Spice China 269 McCaslin Boulevard, Louisville. 720-890-0999One of my childhood traditions was Friday night family dinner in Oakland’s Chinatown, a ritual both satisfying and inexpensive. This custom lives on, as my sister recently related that she was able to enjoy a three-course special at an East Bay Chinese restaurant for less than $20. Although she did add a dish or two, she was able to feed her family and our parents for a proverbial song, while still having leftovers to bring home.
I thought I’d give a stab at recreating such a family-style outing at Louisville’s Spice China. With friend Tertia and her family in tow, I was struck by this establishment’s high-end décor. Rather than the cheap plastic peacock festooned with Christmas lights that decorated a favored haunt of my youth, this spot features a Guernica-sized mural depicting rural Chinese village life. Underneath was a bold contemporary color scheme and thoroughly modern bar flanked by flat-screen TVs. The overall impression was that of a fashionable urban dance club.
Such ambience doesn’t come cheap, and prices may seem high to those accustomed to bargain Asian joints. But prices aren’t unreasonable either, with most lunches under $10. The menu is more Chinese-American than Chinese, featuring such old chestnuts as broccoli beef, although I was pleasantly surprised to see tripe dishes, Shanghaistyle cold plates and whole steamed fish. Outside the box choices include bourbon steak (from far western China, perhaps?) and Taiwanese salmon salad.
First out of the gate was a starter of $5.95 crab and cream cheese wontons, a dish I never experienced until college. These arrived sizzling and crisp, which is really all one can ask for, with what looked to be genuine crab filling and sinfully velvety cheese. More than enough to feed three adults, the $7.95 West Lake soup was a bowl of egg drop on steroids. Densely packed with ground beef, strands of egg, and cilantro, this soup was a self-contained meal. In some versions of this preparation, the flavors and textures blur together unpleasantly; here each element stood out on its own, particularly the lively, leafy cilantro.
As for entrees, the $12.75 large dinner portion of Tangerine Prawns paired the winning fried qualities of the won tons with plump and cleantasting shrimp. The accompanying veggies were expertly stir-fried, and my only criticism was that the dish’s citrus flavor was virtually non-existent. We had better luck with our $9.95 dinner helping of ginger and garlic-scented snap peas. While I could have done without the sheen of superfluous cornstarch-laden gravy, these pods possessed a perfect crisp-tender feel and peak sweetness.
I’ve seldom seen a Colorado version of beef chow fun that comes close to West Coast Chinatown preparation. Spice China’s $8.50 rendition comes close though, with properly wide rice noodles and a favorable lean beef-topasta ratio. My only suggestion to the kitchen is to salt this a bit less; otherwise these noodles approximated the texture and flavor of my childhood memories, especially with a dab of hot mustard.
Although my inner cheapskate balks a touch at the prices here, they are fair for a satisfying sit-down meal in a pleasing setting. While I may never replicate the Chinatown dinners of my youth in Boulder County, Spice China does better than most in capturing some fondly remembered flavors of childhood.
Clay's Obscurity Corner: Open teapots
One Chinese restaurant custom that sporadically manifests itself in Colorado is the ritual of the open teapot. Well, perhaps “ritual” is too strong of a word, but in many Asian restaurants, leaving the teapot on the table with an open lid is a nonverbal method of requesting a refill of tea. It’s said this tradition originated in dim sum restaurants where diners engrossed in conversation could ask for additional liquid refreshment without interrupting their deep discussions. Once the teapot was replenished, patrons wouldn’t have to say thank you; tapping the fingertips on the table was an adequate expression of gratitude.