Kenneth and Doris Wan opened Meta Asian Kitchen this week inside Avanti Food & Beverage, and we've got a big complaint: The small menus at each Avanti food counter don't allow us to try nearly enough of the couple's creative yet homey Chinese cooking.
But the short roster — four appetizers, bao buns with three different fillings, three entrees and one dessert — will have to do for now. Not that ordering the same things over and over, whether handmade chicken-chive dumplings, crunchy fried wings, pillowy bao stuffed with slow-braised pork belly (the same shredded pork also appears on the Mama Wan's special), or Sichuan rice cakes stir-fried with potatoes and bok choy, will be a hardship, since these are dishes worth returning to again and again.
Kenneth grew up in a household where he was as likely to eat food from his parents' Chinese restaurant as from his mom's repertoire of more traditional Cantonese dishes. The flavors and ingredients of his childhood followed him through a degree in economics and a brief career in finance to tempt him away from the corporate world and into cooking school, and then into kitchens in New York City like Xi'An Famous Foods, RedFarm and Momofuku Ssäm Bar. When he and Doris decided to launch their own food business, they started with Hong Kong-style French toast before switching to a savory menu. They knew they were onto something the first night they served Mama Wan's special (cola-braised pork belly served over rice with pickled veggies) at a street market and sold out of the dish.
"We serve food that we like to eat; we want to show people what else is out there," Kenneth explains. That's why his Sichuan rice cakes don't conform to recipes you'd find in either Hong Kong or Sichuan province. Instead, he uses the rice cakes, which have a texture similar to gnocchi( almost like pasta), coating them with a spicy sauce and mixing in bite-sized pieces of potato, bok choy and red chiles. The potatoes, he points out, give the dish heft even if you choose not to add chicken or pork. And an unassuming dish of flank steak and rice was inspired by his sister's cravings for simply seasoned rice, with nothing but soy sauce or garlic butter. At Meta, he uses garlic-butter rice as a bed for marinated steak and Chinese broccoli.
On the shared-bites side of the menu, the homemade dumplings are a standout. Kenneth discovered Kwan Sang Noodle Company in the Athmar Park neighborhood shortly after he and Doris moved to Denver this past summer, and now he buys his dumpling wrappers there, noting that it was one of the few products that met his specific needs. "I'm a brand-specific kind of chef, so I have to have just the right thing," he adds.
So his soy sauce, black vinegar and certain other base ingredients all come from producers he began using back in New York. But other seasonings, like the Hong Kong-style salt on the calamari (a late-night only menu item), he makes himself, combining salt and whole spices in a hot wok until the flavor of the seasonings is nearly burned into the salt. The chili oil is house-made, too, as is the Sichuan seasoning blend.
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You can stop in for lunch and grab a single entree or a couple of small plates, but Doris says it's better to come with a group and sample a little of everything. "We want our food to be shareable because that's the way we eat in restaurants and at home," she explains. Just save room for an order of her Hong Kong-style bubble waffles for dessert, made light and airy with the addition of whipped egg whites to the batter.
Kenneth and Doris have signed a two-year lease at Avanti, but their long-term goal is to open a string of Meta outposts. In fact, Kenneth says he'd someday like to compete with Panda Express, only with a better, more modern lineup of dishes.
Meta Asian Kitchen takes the place of Chicken Rebel (which will soon open a brick-and-mortar restaurant) on the first floor of Avanti, at 3200 Pecos Street, and will be open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, staying open later Thursday through Saturday to serve its abbreviated late-night menu (with hours yet to be determined). Visit the Avanti website for more details.