Lao Wang's is known in Denver for its Xiao Long Bao, or soup dumpling. And according to my friend Carlos, it has the best Taiwanese food around. Actually, just to clarify, the Wang family's restaurant on South Federal is likely Denver's lone destination for Taiwanese fare, but unless you are in Taiwan-- or California-- my friend Carlos assures me, it's as good as it gets.
"It's lighter than what Americans know as Chinese food," he tells me while we are preparing to order. "There are lots of steamed items with simple ingredients, and not a lot of grease." My friend Carlos knows a lot about Taiwanese food. And while none of us like to judge a book by its cover (or a Spanish name for its lack of Taiwanese-ness), at this point I know what you're thinking: "What the hell does this guy Carlos know about Chinese food?"
Carlos is another fine example of what it means to be American, that is, like many of my other friends, he embodies an intriguing mix of cultures unique to these great United States. After all, Carlos is a perfectly logical name for a boy of Taiwanese descent born in New Mexico and raised in Texas. He grew up speaking both English and Mandarin and now can converse freely in either. He readily identifies with his Texas roots (where even the Asians are bigger) and proudly honors his Taiwanese ancestry.
Now far away and years removed from his home-cooked Taiwanese meals in Texas, Carlos goes to Grandma Wang's (a loose translation) Noodle House when he craves the food of his homeland. In fact, he really has become like an adopted son to "Wang Ma Ma" and "Wang Ba Ba" as he calls his surrogate restaurant-proprietor parents, an adorable older couple who together tirelessly (though not always quickly) work the dining room and kitchen by themselves.
When my wife and I met him there a couple weeks ago he was placing silverware on our corner table. He greeted us as he went back to the counter for a couple napkins. "Setting the table," he told us, and looking up he added, "It speeds things up a little."
The restaurant is utilitarian and sparsely decorated with some random haphazardly framed pictures in one corner and the menu in Chinese characters on the two long walls. But what it lacks in design it makes up for in comfort and warmth, starting with the warm and welcoming Grandma and Grandpa Wang (and the steam emanating from the kitchen that neutralizes any effort made by the ironic swamp cooler). While we were discussing options, they came over frequently to catch up with Carlos and also to scold him for being away for so long.
"No pig's feet," he told us after one of their Mandarin-bantering stops at our table. My wife frowned (she loves pig feet like I love pastor) and Carlos explained that they used to make a mean pig's feet dish but not enough people ordered it so they don't even stock it anymore (so is the life of pig's feet in the US, the same thing happened here). But of course what they did have plenty of what most people come here to have: Xiao Long Bao, or soup dumplings.
Don't take this the wrong way, but Xiao Long Bao are lovely little balls of delight. Pork (in this case) is wrapped up in the bun with a bit of meat gelatin. When the dumplings are steamed, the gelatin liquefies and becomes soup. A poke of the chopstick releases the soup filling in the spoon, and as it cools it can be eaten whole in one satisfying slurp. A really good Xiao Long Bao sags with the weight of its own soup filling when picked up out of the steamer. Like this one:
This was my favorite dish of the night and with reason: A great mix of comforting flavor and texture. I can see why my friend would miss this food so much-- and then come here to get it.
And everything else we had that night was fantastic as well. A close second and possible tie were the simple, yet equally comforting cold sesame noodles. Thick rice noodles tossed (I think) in a sesame paste with soy sauce, chile oil and vinegar and topped with shredded carrot and radish.
Also up was beef noodle soup. A thin but well-flavored five-spice broth with tender and fatty slices of beef topped off with bok choy, which rounded out the flavors nicely.
Simple steamed shrimp dumplings followed, and while very good, I much preferred the soup dumplings. The wrapper was a little too thick. It seemed to be the same wrapper as the Xiao Long Bao-- which might need a thicker skin to hold the soup in-- and in the standard dumpling was a little too much. Don't get me wrong, they were really good and I ate more than my share, but if you had to pick, go with the soup dumplings.
The last item we ordered were the potstickers. Grandma Wang seemed like she really wanted us--expected us-- to order them. After all they are advertised on the menu as "Denver's best," and possibly, "...the best in the country!" Carlos played along, but did emphasize that potstickers are nothing more than leftover dumplings--the pan-frying just a convenient way to re-heat them the next day. Carlos is right, in that potstickers are way overdone in this country (we love us some fried stuff) and I can see how it would be a little annoying to hear people praise your country's leftover dish without paying proper respects and having appreciation for the original version. Nevertheless, my wife, Carlos and I love fried stuff as well, and these postickers were crispy-fried and delicious. Look at the crisp. Look at it!
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