We just unveiled our 2016 list of the best Chinese restaurants in Denver last week, which included dim sum palaces, noodle houses and specialists from regions as far-flung as Sichuan, Shaanxi, Hong Kong and the island nation of Taiwan. Our goal was to not only find great cooking, but to highlight the variety of amazing Chinese cuisine available in our city.
But not everyone feels the draw of rare dishes, blazing spices and meat and produce that fall outside the standard canon of American Chinese cuisine. Comfort and familiarity are often part of the formula for food we consider to be the best; walking into a neighborhood joint that features a menu you know by heart can trigger the same kind of nostalgia as grilled cheese sandwiches and summer hot dog roasts around an open fire.
For many of us, our first memories of food outside of our own family’s cooking come from forays to Chinese restaurants and those first wide-eyed bites of crab-cheese wontons, egg rolls and skewered meats backlit by the blue Sterno flame of the pu pu platter. Who can forget the sinus burn from Chinese mustard that we assumed would be as timid as French’s, or the tang of that odd, inky condiment called soy sauce?
With those memories in mind, I decided to revisit three favorite childhood dishes — all chicken-based — at a few longtime local favorites, the youngest of which has already hit the decade mark.
Peter’s Chinese Cafe
2609 East 12th Avenue
Peter Chan opened his corner cafe in the Congress Park neighborhood in 1985, long before waves of gentrification drove up real-estate prices in the neighborhood. The twelve-seat dining room is spare but well lit, and lunchtime traffic is light. Dinner is busy, though, and Chan says catering — especially for nearby medical and pharmaceutical companies — keeps the kitchen busy all day.
The key to the longevity of Peter’s — which Chan has run for more than thirty years with no advertising — is the quality of his ingredients, especially the meats. Since so many of his customers are doctors, Chan says, they’d know the difference between fresh, lean meats and inferior products.
The quality of the meat in Peter’s General Tao chicken — a top-seller — is evident in the juicy, flash-fried chunks bathed in a sweetish sauce that gets more flavor from fresh vegetables than from red chiles. A side of fried rice threaded with egg and a crunchy egg roll come with a lunch order, which rings in at a mere $8. Like all of the best neighborhood Chinese cooking, the General Tao here is addictive and soon disappears from my plate, the walnut-hued sauce mopped up with rice.
1789 Ogden Street
Jesse Xiao’s parents moved to Colorado from New York City and initially opened a Chinese restaurant in Denver’s western suburbs; nine years ago they took over the two-year-old Wok Uptown at the six-way intersection of Park Avenue, Ogden Street and East 18th Avenue. Xiao grew up in the restaurant business and attended culinary school at the Art Institute of Colorado, where she specialized in baking and pastries. Today she helps run the restaurant where her parents still cook the majority of the dishes that come out of the kitchen, making them to order (so regular customers with food sensitivities and preferences can customize the ingredients, Xiao notes).
The wedge-shaped building doesn’t allow much room for dine-in customers, but the family does a brisk takeout and delivery business. If you can navigate the tricky intersections outside, inside you’ll find a spot that’s comfortable and cozy and where customer favorites include Singapore noodles as well as the classic sesame chicken. But I went for the kung pao chicken ($9).
As a kid, I always ordered kung pao chicken on the rare occasions when we went out for Chinese, mostly because the inclusion of peanuts struck me as somehow exotic. And when I discovered versions of the dish laced with whole dried chiles, I was hooked. Wok Uptown’s version is heavy on the peanuts and absent the toasted chiles (except for a few random flecks), so the resulting sauce is fairly mild, but it’s still full flavored and just a little funky — something I’ve noticed in good kung pao even if I can’t identify the ingredient that causes it.
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The dish is not an American invention, but came to us from the Sichuan province, although it has been adapted over the years — most notably losing the tongue-numbing peppercorns that give much of Sichuan cooking its distinctive flavor and buzzing sensation. At Wok Uptown, fresh, crunchy vegetables, including half-moons of zucchini, liven up the mix, and a crisp egg roll — sided with housemade sweet-and-sour sauce and wasabi-infused mustard — makes for a steadfast and dependable appetizer for this classic dish.
Imperial Chinese Restaurant
431 South Broadway
The Imperial opened in Denver the same year as Peter’s but has taken a different path to enduring the ups and downs of the restaurant market. Owner Johnny Hsu started the restaurant at 1 Broadway, but moved it to the current location ten years later. The opulent dining space, with dark woods, granite bar tops and comfortable seating, puts even P.F. Chang’s to shame. Hsu has also kept his offerings current with modern diners’ expectations; along with Thai and Vietnamese entrees, you’ll also find a dim sum sampler on the specials board.
The core menu has remained a stable part of the Imperial’s identity, though. Since the restaurant claims to have introduced sesame chicken to Denver, that’s what I ordered. Not only was this a childhood favorite (sesame seeds were a clear sign of class to my impressionable young mind — leading to a short-lived obsession with Big Macs), but the caliber of the sesame chicken generally indicates the quality of the rest of the board at an American-Chinese spot: If the sesame chicken is good, life is good.
The preparation here is similar to that of the General Tao at Peter’s. No vegetables get in the way of the battered and fried pieces of dark-meat chicken, and you’re left to contend with only the chicken itself, the pale, sweet sauce and the sprinkling of lightly toasted seeds. The lunch special is a little pricier than at Peter’s or Wok Uptown, but $13 gets you a cup of soup in addition to the main course, a side of rice, a crab-stuffed egg roll (not real crab, though) and a slice of fresh pineapple. Of course, you’re also surrounded by Chinese artifacts, a squadron of servers and a bustling dining room — so that’s worth at least a buck or two.
My favorite of the three? I’m a sucker for mom-and-pop shops, especially when the proprietors stop by to chat at the merest suggestion of interest. But that happens at the posh Imperial, too, where guests coming and going are treated to conversation about everything from the decor to the Super Bowl. So I’m calling this a three-way tie, with the best chicken going to Peter’s, the most home-style cooking going to Wok Uptown, and the pick for a classic Denver date night going to the Imperial.