Hong Kong Barbecue: Finding comfort in unfamiliar flavors
In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
Mark Antonation This is where the ducks hang out
I can't say that I've ever been a fan of cooked greens. I can manage slow-braised collards, provided that they're wilted in plenty of bacon fat and dosed with garlic and vinegar. I'll crunch my way through a serving of salty kale chips if I have a crisp, cold pilsner to wash them down. I occasionally even crave a pile of mustard greens alongside some hoppin' John. But I burn out quickly on Swiss chard, and you might even catch me hiding the beet tops under a napkin or spreading them around on the plate to make it look I've eaten more. (My parents never fell for that one.) That's basically how I felt about Hong Kong Barbecue's stir-fried water spinach in garlic sauce. I appreciated the sheer mineral concentration and healthful qualities, but the swampy flavor and overwhelming metallic twang made my taste buds recoil. The silky, even buttery, sauce that coated those vibrant green stems and leaves, though, was enough to get me to down a few forkfuls. To fail to try water spinach is to try to fail, or something like that.
Mark Antonation Water spinach in garlic sauce
This was my experience with most of the dishes I ordered at Hong Kong Barbecue, although the water spinach was the only that didn't eventually win me over. Everything else was a strange combination of almost-familiar comfort food with either an unusual preparation, a subtle background flavor that I couldn't quite place, or ingredients that have been on my culinary bucket list because of their reputations as "difficult" for Western palates. I toted home several bags straining with Styrofoam containers, and almost all of it was curiously good -- if not downright addictive.
My original plan was to meet a group of friends in the tiny but welcoming dining room so that we could sample our way through as much of the menu as possible. But Amy was sick at home with a crushing head cold and the others bowed out due to family or work commitments. So I found myself alone, scanning the menu for the best options to take home for an early dinner. And by alone, I mean in the entire restaurant, not just my party of one. Only in Florida, surrounded by snowbirds, would I find company in a restaurant at this early hour. The good news was that the hostess was friendly and patient, helping me choose dishes that would go well together, would stay hot and crisp on the short drive home, and would allow me to sample some of the Cantonese-influenced specialties of Hong Kong.
Anyone entering Hong Kong Barbecue will be immediately drawn to the whole lacquered ducks hanging in the display window, if not by their burnished, glistening appearance alone, then by the intense aroma of rendered fat, exotic spices and slow-roasted meat. And if duck is not quite your thing, the pork that has been given the same treatment should do the trick. And so the duck made it into my take-out bags, along with sweet and sour pork ribs, a tub of congee and that batch of sautéed greens.
Mark Antonation Hong Kong Barbecue at 4:30 in the afternoon