste treat disappeared with the discovery that there's no soap in the bathrooms (my husband checked out the men's room)--even though a sign on the wall about handwashing makes it clear that employees use these facilities as well.

I'm not even going to mention the bathrooms at the next two places I ordered takeout from--both at the strong urging of readers.

I'd like to forget what I ate from these spots, too. Empire of China (4455 West Colfax Avenue) cooked up the fattiest, greasiest fare I think I've encountered at a place that wasn't in the deep South. Empress of China (8100 West Crestline Avenue) was so filthy and run-down that I ate my takeout from there only after it had been microwaved at the maximum temperature possible.

Now, on to a couple of Chinese spots I do frequent. My all-time favorite is the charmingly decorated Golden Plate (7180 East Hampden Avenue), which gave a group of us eating dim sum on a recent Sunday a food hangover, so heartily did we partake of its sumptuous selection. Although dim sum is available only on weekends, Golden Plate's regular menu of Shanghai-based dishes is always an adventure. Don't miss the sesame pocket appetizers or anything with pork in it.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner

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