More and more, it seems there are fewer and fewer places left to discover in Denver. Blame social media and a culture that’s obsessed with finding the Next Big Thing. Or a city that’s growing so fast that spaces open and close before you can leave your scooter laying willy-nilly in front of their entryways. Whatever the reasons, it can feel as though the Mile High City is running out of secrets.
Then you sit down for lunch at a place like Fortune Wok to Table, a Shanghainese restaurant, and realize your heaping plate of wonderfully slippery street noodles are only going to set you back $11. How did you not know, you wonder?
Don’t get us wrong: Fortune Wok wasn’t undiscovered before we came along. Zagat named the nearly 2-year-old eatery’s dumplings among the best in Denver last year. But, tucked along East Third Avenue, with an unassuming sign and a black awning, Fortune Wok feels far away from the attractive, oh-so-hip hustle of Cherry Creek North’s core.
The restaurant also does things a little differently. On the main floor and patio, diners can enjoy a very — very — small street-food menu at lunch and dinner. The second floor is open five evenings a week and serves a more refined, but still minimalist, dinner lineup. Rather than relying on beer to quench customers’ thirst, rice wine reigns supreme, and there’s enough variety to really test where the traditional drink falls on your personal beverage hierarchy.
You won’t find the best Chinese food in Denver at Fortune Wok, but you will find consistently good food. To shine above its colleagues, its diminutive menus need to hit every note, and sometimes they emerge flat. (The eatery also exudes a surprising lack of ambiance.) But in a city low on surprises, a decently priced lunch in Cherry Creek is something worth celebrating, as is a chef candidly cooking the food of his homeland, in his own time (the menu specifically asks diners to “please take patience”), precisely the way he wants.
Vibe: We know that white rice tends to be tasteless — a foundation for spicy sauces and exotic flavors, but forgetful on its own. The setting at Fortune Wok is similar: a bland backdrop that won’t distract from the food and drink. There are just four tables upstairs, set against beige walls; a pair of beautiful horse paintings decorate the stairway wall. Because there are typically only one or two servers working, on a quiet evening, you may feel the need to whisper, so quiet is the space. The patio is much more refreshing, because of the open air, yes, but also the hanging flower pots and large wood table that foster more of a community feel.
Food: When we said chef CJ Shyr runs a tight menu, we meant it. The lunchtime offerings fit on a square of paper smaller than 8-by-11 and include just three options: dumplings, Shanghainese street noodles and jasmine fried rice, though there are some decisions to make when it comes to each.
The dumplings ($9.50 for seven) are available steamed or pan-fried and stuffed with pork, beef or vegetables. The last option is a surprisingly hearty combination of spinach, bok choy and vermicelli that will satisfy even loyal carnivores. The crescent-moon-shaped pockets are shaped by hand, though Shyr orders the dough from a supplier. (His monthly soup dumplings, which you can read more about below, are made entirely from scratch.)
Of the two entrée-style dishes, the street noodles ($10.80) have the slightest edge. Though thin and supple, the noodles manage to cling to their garlic and soy seasoning. They’re tossed into a towering pile with basic veggies and your choice of beef, shrimp or vegetables (duck is available, too, for $15, as are gluten-free noodles for an extra $2). Our recommendation is the beef, which is tender and brings some toughness to an understated dish. The fried rice ($10.80), available with the same protein options, retains some bite and is laced with pleasantly unexpected hints of ginger; like the noodles, a combo of cabbage, carrots and green onion are mixed in.
Dinner starts on a strong, if muted, note, with marinated cucumbers ($8). The fruit (yep, cucumbers are fruits) is the only small plate on the current menu, which changes seasonally. (The summer menu is the smallest of the year.) Thankfully, the dish can stand on its own. Steeped in house-made soy sauce, vinegar and sesame oil, the bite-size pieces transform from crunchy lunchtime snacks to earthy morsels that prep one’s palate for the flavors to come.
After that, there are just four large plates: a seafood, a fish, a beef and a vegetable, all priced a smidge higher than we think is justified. The best of the quartet, and the most fairly appraised, is the shrimp and garlic ($25). The tender crustaceans are sautéed in a white garlic sauce with a spice (spices? Chef won’t tell) that turns it a beautiful orange-red color reminiscent of an Asian chili sauce. Asparagus-like artichoke stems and red pepper round out the sweet-spicy plate.
Chopped beef tenderloin ($34) is succulent and well-cooked but isn’t accompanied by anything except a thick-like-gravy black bean sauce, though it made even that plain old rice sing.
Wok-fried green beans ($18) arrive just past crunchy and lack the classic dish’s expected garlic and ginger zing. Also, it’s hard to swallow dropping a Jackson on a bowl of green beans, no matter how many spices they’re stirred with.
Drinks: The short drink list for the second floor starts with a list of seven rice wines ($8 to $18), which are accompanied by an encouraging push: “Worth a try,” the menu reads. Rice wine is ubiquitous in China, and Fortune Wok carries a mix of popular brands and more boutique labels. The servers will walk you through all the options and point you toward an introductory spirit that suits your preferences. Zhu Ye Qin ($10), fermented with herbs, finishes with notes of butterscotch that will appeal to whiskey imbibers; we found it less sharp than the wildly popular (in China) Fen Jiu ($12).
For those not in the mood to experiment with a new spirit, there are seven wines available by the glass or bottle (starting at $10 per glass and $38 per bottle), and four beers ($7 to $10), including Telluride Brewing Company’s Tempter IPA and the Ajax Pilsner from Aspen Brewing Company.
Lunch features a similar lineup, plus jasmine tea ($3), hot or iced, and some sparkling water options.
Service: With such a small staff, everyone at Fortune Wok is pulling double- or triple-duty, seating guests, taking orders, pouring drinks, etc. Though servers are typically attentive, if diners ever feel neglected, it’s only for that reason. Their knowledge, particularly of the rice wines, is impressive, and whichever team member is closest to your table will surely be eager to answer questions or discuss Chinese booze or Shanghainese cuisine in detail.
Bottom Line: Fortune Wok is an enjoyable restaurant that’s best enjoyed at lunch, when the menu is straightforward, the food is well-executed, and the prices are right.
Price: Dumplings ($9.50); First-floor noodles and rice ($10.80-$15); Second-floor menu ($8 to $34); Rice wines ($8 to $18); Wines by the glass ($10 to $14); Beer ($7 to $10)
Fun Fact: The first Sunday of every month is soup dumpling Sunday. Chef Shyr makes all of the pork dumplings by hand, and they’re available from 11 a.m. until they run out. Six dumplings come in each $12 basket. You’ll probably need two orders.
Reservations: Accepted for second floor
Parking: Metered street parking
Restaurant info: Fortune Wok to Table, 2817 E. Third Ave.,303-321-7788. fortunewoktotable.com. Hours: First floor, 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Second floor, 5 p.m.-close Wednesday-Sunday.
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