Recreating a childhood Asian treat

Clay Fong | Boulder Weekly

Noodles were always an integral part of my family’s Friday night dinners in Oakland Chinatown. Sometimes these restaurant repasts featured thick ribbons of chow fun rice noodles topped with slices of flank steak seasoned with salty black beans and hot mustard. If we were being particularly extravagant, we might also order up a plate of crispy chow mein noodles tossed with tender chicken and a splash of Chinese vinegar.

Each of these were wonderfully savory treats, but perhaps the one that was most prized was tomato beef chow mein, sometimes enlivened with a dash of curry powder. This is an item that’s tough to find in Colorado, and the closest place that made a decent version of it is a now defunct spot in Broomfield.

Recently, friend Patrick and I made a lunchtime foray to North Boulder’s Five Spice restaurant, which features a predominantly Chinese menu, although it also dishes out Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese selections. These include curries, noodle bowls and tempura. Of course, there’s also the expected American Chinese specialties such as sesame chicken and moo shu pork.

For our meal, first thing out of the gate was a $1.50 cup of that old standby, hot and sour soup. This version was more balanced, albeit a bit milder, than most, when it came to flavor. The measure of vinegar was enough to give it noticeable, but not overwhelming, tang. While some might desire a spicier flavor, this was easily corrected by a sprinkling of white pepper to taste.

It’s dawned on me that there’s not a lot of room for variance with egg rolls, although Five Spice’s $2.95 version hit all the right notes. Stuffed with shredded veggies, primarily cabbage, these old favorites came piping hot from the fryer with a textbook crisp texture.

Crispness also best described the fresh-tasting produce found within.

Patrick considered his $7.95 plate of Thai drunken noodles unquestionably flavorful, with its seasoning of pungent fresh basil and peppy chili sauce. Instead of meat, he opted for a smattering of broccoli and greens, and supplemented these vegetables with cubed tofu for a dollar more. A most satisfying meatless selection, the dish was enhanced by the expert preparation of the noodles, which were tender and appealingly glossy with sauce.

When I studied the menu, the $7.95 Hong Kong noodles jumped off the page. Could this pan-fried pasta, topped with a Cantonese brown gravy, approximate tomato beef chow mein? I ordered this dish with beef, and asked if it would be possible to add stir-fried tomato, onion and green bell pepper. The receptive server said yes, and the dish arrived soon after. From an appearance standpoint, it looked as it should, with crunchy bird’s nest-shaped mounds of noodles dotted with colorful vegetables. The gravy was a touch salty — I’d ask for a smidgen of curry next time to liven things up. But overall, this customized plate was a more than adequate replication of a favored childhood dish, and I’m likely to come back for more.

Like most decent Chinese restaurants, Five Spice is a pleasantly unfussy place, with straightforward service and reasonable prices. But perhaps more important, it’s also a place that can convincingly recreate youthful culinary memories, and it’s awfully hard to put a price tag on that attribute.

Five Spice is located at 3325 28th St., Unit 5, Boulder. Call 720-565-0707.