From dragon boats to bonsai, kimchi to kimonos, Denver has come into its own as a center of Asian culture. The Asian population is small—slightly under three percent—but its influence is large. Denver's Asian treasures are spread throughout the city, and part of the fun is wandering the neighborhoods, tasting the food, and talking to the people. Here's how to get started.
SOUTHEAST ASIA IN SOUTHWEST DENVER
The Vietnamese are the largest of Denver's 13 Asian groups, even outnumbering the Chinese who came to Colorado in the late 1800s. The Vietnamese began arriving almost a century later, after the Vietnam War, and settled in West Denver because the property was affordable.
Today folks can get a literal and figurative taste of Southeast Asia by exploring Federal Boulevard between Alameda and Mississippi Avenue. There are distinctive signs in Vietnamese, the citrus-sweet smell of lemongrass, the plethora of herbal pharmacies. All that's missing are the rice paddies.
WHERE IT IS: Far East Center at 333 S. Federal Blvd. has the largest concentration of shops with restaurants, bakeries, markets, jewelry stores and a huge gift shop. Other businesses line both sides of the street for approximately a mile.
WHAT YOU'LL LOVE
The sign out front of Saigon Bowl (333 S. Federal Blvd.) reads Dong Khanh in Vietnamese, Saigon Bowl in English, which is apropos since this unpretentious restaurant is popular with Asians and non-Asians alike. It's easy to see why; the menu is varied, the portions are large and reasonably inexpensive. Hint: the chicken salad appetizer is big enough for a meal.
One of four pho shops located in a non-descript strip mall, Pho Duy Noodle (945 S. Federal Blvd. #G) wins raves for its version of the popular noodle soup that is the traditional fast food of Vietnam. Warning: The small parking lot doesn't even begin to handle the cars that converge at lunchtime. Plan on parking a block or more away.
At Little Saigon Supermarket (333 S. Federal Blvd.), live fish swim in a small tank, a man works hard producing fresh tofu, and the prices, especially for produce, are often 75% less than that of non-Asian supermarkets. (Fresh, baby asparagus was selling at $1 pound on a day when the local supermarket was charging $4.) This is also the place for unusual produce (Thai chili, Manila mango and Korean pear) as well as for having meat sliced razor thin for homemade stir-fry.
Truong An Gifts and Chinese Gifts (333 S. Federal Blvd.) a merger of Vietnamese and Chinese goods, offers everything from Lucky Lotus bamboo plants to smiling Buddha statues and feng shui wind chimes.
Vietnam has been occupied by both the French and the Chinese, as evidenced by the tasty treats offered by Vinh-Xuong Bakery (333 S. Federal Blvd.). There's a squiggly green cake made with coconut milk and bean flour (Vietnamese), sesame balls with a bean-paste filling (Chinese), as well as mini-baguettes (French).
Hien Duc Pham, O.M.D. (Oriental Medicine Doctor), has 25 years experience in acupressure therapy and Chinese herbal medicine. One side of his shop, Hong Duc for Acupressure, Chinese Herbs and Gifts (945 S. Federal Blvd. #A) is lined with drawers filled with herbs; the other side has shelves lined with gifts. Both are sure to make you feel better.
A Vietnamese Starbucks, Lollicup (1046 S. Federal Blvd.) has teas, iced coffee and fruity smoothies that are as pretty as they are tasty. Think guava, green apple and sour plum. A specialty of the house: boba, a cool drink with pearls of tapioca.
Most folks haven't heard of Ralph Carr, but he's a revered figure in Colorado's Japanese community. When other western states were rushing to intern the Japanese during World War II, Carr invited them to come to Colorado. "They are," he said, "loyal Americans, sharing only race with the enemy." His actions cost him his political career-he was defeated for reelection in 1943-but the Japanese community grew and flourished in Denver and along the Front Range.
WHERE IT IS: Sakura Square, dubbed "Tiny Tokyo", is located in downtown's historic LoDo District, but there are far-ranging sites as well.
WHAT YOU'LL LOVE
Founded in 1944, Pacific Mercantile Company (1925 Lawrence St.) has everything you'll need to test your Japanese cooking skills, from sweet snacks to sour sauces, saki sets to sushi mats.
