Allow us to take you on a tour of five Chinese regional cuisines, complete with recommendations for local spots where you can savor traditional and contemporary specialties that will satisfy all your cravings.
The Mile High City’s Chinese food scene is as vibrant and diverse as the 31 provinces of the People’s Republic of China and neighboring Taiwan. Allow us to take you on a tour of five regional cuisines, complete with recommendations for local spots where you can savor traditional and contemporary specialties that will satisfy all your cravings.
In the 1850s, fortune seekers from what was then called Canton province introduced the western United States to foundational fare that came to define Chinese food for many Americans.
America’s obsession with Chinese food began nearly 175 years ago, thanks to the arrival of immigrants from southern China during the California gold rush. “That’s when the first Chinese laborers who provided services to miners arrived in the West,” says Pei-Jou Kuo, who teaches classes about international food and culture at the University of Denver.
Located in southern China, Canton province [now called Guangdong] has a tropical climate, a seaside location, and agricultural riches that provide prime access to rice, livestock, and seafood. Using light seasonings and cooking techniques, like steaming and roasting, to preserve the natural flavors of these ingredients are hallmarks of Cantonese cuisine. Proteins are often prepared nose to tail, meaning no parts are wasted. Over time, Chinese immigrants adapted their family recipes to accommodate Western tastes, says Kuo, a native of Taiwan. That resulted in the invention of grub—such as beef and broccoli, sweet and sour pork, chop suey—that’s often deep-fried or smothered in thick, sweet, and/or salty sauces. Since the mid-20th century, however, the growth of Colorado’s Chinese population has slowly increased the availability of, and appetite for, more authentic Cantonese cuisine. Dishes such as dim sum dumplings and roast duck are available locally, if you know where to look.
From 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily (and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends), brunch and lunch seekers file into 13-year-old Star Kitchen’s expansive dining room in Athmar Park. Patrons are there to order from roving carts whose baskets and plates are loaded with the greatest hits of dim sum. In Cantonese, the term translates to “touch the heart” and refers to the ancient tradition, with origins in Guangdong and Hong Kong, of consuming bite-size dishes with hot tea in the morning. If it’s the weekend, prepare to wait in line to wolf down feng zhua (braised chicken feet), har gow (shrimp dumplings), and gai lan (Chinese kale).
Pro Tip Many of the items featured in this story are listed exclusively on restaurants’ traditional Chinese menus, which you can (and should) request.
New Canton BBQ | Aurora At New Canton BBQ, roasted whole ducks and slabs of crackly skinned pork hang in the tiny, takeout-only establishment’s brightly lit glass case. Leave with armfuls of containers packed with star-anise-scented duck, honey-kissed char siu (barbecued pork), and soy-sauce-seasoned chicken. Don’t forget a side of congee (rice porridge) or egg noodle soup to offset the meat sweats.
Q House | City Park Proteins coated with a simple salt and pepper seasoning are classic Cantonese cooking. Contemporary Chinese restaurant Q House stays true to the tradition with its head-on shrimp. These crustaceans are crusted in a garlicky batter, flash-fried to crisp perfection, and showered with a medley of fried garlic and thinly sliced peppers.
Hong Kong Station | Centennial Hong Kong Station specializes in exquisite preparations of Cantonese-inspired provisions hailing from the metropolis near the Guangdong region from which it gets its name. That includes chow fun: oil-lacquered rice noodles wok-fried with scallions, bean sprouts, and proteins such as beef and chicken. Get the dish in a platter with seasonal greens sautéed in oil and garlic and thick toast slathered with butter and condensed milk.
Yuan Wonton | various locations Chef-owner Penelope Wong’s char siu buns—steamed splendors stuffed with barbecued pork and decorated like plump, pink pigs—are (almost) too cute to eat. The treats, along with the food truck’s other hand-folded dumplings, buns, and won tons, are some of the most coveted Chinese bites in Denver. Find the food truck’s schedule on Instagram and take advantage of online ordering; many of Wong’s items sell out in minutes.
Modern-day foodies have China’s oldest cuisine to thank for carbohydrate-rich goodies such as scallion pancakes and seafood dishes seasoned with aromatics.
One of the most common items on Asian restaurant menus across Colorado (and the country)—the humble scallion pancake—is rooted in China’s earliest food tradition. The pan-fried, green-onion-speckled flatbread is a staple of the Shandong province of northern China, where the eponymous cuisine was established more than 2,500 years ago.“It has the longest history,” Kuo says, “because most of the capitals of the [ancient] empires were located in the northern part of China.”
