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When you see restaurant signage advertising Cantonese- or Hong Kong–style “barbecue,” you should know that it’s a loose translation of siu mei, referring not to the American tradition of smoking meats over wood but rather to roasting them; the characters literally mean “roast flavor.”
Granted, you won’t see many such signs in the Denver area, because only a few restaurants around here specialize in this style of cookery. But HuaKee BBQ, run by a family from China’s Guangdong province, has been making an admirable go of it out in Westminster since September 2019.
It’s a true mom-and-pop operation: Located in a shopping plaza dominated by H-Mart, the space is too tiny for anything you might call ambiance, amounting to about four or five tables set around a counter where whole ducks and slabs of spare rib hang glistening in a case next to steam trays simmering with chicken feet, fried bean curd, and more. But it emanates warmth nonetheless, thanks to the friendly people behind it, namely Hong Wu, who prepares the orders up front, and her husband GuoHua, who does the cooking in back, along with their two children, who help out on weekends.
Their daughter Yuki is so helpful, in fact, that she kindly agreed to serve as interpreter between her parents and myself. As she explained to me, “My father has been in the restaurant industry since he was a young adult. Throughout the past 30 or so years, he has worked countless positions at different restaurants, helping relatives and family friends with their businesses before deciding to start his own business. Over the years, my father has accumulated experience in making various styles of regional Chinese cuisine. On his free time, he likes to experiment with different spices and ingredients to come up with unique tastes for his specialties. I think [he] really prides himself in making all of the various meats taste as scrumptious as they can. The roast duck and roast pork are definitely the two delicacies that require a lot of time to prepare.”
Served over rice with a little broccoli and bok choy as part of a combo meal, the crispy-skinned, juicy results are indeed a delicious place to start, but branching out from nose to tail is the ultimate way to go—pillowy braised pork belly and crunchy slices of ear; tangy chicken wings bathed in soy sauce; duck chins that yield just a few precious morsels of deeply savory meat each. The aforementioned black-bean chicken feet, beef tendon and tripe, and what’s listed frankly on the menu as “pork guts” are still other options; for Americans skeptical of such stuff, Yuki has some wisdom for the ages to impart.
“We realize that some items on the menu may be new to some of our customers and may seem intimidating at first,” she acknowledged. “While working at the restaurant one weekend, I met a customer who loves to travel and try new foods from different cultures. He told me that his philosophy is to always give new cuisines two tries before deciding if he favors them or not, which I found was really valuable advice. I think it is important to always keep an open mind and heart when trying new foods from different cultures!”
That said, the Wus also serve up plenty of comfort to newcomers in the form of fried rice and noodles as well as wonderful zong zi, or bamboo-leaf–wrapped packets of glutinous rice studded with various fillings: mung beans, say, or peanuts and egg yolk. According to Yuki, “They’ve become one of our customers’ favorites,” so you might consider calling ahead to reserve some with the rest of your order, “as they sell pretty quickly!” Then take your order to a nearby park or brewery patio and have a feast with some friends in the sunshine: Ribs, bacon, wings, and all the trimmings make for a picnic as all-American as any, after all.
Huakee BBQ is open Tuesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–8 p.m.; 5072 W. 92nd Ave, Westminster; order online in advance here