The hub of the Japanese community, the Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple (1947 Lawrence St.) welcomes visitors to Sunday morning services and gives free tours on Wednesdays for those who want to see the ornate altar or learn more about Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.
Housed in a non-descript building in an industrial area of Denver, the Nippon Kan Cultural Center(1365 Osage St.) is home to a top-rated, totally authentic restaurant named Domo, a terrific small museum, an aikido studio and a small Japanese rock garden.
Like any big city, Denver has an abundance of sushi restaurants. Two that regularly win raves: the coolly elegant Sushi Sasa (2401 15th St. #80) and the casually friendly Osaka Sushi (3940 E. Exposition Ave.).
Located at Denver Botanic Gardens (1007 York St.), Shofu-en, the Garden of Wind and Pines, is a two-acre plot that includes Pondorosa pines styled to look like floating clouds and a teahouse that hosts public tea ceremonies throughout the summer.
Held in late June, the Cherry Blossom Festival in Sakura Square features Japanese food, crafts and entertainment. For more information, contact the Tri-State Buddhist Temple.
Denver's Chinatown is a thing of the past, razed in 1940 to make room for warehouses and industrial buildings. The area, located in the Lower Downtown area around 20th and Blake, was known as "Hop Alley". Now a small plaque is the only evidence of a once thriving community.
WHERE IT IS: Though Chinatown is gone, the Chinese community is not. Unique restaurants dot the metro area.
WHAT YOU'LL LOVE
The outside is less than inspiring, which makes the inside of Chopsticks China Bistro (2990 W. Mississippi Ave.) that much more delightful. Handsome black-and-gold armchairs and a décor that is best described as "Chinese modern" set the stage, but the main show is the food. A mix of Taiwanese, Sichuan and Hunan dishes, plus some appetizer dumplings straight from Shanghai, make Chopsticks the signature dish: Three Cup Sauce Chicken, a traditional Taiwanese dish that comes complete with bones and a rich sauce of basil, ginger and onions.
Dim sum, which literally means "to touch your heart", is a variety of small treats ranging from dumplings to duck feet. At dim sum restaurants, carts of goodies are wheeled around the room; people choose only those they like. At first, everything looks unfamiliar and more than a little scary. Then you realize that thinking about what you might be eating is pointless and pointing to what looks good is the way to go. Super Star Asian (2200 W. Alameda Ave.) also offers a fine assortment of menu items.
Buffets may not offer gourmet cooking, but the Great Wall Chinese Buffet (3215 S. Wadsworth Blvd., Lakewood) offers a selection that can't be beat; and while the quality may not be gourmet, it's darn good. The four food islands are well stocked with a variety of stir-frys, soups and salads. A separate counter has sushi, and yet another has raw ingredients for a custom-made stir-fry. [3215 S. Wadsworth Blvd., Lakewood; (720) 963-1888]
AURORA'S KOREAN CENTER
Affordable real estate plus convenient location lured the Koreans to the Aurora area in the 1990s. Since then a strong Asian business area has developed that serves Koreans as well as the greater Asian community.
WHERE IT IS: The highest concentration of all-things-Korean is in the area bordered by East Mississippi Avenue, Peoria Street, South Parker Road and Havana Street. In that area many of the stores have signs in hangul, the distinctive Korean alphabet.
WHAT YOU'LL LOVE
Called "H-Mart" for short, Han Ah Reum Market (2751 S. Parker Rd., Aurora) is a trip in every sense of the word. With 65,000 square feet, you can find everything from a flat-screen TV to organic home-made tofu. Tilapia and fluke float in a tank; green tea and red bean ice cream are in the freezer (as well as double-chocolate for wusses). What's more, there's a sushi bar, bakery outlet and an acupressure-massage parlor where you can get a 40-minute full-body massage for $5.
Despite the name, which the saleswoman says is popular in Seoul, New York Bakery (10720 E. Iliff Ave., Aurora) is a bagel-less bakery. Instead there are green-teal rolls, tofu crackers and mugwort sponge cakes.