Shandong’s fertile soil and proximity to both the coast and the Yellow River means the area abounds with fresh seafood and vegetables, which its chefs like to braise, fry, and sauté, most notably with salt-heavy seasonings as well as ginger, garlic, and scallions—the fragrant holy trinity of the cuisine. Because of the widespread cultivation of wheat, residents of northern Chinese provinces such as Shandong and cities like Tianjin and Beijing (neighboring municipalities influenced by the cuisine) also eat more carbs such as noodles and buns than those in other provinces, Kuo says. Thankfully, these are all dining choices Front Rangers (and the restaurants that serve them) are happy to import.
Ace Eat Serve executive chef Thach Tran grew up regularly eating Peking duck—an iconic specialty with origins in Beijing (formerly called Peking), where the cuisine is greatly influenced by Shandong traditions. On Thursday and Sunday evenings at the nine-year-old Pan-Asian restaurant in Uptown, Tran produces a modern riff on the classic by dry-aging ducks and basting them with hot oil. This results in a crispy-skinned bird that Tran carves tableside for diners to wrap in crêpes and devour with sliced scallions, cucumbers, pickled chiles, sesame hoisin sauce, and apricot-chile sauce.
Imperial Chinese Restaurant | Baker Whole sea bass gets the royal treatment at Imperial Chinese Restaurant, which has paired upscale Sichuan, Cantonese, and Beijing cuisines with efficient service and affable staffers since 1985. The silver-skinned fish—steamed with ginger, scallions, garlic, and soy sauce—receives a generous sprinkling of cilantro before reaching your table.
KP Asian Cafe | Aurora This tiny spot beside Pacific Ocean Marketplace in Aurora excels at delivering comforting Chinese sustenance, from Hong Kong–style soup brimming with handmade noodles and roast duck to Shandong-influenced specialties such as brisket and tendon hot pot. The latter, which is served in a heavy clay vessel, features melt-in-your-mouth nuggets of beef buried in an umami-rich brown sauce dotted with whole dried chiles.
Flower Pepper | Boulder Noodles slicked with a sesame-oil-zinged sauce are popular in many parts of China, but fast-casual Flower Pepper’s variation is a take on a favorite from the Shandong province called zha jiang mian. The stretchy strands are accompanied by a crunchy collection of cucumbers, carrots, bean sprouts, edamame, and napa cabbage and drizzled with a thick, nutty dressing.
Dumpling Factory | Greenwood Village This takeout-focused eatery sports an abbreviated menu of dumplings, hearty noodle bowls, and simple appetizers, including scallion pancakes. The crispy-edged beauties pair well with everything, especially the dumplings; ask for the steamed seafood variety stuffed with shrimp, scallops, pork, and napa cabbage.
Eastern China’s Huaiyang region delivers cult-favorite dishes such as delicate soup dumplings, hearty stir-fried noodles, and succulent braised duck and pork belly.
While restaurants specializing in Huaiyang cooking are still a rarity in Colorado, many eateries serve select crowd-pleasers from the cuisine: soup dumplings called xiaolongbao; beef- and tofu-studded West Lake soup (named after an iconic body of water in the region); and fried rice speckled with diced Chinese sausage, peas, and carrots. These dishes have origins in the eastern Chinese provinces of Jiangsu and Fujian and the municipality of Shanghai, which are located along the Yangtze River and have an abundance of lakes. These features offer easy access to high-quality ingredients such as rice, vegetables, and freshwater fish and crab.
Common Chinese cooking techniques such as steaming, simmering, stir-frying, stewing, and light frying turn those treasures into Huaiyang specialties that tend to be juicier, lighter, and sweeter than their counterparts from other regions, with an emphasis on delicate and natural flavors. “This is a big contrast between food in the [western parts of China, such as Sichuan province] and food in the Huaiyang region,” Kuo says. “In this region, food is more refreshing, without excessive seasoning, and not as spicy.”
At five-year-old Sunflower Asian Cafe in Littleton, husband-and-wife owners Annie Tang and Wen Hu Xue serve tastes of their native Yangzhou, a city in the Jiangsu province. Xue worked as a chef there before the couple moved to the United States in 2006. Visit the airy space to sample subtly seasoned Huaiyang dishes like stir-fried rice or noodles with Chinese sausage, shrimp, chicken, eggs, carrots, green onions, and peas; braised pork belly with meigan cai (pickled mustard greens); and tender diced fish with celery, bell pepper, and crunchy pine nuts.
