Having lived in Louisville for nearly two years, I can remember on several occasions passing by the flashy exterior of Spice China on McCaslin Boulevard. Its polished look and imposing size made us wary.
“Too corporate,” we said knowingly. “P.F. Chang’s knock-off,” we assumed. A recent visit to Spice China, however, made us remember something about a book and its cover.
Spice China is far from a pre-fab, corporate mall clone. Rather it is an independently-owned, family establishment. Though its look is highly reminiscent of capital-heavy chain restaurants, its menu is rife with carefully created treats for a variety of appetites. Of particular interest to us was the “Shanghai Menu,” a secondary list of authentic dishes that augments the impressive array of choices for the more, shall we say, American palate.
The interior is as big as its exterior suggests, with two wings projecting out from the center housing some of the choicest window tables. The bar, located in the center of the expansive dining room, offers a fine selection of beer, wine and cocktails, and sits just below the focal point of an enormous, hand-painted mural of agrarian China. Tasteful accents, soft lighting and the lazy swish of ceiling fans make the room a pleasure to be in.
Settled in to one of the many cushy booths that folds diners in loving arms and isolates them from their neighbors,
we began with two Kirins ($4.25) and a steady favorite, the Tofu Lettuce Wraps ($7.50). These were ample and delicious, though they faced us with the ongoing problem of keeping all the luscious sauce from drooling into our palms. Such is the nature of the beast.
The wraps were our only concession to our usual lightweight predilections: We were here to try something authentic!
Our server, Kyle, patiently and knowledgeably gave us some suggestions from the list of “chilled plates,” from which I chose the Garlic Marinated Pork ($8.95). What a delight. Though I needed a bite or two to accustom myself to the textural crack and pop of the bits of fat, I was won over by the incredible, spicy flavor. Those averse to intense zings of chili should pass, but if you love garlic and want to try something outside your comfort zone, this is the dish.
Our entrees were no less satisfying. The Tofu Vegetable Hot Pot ($10.50) came out a-sizzlin’ and chock full of large bricks of fried tofu, fleshy oyster mushrooms, crunchy radishes, resplendent bok choy, zucchini, onion and carrot in a subtly sweet brown gravy. The Red Chili Pepper Chicken ($10.95), meanwhile, was equally indulgent, pairing diced chicken and scallions fried with whole red chili peppers. Smoky, sweet and slightly less inflammatory than the pork dish, the chicken was delicious and ample.
Coming out in support of a restaurant as “authentic” is, of course, a dicey game for someone like me, especially when what I know about authenticity in Chinese cooking is somewhat limited (a few days in Hong Kong notwithstanding). What I can tell you is that we dined next to a Chinese-speaking family and that, our server said, Spice China is a destination for folks from all around the Front Range who are looking for solid Chinese home-cookin’. I take that as a good sign.