Forever on the hunt for my favorite Chinese dishes in this town, I was overjoyed when Hop Alley
owner Tommy Lee pointed me toward Little Chengdu
, the DTC strip-mall haunt with a sizable traditional Chinese menu
that includes fiery hot pot, Sichuan wontons pooled with chili oil and noodles hand-pulled to order right in the dining room
. Lee didn't send just one restaurant recommendation, though — he also told me about Sunflower Asian Cafe
, a Littleton establishment with high ceilings and an insanely friendly staff.
Nanjing salt duck at Sunflower Asian Cafe.
That staff really dials up the charm if you ask for the traditional Chinese menu, which is the same length as the American-Chinese menu that you'll likely be handed first. Lee told me the owners of Sunflower are from Jiangsu province, which is home to one of the eight great regional cuisines in China. (Other great regional cuisines include Sichuan and Cantonese, which most of us are considerably more familiar with.) Jiangsu cooking focuses on freshness and plenty of seafood; many dishes skew toward the sweet side. You'll also see several specialties surrounding duck; there's some evidence that Nanjing, the largest city in Jiangsu, is the originator of the roast duck and pancakes now associated with Beijing and commonly known as Peking duck. And dishes are fairly fancy in their presentations; one of the most memorable dishes I ate in the region was called squirrel fish, named for the way a whole fish is complicatedly cut and arrayed so that it resembles a squirrel's tail.
Yangzhou fried rice with seafood and Chinese sausage.
Unfortunately, I spied no squirrel fish on the menu here, but there is a sweet-and-sour fish filet, which probably closely imitates the taste, if not the presentation. You can sample several other Jiangsu specialties here, though, including Nanjing salt duck, a centuries-old recipe which requires cooks to soak and boil a whole duck with salt and herbs, eventually rendering meat that tastes almost cured. Order it at Sunflower and you'll get half a duck, sliced and served cold, as it would be across the Pacific. You can also dip into hong shao rou (translated here as braised pork with wine), a sweet and deeply savory stewed preparation of pork belly that was — fun fact — Chairman Mao's favorite dish. Sunflower also does a hong shao version of intestines, if you're into offal. You'd be after the braised preparation, going by the translated menu. Supplement with the Yangzhou combo fried rice, which litters your grains with bits of seafood, Chinese sausage and peas.
Heed the Sunflower staff's call to order Sichuan specialties, like this boiled fish.
Jiangsu origins aside, the kitchen here offers specialties from a number of regions in China, and if you ask your server for advice and indicate that you're okay with spicy food, she'll rather forcefully steer you toward a few Sichuan items. You should heed this not-so-subtle nudging. Of all the places I've been in Denver, Sunflower is the restaurant most masterfully balancing the numbing tingle of Sichuan peppercorns with spice and acidity, the trifecta of flavors in many iconic dishes from this region. One good example is the Sichuan-style boiled fish (billed just as boiled fish on the menu; you'll have to ask for Sichuan-style), where hunks of white fish swim in a trough of angry-looking broth liberally flooded with chili oil. This dish is more tingly and tart to me than it is spicy, and it's addictive in the way that just-right green chile invites you to eat bite after bite to stave off the inevitable burn. Another good order is the dan dan noodles, served here in a fiery soup broth topped with ground pork.
Slices of tea-smoked eel at Sunflower Asian Cafe.
Consider starting your meal with the tea-smoked eel, a Sichuan specialty that comprises fish marinated in and then smoked with tea and sugar. You're presented with cold slices that balance smoke and sweetness, with just a tinge of earth from that tea. Tea-smoked duck is more iconic, and if you'd like an entree-sized portion done in this technique, you could consider that, too. Our server told us to make sure we get the poultry next time, and given the quality of the rest of her advice, I think I'll listen.
Sunflower's spicy cucumbers.
A truly Chinese meal requires a side of vegetables; we'd go for garlic-spiked sautéed greens or the dry-fried green beans. Or, if you'd like a smaller portion, try the Chinese cucumber salad, either with garlic for a cooling effect, or with chili if you want even more heat.
And get a Tsingtao beer, of course — the crisp, light brew is a perfect match for super-aromatic food.