"Hey, do you want to check out this new Chinese restaurant for some sandwiches?" I asked a few friends.
Chinese sandwiches? Well, not quite, but Uncle Zoe's Chinese Kitchen, which opened last month in the former home of Aurora's China Jade, offers a specialty called rou bing, which are often compared to Western sandwiches. Rou bing, and its close cousins shao bing and rou jia mo, are often found at street-food markets, so handheld portability is key.
The restaurant's menu, one of the most beautifully printed and bound tomes anywhere in town, calls its rou bing "Chinese-style pies," perhaps slightly more accurate than "sandwich." These pies take the form of pastry disks filled with savory ingredients: beef and celery, pork and string bean, and shrimp and pork, and there's also a meatless version. The pastry is thin and flaky, not bready, but the pies are pan-fried, not baked. The resulting crust is delicate and tender, barely constraining the ample fillings within.
An order of rou bing lands you three pastries, cut in half and neatly arranged on a curved plate, for about $10. But even though they're all but unheard of outside of Uncle Zoe's, the rou bing are not the restaurant's biggest draw. Instead, come during a busy Sunday lunch to witness nearly every group of guests order a steaming bamboo basket of xiaolongbao — soup dumplings. You should order a basket or two for your own table, considering that the dumplings are handmade to order. You can find xiaolongbao at several noodle shops and dim sum palaces in Denver, but very few of them bear the distinct deep pleats and topknot that are the telltale marks of an expert dumpling maker.
At tables where the bamboo baskets are absent, plates of steamed bao buns, similar in shape and pleating to the soup dumplings but with thicker, fluffier wrappers, tempt with pan-fried bottoms, a trick that's surely difficult to pull off without the dumplings sticking and tearing open before they ever reach a plate.
Our server explains that the chef, whose name is emblazoned on the front of the restaurant, recently moved to Colorado from China, where he worked as a hotel chef in Beijing, so his culinary skills — including those perfectly folded dumplings — developed while serving customers familiar with the best food in China. The menu leans toward Sichuan dishes such as stuffed eggplant, beef with chili oil, spicy fish with tofu, la zi ji chicken (fried and served with a fistful of dried chiles) and chili wontons, with entangled scrims of delicate wonton wrapper hiding morsels of ground pork in a bath of crimson sauce.
Sichuan Province is known for fiery food, but Uncle Zoe's scales back on the red chiles and Sichuan peppercorns, so if you like a little more heat, make sure and ask your server. After some mild wontons, I asked for a little extra heat on an order of fish with tofu, and the result held just the right amount of pleasant buzz. As a quaint touch, this one is served in a Pyrex casserole dish, so you can see the milk-white silken tofu beneath layers of fish and brick-red sauce.
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But Uncle Zoe's isn't exclusively Sichuanese. One of the signature dishes, the whole fish in sweet and sour sauce, is a well-known plate called squirrel fish in China — not for the variety of fish, but for the presentation. A whole fish is filleted so that bite-sized boneless slices present themselves along the body, and the head and tail are dressed to resemble a squirrel (if you use your imagination — but here the dish at least looks like a fat, cute fish with peas for eyes).
The eatery makes it easy to round out a meal with small plates of pickled cucumbers, wood ear mushrooms, marinated seaweed salads and complimentary egg rolls. Crispy scallion pancakes make a good appetizer, too, or you can stick with tried-and-true crab cheese wontons. You can also find other American Chinese classics — sesame or General Tso's chicken, kung pao or sweet and sour beef — on page one, but do yourself a favor and skip to the dumplings, pies and other less familiar fare that's not only hard to find in Denver, but exceptionally well done at Uncle Zoe's.
China Jade was a favorite for those seeking out traditional food like hot pots, braised beef noodle soup, garlicky long beans and chilled tofu with preserved egg, but the menu seemed to grow smaller over time and the dining room was seldom full before the restaurant eventually closed over the summer. Uncle Zoe's has preserved the granite tabletops, dark wood furnishings and elegant bar (though there's currently no liquor license) of its predecessor while presenting a tighter but no less captivating roster of regional Chinese fare.
Uncle Zoe's Chinese Kitchen is located at 12203 East Iliff Avenue and is open from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. every day but Tuesday. Call 303-755-8518 or visit unclezoe.com for more details.