When I discovered Chowhound—back at the turn of the millennium—it was a bare-bones message board for gastronomic misfits who subscribed to the front-page manifesto of its founder, Jim Leff: “Foodies eat where they’re told,” he wrote. “Chowhounds blaze trails.” I was just starting out as a food writer, and it read like a call to arms.
Today, Leff’s scrappy sanctuary for geeks “who know where the good stuff is” has morphed into a slick CBS-run resource for, you guessed it, foodies. And I’ve become all too aware that writers viewed as gastronomic trailblazers from one angle may look like cultural interlopers from another. And yet the Chowhound in me still yanks the leash: I’ll always believe that sniffing out the smallest hole-in-the-wall is a more critical mission than splurging at the latest hot spot. At the very least, I might taste a dish I’ve never tried. At best, I may actually learn something from a new (to me) experience—about the cuisine in question, about the part of the world it comes from, maybe even about myself and my own assumptions, good or bad.
So come with me on this web series tour of hidden gems in and around Denver. And if you have any favorites off-the-beaten path, please share them with us via Facebook or Twitter.
Chinese cuisine, in all its extraordinary regional diversity, has never been one of greater Denver’s strong suits. But in recent years, things have been looking up: Places like New Peach Garden in Golden, Little Chengdu in the DTC, and Hong Kong Cafe on Aurora’s southwestern edge have joined stalwarts like Hong Kong Barbecue and China Jade to serve up everything from hot pot and hand-cut noodles to Macau pork-chop buns and Shaanxi-style “rou jia mo” (meat-stuffed flatbreads).
Count Szechuan Tasty House among them. Since opening last summer, this mom-and-pop joint has been gaining a steady cult following—Westword’s Laura Shunk recently named it among Denver’s best Chinese restaurants—but its nondescript location on a somewhat-grim stretch of West Evans is bound to keep the crowds at bay. That’s too bad (for them), because it does a bang-up job with the famously spicy, funky stuff of its namesake province as well as the more eclectic specialties of Shanghai.
Take chilled tofu with “century” (sometimes called “preserved”) egg. If you’ve never tried the latter ingredient, its black color may come as a bit of a shock. The soothing, palate-cleansing dish features cool, silken bean curd, that chopped century egg (which is preserved in salt and quicklime, giving it the firmness, tang, and color of Kalamata olives), plus a sprinkling of scallions and chile oil. Or take lion’s head meatballs. So called for their eye-popping size and supposedly shaggy appearance, they’re also fierce (though not spicy) in flavor, oozing pure porky goodness touched with sweetness and umami. Conversely, water-boiled fish defies its bland name in a blaze of dried chiles and Sichuan peppercorns—though Tasty House’s version is no less addictive for being on the mellower side of fiery, light on whole peppers and heavy on garlic. And speaking of garlic, Tasty House delivers what may be the best local version of Yu Xiang eggplant I’ve encountered, rich and velvety and interwoven with copious tender slivers of pork.
Another new favorite for regional fare isn’t new at all: Lakewood’s He-Xing Garden. Having recently discovered that this strip-mall longtimer serves a number of Dongbei-style staples, I rushed there only to find that, while awaiting a new chef from northeastern China, they’ve temporarily removed a few items, including the real-deal sweet-and-sour pork I had my heart set on. Bummer.
But I was promised they’d return soon, and there’s plenty to dig into in the meantime, including “di san xian,” which translates (very) loosely as “three earth fresh” or “three flavors from the ground”—namely eggplant, potato, and bell peppers, all stir-fried together to comforting, crispy-soft effect in a mild garlic sauce. And “suan cai” or fermented cabbage, which is often compared to sauerkraut and used as a gently sour yet heartily textured base for fish or pork stew. And corn kernels sautéed with pinenuts—a dish that wouldn’t look out of place at a Southern Sunday supper. But then again, Cajun dirty rice might not look out of place at many a Chinese family table. And so the world turns—looking, for all its extraordinary diversity, strikingly similar in places where you’d least expect it.
Szechuan Tasty House, 1000 W. Evans Ave., 303-955-0069; He-Xing Garden, 1535 S. Kipling Parkway, Lakewood, 303-986-2232