Shanghai Kitchen | Greenwood Village At this casual spot, Shanghai native Harry Zhou cooks the recipes of his homeland, some of which are influenced by Huaiyang traditions. The meatballs—fist-size spheres of pillowy, scallion-flecked ground pork glazed in a mixture of rice wine and soy sauce—are best enjoyed with a spread of other Shanghai-born dishes, such as yan du xian soup, which stars two kinds of pork and tofu skin.
Super Star Asian Cuisine | Athmar Park Minimalist Huaiyang cooking traditions influence dishes such as West Lake soup, from eastern China’s Zhejiang province. Try the cornstarch-thickened creation—bedazzled with swirls of egg whites and bits of beef and tofu—at Super Star Asian Cuisine, also known for its excellent Cantonese-style specialties.
ChoLon Modern Asian | Downtown and Central Park Chef-owner Lon Symensma relies on the expertise of Michelle Xiao, a master dumpling maker who hails from a city outside of Hong Kong, to curate his menus of pleated masterpieces at ChoLon (as well as downtown sister restaurant YumCha). A favorite is ChoLon’s rendition of xiaolongbao: sweet-savory French onion soup cinched in pretty pouches.
Fortune Wok to Table | Cherry Creek This multifaceted Cherry Creek gem, which also hosts swanky, private multicourse dinners prepared by chef-owner CJ Shyr, is a hot spot for cu chao mian, aka Shanghainese street noodles. The udon-style ribbons are wok-fried with your choice of duck, shrimp, or tofu and shreds of carrots and celery.
If your taste buds are tingling, you’re probably enjoying Sichuan-peppercorn-zinged dishes born in the eponymous region in southwest China.
The landlocked Sichuan province is home to some of the country’s boldest flavors: fiery kung pao chicken; chile-oil-drenched mapo tofu; and hot pots of spicy, bubbling broth laden with pork, beef, and freshwater fish. Parts of the Sichuan province experience a subtropical, humid climate, which Kuo says is one reason residents prefer mouth-scorching bites. “People eat spicy food to help them sweat,” she says, adding that the practice is likely related to a Chinese medicine notion that hot foods help remove internal dampness.
The cuisine relies heavily on its native Sichuan peppercorn to bring the heat: The spice contains hydroxy-alpha-sanshool molecules that react with the touch sensors in your mouth to produce a numbing sensation. The peppercorns are often crushed and sprinkled into stir-fries or mixed with chile-infused oil to produce tongue-tickling sauces. Dishes from the area came to the United States during the second wave of Chinese immigration between 1965 and 1984, Kuo says, and widened the scope of regional eats in North America. Today, Sichuan is one of the hottest Chinese cuisines in Colorado—literally and figuratively.
Hot pot is a communal meal that’s popular throughout China but is eaten regularly and with zeal in the Sichuan province. At seven-year-old Blue Ocean (also called Little Chengdu) in South Hampden, friends and family can gather around a heated vessel of steaming broth roiling with chiles and Sichuan peppercorns (choose from spicy, extra spicy, or a split pot with both). The liquid flavors and cooks an array of raw ingredients, such as sliced lamb, tofu skins, shrimp and squid meatballs, glass noodles, fresh lotus root, enoki mushrooms, and bok choy.
Szechuan Tasty House | South Denver Mapo tofu, which translates to “pockmarked Grandma’s bean curd,” is a nod to a woman from the city of Chengdu who created the dish. Find a traditional take on it—composed of silky tofu and finely minced beef suspended in an oil-based sauce laced with funky fermented chile paste, black beans, and crushed Sichuan peppercorns—at no-frills Szechuan Tasty House.
Yum Yum Spice | South Denver Yum Yum Spice is one of the only places in town that offers build-your-own dry pot—aka gānguō—a brothless variety of hot pot. At this casual restaurant, diners can choose from proteins and veggies such as pork ribs, duck head, fish cakes, and a-choy (Taiwanese leafy greens), which are pepped up with chile oil and Sichuan peppercorns and presented on a sizzling platter atop a tabletop gas burner.
