A few years ago, serendipity provided a 24-hour travel layover in Shanghai, during which a Chinese traveling companion graciously took me touring. It wholly reshaped my concept of the country's cuisine, at the time informed by some big-city Chinatown meals (such as San Francisco's) and, mostly, universal dishes from interchangeable American-style Chinese eateries.
In Shanghai, I gushed over handmade soup dumplings, Xiaolongbao, which gushed broth all over my chin. I grew fond of new and often odd-to-me drinks, sweets and more. Returning home, I lamented that not even Denver restaurants could provide these samplings, and still today, menu ubiquity reigns at C. Springs' (American) Chinese spots.
Newly opened Wu Hoos Asian Bistro proves no exception, with the bulk of its affordable menu geared for fast lunch buffet service or delivery. But two opening pages of the menu labeled "Chef Recommend" and "Authentic Asian Menu" do present plates I haven't seen locally, impressing my Shanghai friend when I take him along on a second visit.
Owners Ken Wu and Jenny Liu formerly operated two Oriental House gift shops in our local malls, after residing for many years in both Japan and the southeastern Fujian province of China, directly across the South China Sea from Taiwan. Those regions inform some dishes on the menu, while others hail from Shanghai and the more familiar Szechuan region, home to hot chilies. Dining here still doesn't compare to an actual experience abroad, but it at least presents a departure from the norm.
Forgive any lack of specific ingredient detail, as even with some interpreting assistance it was difficult to discern (or translate) exactly what Wu is buying out of Denver import markets, or having delivered from specialty companies, to supplement what's not fully made in-house. But we start with a fine, crepe-like scallion pancake, seared crunchy with an eggy backbone and plum sauce sweetness punctuated by the onion zing. We also try cold, crisp cucumber cuts (sliced bigger than normal, says my friend, who typically sees skinnier English cucumbers used), enjoyable with raw garlic bits intermixed and a sweet rice wine vinegar (we think).
Starchier cravings should guide you first toward the steamed pork buns, which Wu buys and which I think of as an Asian answer to White Castle or Krystal fast-food burgers for their size, delectable airiness and no-frills straightforwardness, with a pasty, barbecue-like sweetened filling. Xiaolongbao, listed as "mini steam dumplings" (also good at OCC's Yellow Mountain Tea House), present a simple minced pork interior with slightly thicker than ideal dough, says my pal, still a simple pleasure dipped in a ginger-vinegar sauce. The Shanghai-style rice cake dish also lands carb-heavy, with the same sliced rice cake in Korean tteokbokki, cooked a little too firm (or not soaked long enough prior to cooking), in a basic brown sauce with veggies. Lastly, our shrimp chow fun's wide rice noodles carry nice wok hay with standard small prawns and zucchini hunks.
For poultry, we prefer the Taiwan chicken to the drunken chicken, the latter bearing a tart, salty pungency up front, with more of a dark-meat duck flavor to the protein. The Taiwan, Wu says, finds composition from seven sauces, and at home he adds basil to the dish — we wish he would here too for more dimension, but we're still happy with incorporated ginger sliver bite, balanced anise influence (chopstick out the hard pods) and a caramelized sugar element to the heavy brown gravy sauce.
Anise also plays big in the mildly spicy, rich Szechuan beef noodle soup — very similar to the Taiwanese beef noodle soup we sampled off-menu earlier this year at Eastern Garden on South Academy Boulevard — made with specialty thin, flat wheat noodles shipped fresh. And when we order the Szechuan fish, typically plated here as a fillet with sauce atop, Wu instead rewards our interest with a fantastic traditional version made as a deep, chili-potent, bright red, oily, mixed broth soup (chicken, beef and pork broth, he says), bearing garlic, scallions and what we guess might be Pangasius (freshwater catfish) for its fluffy, mild whitefish texture. (After everything's scooped out and eaten, the broth isn't really intended to be sipped, like soup, my friend informs me, and is instead left behind, like a spent hot pot bath.)
The same fish informs the equally alluring Southeast fried fish dish, battered beautifully with soft, crisp shell, bearing big black pepper and salt spicing with more chili essence and fried garlic slivers, over a bed of steamed broccoli (unfortunately served cold).
For dessert, tangyuan, "sweet rice balls" on the menu, are typically served during solstice festivals, Chinese New Year, or other special occasions. They're simple glutenous orbs filled here with peanut or sesame paste.
Wu shares that his intent with Wu Hoos isn't necessarily to be Chinese authentic, hence the wide American-style offerings. But he wanted to share at least a few of his favorites, which he and Liu make at home (albeit more traditionally there). Like many restaurateurs before him, he's cautious around what he thinks American palates will go for. We, of course, want just the opposite — what's not found widely elsewhere — and hope Springs diners will support and encourage the worthy departures.