- The Draw:
- Elevated Chinese cooking from a Momofuku alum
- The Drawback:
- Cocktails and decor don’t quite live up to the food
- Don’t Miss:
- Braised pork rice, salt-and-pepper shrimp, cold brisket salad, pig ear salad, anything fried
The braised pork rice at Q House is so simple and so good, it made me feel as if I’d been eating—and loving—it since I was three years old. Chef Christopher Lin’s East Colfax restaurant draws inspiration from his family’s native Taiwan, so I’d presumed that his version of “lu rou fan” (which translates as stewed meat rice, a classic comfort food in that country) would follow the familiar approach: chunks of pork braised in plenty of soy-based sauce poured over steamed rice.
What arrived at my table was even more basic, a brownish heap of glistening rice with tiny flecks of meat and pickled mustard greens throughout. It looked like a rather uninteresting side dish—until the first bite reminded me why properly cooked rice is the apex starch. Each grain was chewy and fully individuated, yet the whole mass was luscious with pork belly fat, sounding bass notes of a long-simmered stew and sweet, aromatic high notes like those found in Chinese sausage.
The bartender, seeing my chopsticks go into furious overdrive, told me that this version had its origins in Lin’s childhood; something about Dad spooning braising liquid over his boy’s rice. Eating this simple plate of food, I felt like I’d been there.
To undersell and over deliver is a welcome approach in this age of restaurant menu as Dissertation on Provenance and Cultural Intersectionality. Q House’s menu is not cryptic, but it is brief, letting the food do the talking. Or singing, as the case may be. Head-on salt-and-pepper shrimp equaled the best I remember from long-ago meals in Vancouver’s Chinatown: tight, crunchy, garlicky batter clinging to meaty prawns, which were festooned with bits of debris scooped from the frying oil. Pork and scallop sauce with stir-fried baby bok choy had the flavor of a rich Tokyo ramen broth. The fried lotus root in a monkfish dish celebrated that vegetable’s winning combination of celery crunch and farinaceous comfort. And let us praise the oft-boring monkfish itself, lightly dusted with rice flour and browned in oil to juicy doneness, then strewn with a blizzard of slightly bitter fried garlic.
My next-door neighbor, a recent transplant from San Francisco and therefore, by law, a foodie, nodded in approval as we worked our ways through a sweet, rubbery-in-the-right-way plate of lo mein dotted with duck (which was perhaps a bit too recessive), napa cabbage, bean sprouts, and toasted chile oil. The noodles had the wok-seared quality you only get from rocket-level firepower, and indeed, you can watch fireworks going off in the open kitchen as atomized fat briefly explodes above the woks.
When Lin opened Q House this past May with partners Jon Pinto and Jen Mattioni, he was quoted as saying that he didn’t “have the ego” to open a restaurant in New York City, after working there for several years with superstar chef David Chang. Well, lucky us. For what you’ll notice in Lin’s cooking is an exacting chef’s obsession with the fine points of food prep. The aforementioned bok choy were quartered with rarely encountered precision, so that every piece, when cooked, had the same level of doneness. Celery, snap peas, and asparagus, deployed for crunch in various dishes, were carefully julienned or cut on the bias as if for a final exam at a French cooking academy. Firm tofu, braised for a pig ear salad, was sliced to a thickness of, oh, I’d say three millimeters.
No less care was taken with matchsticks of watermelon radish on a plate of thinly sliced, cold braised brisket. Over three meals, Lin’s sauces were lightly—but never too lightly—thickened. Deep-frying was impeccable, and in various styles: Little battered fish were crispy and barely oily, like those you might eat in a Spanish fishing village, while the filament of batter around spears of eggplant had a tempura-level tenderness. These details are foundational if food is to go from good to great. The same attention extended to Q House’s service, too, which was always cheery, prompt, and informed.
Although Lin calls his approach “modern Chinese,” it’s not flashy or confused. Occasionally he veers into full-on fusion, as he does with the only fried rice on the menu; it features bacon, scrambled egg, and enough smoked trout to taste like a Chinese take on an Anglo-Indian kipper kedgeree I once fell in love with at the legendary Ivy in London.
More often, he takes a traditional Chinese ingredient, such as pig ear or cold beef, and updates it while respecting its origins. The ear, in the aforementioned pig ear salad, was not fried crisp as is usually done for customers who want to congratulate themselves for eating that offal. Instead, it was braised and ligament-y, almost the texture of Chinese jellyfish. Matched with tofu, snow peas, and chile oil, the salad was novel but soothing. The brisket was braised and chilled, as they do in Taiwan, then fanned on the plate in thin, broth-infused slices, each with a lovely band of fat; don’t even think of trimming it, because you want that cool, silky fat in every bite. The surprise of sweet Asian pear and peppery watercress added a welcome punch.
We ate many more good things at Q House, including a bang bang chicken salad elevated by a properly spicy sesame sauce and bits of crunchy noodles; a simple plate of pickled vegetables with chile oil; fried smelts in ginger sauce; and pork belly wrapped in bao buns that were as tender as a piglet’s oink.
There were a few mistakes. Most serious, perhaps, was the presence of unchewable dried red chiles in the otherwise lovely lotus and monkfish dish. And I expected more street oomph from a summertime dish of Taiwanese grilled corn, whose shacha sauce of dried shrimp, garlic, and chiles was a bit bland. For dessert, an almond cardamom pudding was too milquetoast for my taste (though perhaps not yours, if you get excited by blancmange). Otherwise, if it’s on the menu, try the coconut cheesecake with its properly dense filling, chocolate crust, and dollop of pandan-leaf-infused cream.
On the cocktail front, Mattioni, who has worked at many Denver bars and restaurants, including Leña and Prohibition, is right to match Lin’s food with the sort of fruit-leaning refreshers that go well with spice and salt: daiquiris, spritzes, palomas, sours. But overall, Q House’s mixology fell short of its wokology. Many of the drinks—and I tasted seven—lacked the precision of Lin’s cooking. Our bartender (not Mattioni) made a rhubarb sidecar without measuring all the ingredients, turning a classic, focused cocktail into a generic sour. And so it went, until my wife ordered a fresh lemonade spiked with blueberry tea and London-style dry gin, which was tannic, tart, and delicious. I’ll take two of those, please, and a lychee martini for my friend. It’s no martini, with its lychee purée and cranberry juice—I’m a purist—but it is a delicate homage to the Chinese fruit.
I have no other complaints about Q House, except that the standard-issue urban design of the shoebox room is nowhere near as memorable as Lin’s cooking. But in the end, dining out is less about the room than it is about the search for something like Lin’s braised pork rice, a dish so delicious it seemed to conjure beautiful memories I didn’t even have.