Noodle Express | Belcaro The city of Chengdu’s stretchy stir-fried noodles are typically topped with minced pork, peanuts, and chile oil. We like the version from fast-casual Noodles Express, which comes with the usual toppings plus green onions, cilantro, soybeans, and sauerkraut—crunchy, herbaceous, and tangy additions the team recommends mixing thoroughly into the homemade noodles before slurping.
Hop Alley | RiNo Hop Alley is an ode to chef-owner Tommy Lee’s Cantonese roots, affinity for Sichuan fare, and Denver’s own Chinese history: Hop Alley was the name of a thriving Chinatown in what is now LoDo that was destroyed by a racist mob in 1880. At the eatery, patrons can feast on a twist on laziji, nuggets of fried chicken thighs tossed in a Sichuan peppercorn dust that’s kissed with dried whole peppers, scallions, and a whisper of sweetness.
The embattled East Asian island’s melting pot of cultures fuels the popularity of delights like slow-simmered beef noodle soup and crispy-bottomed pot stickers.
The island of Taiwan, located off the southeastern coast of mainland China, has a complex political and cultural history that has left a deep mark on its culinary traditions. “I think it’s very sad and sensitive, the tension between Taiwan and China,” says Kuo, referring to Taiwan’s controversial status as a democratic republic that China claims as its own. “But foodwise, Taiwan is influenced greatly by Chinese cuisine; that’s where most Taiwanese ancestors came from.”
Still, mainland China’s traditions aren’t the only ones that affect Taiwanese food. In fact, the culinary heritage of Japan (which ruled Taiwan for more than 50 years, before China came into the picture) is found in Taiwan’s most recognizable dish: beef noodle soup. The specialty originated in China but melded with Japanese ramen traditions, and the result is a mildly spicy, umami-rich broth with juicy beef shank. As Taiwanese emigrants made their way to the United States after World War II, they brought their recipes with them. Today, diners can find Taiwanese touches on many local menus, Kuo says, by looking for fried shallots, black vinegar, and heavy use of pork in toppings or sauces—all trademarks of the cuisine.
Owner Edwin Zoe opened the Boulder location of Zoe Ma Ma in 2010 as an homage to his mother (fondly known as Ma Ma), a native of Taiwan who, at 78, is still the head chef. In 2015, a Denver outpost debuted next to Union Station, and both eateries serve Zoe’s comforting beef noodle soup. Bok choy, pickled vegetables, and a nest of handmade noodles swim in savory beef broth studded with irresistibly tender chuck short rib. Making noodles from scratch is a “lost art,” Zoe says, but the difference is obvious: The strands are crafted with high-quality flour and fresh eggs, resulting in a perfect vehicle to deliver the oil-slicked broth to your taste buds.
Pig and Tiger | Boulder These sweet-and-savory Taiwanese-style sandwiches—thick pork belly wedges tucked into soft, fluffy bao buns—are island staples that have become a favorite worldwide. At Pig and Tiger, inside Boulder’s Avanti Food and Beverage, Taiwanese-American chef Darren Chang tops his traditional version with cilantro and tangy pickled mustard greens.
Chen’s Kitchen | Littleton Slide into a booth at this small joint on South Kipling Boulevard to sample a bevy of Taiwanese specialties, including gua bao, chile won tons, and salt and pepper fried chicken. But don’t miss the lu rou fan, one of the island nation’s most beloved dishes: pork belly braised in a sweet-and-salty sauce and plated over rice.
Lao Wang Noodle House | Westwood For 22 years, Tse-Ching and Chung-Ming Wang satisfied Denverites’ appetite for pot stickers—dumplings filled with pork—at their Lao Wang Noodle House. After Tse-Ching’s passing this past August, his wife, Chung-Ming, has continued the tradition, serving platters of the goodies—presented upside down to show off the layer of crispy lace across the top—with other Taiwanese fundamentals such as xiaolongbao and dan dan noodles.
China Gourmet | Boulder and Longmont Although perusing China Gourmet’s 150-plus-item menu can be overwhelming, longtime customers know to skip to page eight to find the restaurant’s Shanghai Specials, a lineup that includes Taiwanese dishes alongside those from China’s largest city. The chicken with basil—bone-in pieces of bird wok-fried in a garlicky, ginger-tinged sauce with herbs—is a finger-licking delight.
Patricia joined the 5280 staff in July 2019 and is thrilled to be overseeing all of 5280 Magazine’s dining coverage. Follow her food reporting adventures on Instagram @whatispattyeating.
Riane is 5280's associate food editor. You can follow her culinary adventures at @riane__eats.
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