He is a hilarious guy, full of the only-in-America cultural idiosyncrasies I love. See, he is a nice Jewish boy from the New Jersey suburbs of Manhattan, yet he has more love of Chinese food than anyone I know. And not only that, wherever he is, he seeks out the best of it, and goes over and over and over again. To put it in perspective, he is to Chinese food as I am to my adopted Mexican love of tacos al pastor. Now that is love.
In particular my friend Brian is a Dim Sum fiend. So when he called me up out of the blue to invite me to Dim Sum to celebrate the first day of the Year of the Tiger, I didn't hesitate to say yes.
King's Land was his choice and I couldn't argue. I couldn't argue because, although I am ashamed to admit it, I haven't been to Dim Sum in Denver. Ever. I've been plenty of times before, but all in other cities, and I have yet to drag myself down to Dim Sum at any of Denver's seemingly fine Dim Sum eateries.
King's Land Chinese Food is exactly where you would expect it to be in Denver: near the unofficial China Town that is Federal and Alameda. There are actually several Dim Sum diners in this huge strip mall off Tejon and Alameda, and as expected, the parking lot was packed that day for the holiday. I met my friend and his Dim Sum crew in front of King's Land. Across the lot I could hear the beating of drums and see flickers of bright colors of a dragon dance. "Don't worry," he told me, sensing my excitement for the New Year celebration, "They'll come here next," and he motioned up to the 12 foot long string of unlit firecrackers hanging from the entrance roof as proof. Only Brian would know the rotation of the dragon parade on Chinese New Year.
Meanwhile we waited and waited in what was a packed house of a restaurant. The inside is typical Dim Sum style: huge open dining room with carts slowly making rounds; servers and bus boys flying from table to table with remarkable speed. The wait was long, and a little confusing. Typical of places like this, several Asian families walked in and were suspiciously seated right away, while the rest of us just sat and lobbied for our turn.
I took this time to squeeze my way outside and, as promised, the whole parade was setting up. The firecrackers were being prepared, boys and girls were donning their dragon costumes and a big drum was set up in the middle. The fireworks were lit and with the lovely sound reminiscent of an Uzi firing rounds into the air, the madness began.
The madness then somehow began to go inside. In a space where I had to push and claw my way through, giant drums and costumed dragons squeezed by with relative ease, then paraded up and down between the tables for another 20 minutes.
Back inside, Brian and his friends had been seated. By the time I located them and made my way through the mayhem, they had a full table of steamed and fried delights. He began to point out and explain the five or six plates on the table. I didn't even try to pay attention. And it just kept coming and coming. Here was like seeing Brian in his element: more at home with Dim Sum on Chinese New Year than with Matzo at Passover.
We were situated in front of one set of kitchen doors and as the carts came out, Brian would expertly scan them and point out what he wanted, although sometimes the conversation went like this:
Brian, after getting some shrimp rice noodles, "Do you have pork ones as well?"
"Yes, but I want pork also. Do you have pork?"
Now pointing, "Pork. Pork."
"Shrimp," and she was off.
The service is kind of like this at King's Land. It is also at times painfully slow then at once incredibly fast. Without Brian I would have been a little overwhelmed I admit. When a cart happens to come by, you have to be ready to decide quickly and pull off what you like. If you don't act, you may never see that dish again.
Any indecision or lack of assertiveness is picked up on, and subsequently ignored. One of Brian's friends asked politely for a refill of his ice water. Our waitress, smiling, confirmed his desire by repeating it in the form of a question, "More water?" Then she took a second and thought about it. She actually stood there, sort of looked up to the ceiling, furrowed her brow a little, shook her head and said, "Later." Before disappearing into the mob, she gave us a little brush off hand motion, like a mother would her whining kids. It was actually quite hilarious. Brian, however, minutes later took control by grabbing a bus boy when he was passing by, and from him, an entire pitcher of water.
In the meantime, I was busy furiously eating a ton of food, some of which I did actually take the time to identify. Among what I remember and have pictures of, was lo mai gai, a sticky rice steamed in lotus leaf with sausage and egg yolk inside.
Also the barbecue pork bun, or Cha Siu Bao, was excellent. So was the breaded and deep-fried shrimp ball skewered on a sugar cane.
And the variety of steam and pan-fried dumplings were at once overwhelming and delicious.
And steamed clams in a black bean sauce. This was another favorite.
The best single thing was the Peking duck: served with the delicious fluffy steamed buns and hoisin-based sauce. Actually the best thing was the duck skin itself: perfectly crispy and steaming hot. King's Land duck skin goes into my top favorite foods along with what they do with skin of a chicken at Table 6 and that of a pig at Osteria Marco. I proceed to eat more than my share of duck skin bun sandwiches. Incredible.
There are very few places in Denver that one can get a Peking duck without any pre-ordering or a long wait. This is probably the one thing that sets King's Land apart from the others from what I understand. And this, of course, is all thanks to their magic duck hanging display case, proudly featured at the take-out entrance. Here is what is commonly referred to as duck-skin heaven:
Our morning at King's Land didn't end without some more service-related hilarity. Of course, as is always the case in a place like this, our server was nowhere to be found when we were ready to pay. One of us was in a hurry so we flagged down a bus boy who politely came to take our check and money with a smile. He then proceeded to set it down on a counter by the kitchen doors, smile and walk away; content that he fulfilled our wish of having our check any money wait elsewhere for our server.
We did eventually get settled and this is the best part: all of our gluttony came to less than $20 per person including tip. Pleasantly surprised and unpleasantly full, I ambled my way out. The bright sun hurt my eyes a little and my belly ached with joy. I stretched out with a groan, said my goodbyes to Brian, promised to see him in the next decade or so, and didn't eat a thing for the rest of the day.