On Tuesday, October 22 Meta Asian Kitchen began its first full day of service, filling the corner stall briefly held by Chicken Rebel. The new pan-Asian street food concept centers itself around Cantonese cooking, with a bit of Thai, Korean and other influences peppering the creative menu. The offerings are decidedly compact — four shared plates, three types of bao, three larger plates and one dessert make up the whole of the main list. An additional three items form the late-night menu — a novel concept at Avanti, where most of the eateries close between 9 and 10 p.m. despite the bar being open as late as 1 a.m. on the weekends.
Head chef Kenneth Wan and his wife Doris recently relocated from the East Coast, where they had been playing with the menu in a series of popular pop-ups across New York and Jersey City, New Jersey. Kenneth had previously worked in highly-reputable kitchens including RedFarm, Xian’s Famous Foods, The LuckyBee and David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar. The decision to bring the restaurant out west came in part from the desire to be closer to family, Kenneth’s young niece and nephew have already become fixtures at the space. His niece even expressed interest in becoming the sous somewhere down the line. The Wans have high hopes — Kenneth happily entertains the idea that the concept could one day go national, maybe even reaching the level to act as an appropriate rival to Panda Express.
Though the food is unpretentious, each item reflects the chef’s fine-dining experience. The Mama Wan’s fried rice ($14) comes with finely-shredded braised pork belly, pickled veggies and white rice and comes with the highly recommended option of adding a fried egg. The dish has been turning heads since the Wans debuted it at Midnight Market in Jersey City, and for good reason. The pulled pork belly is also used in the bao ($4.50) and provides a drastic textural improvement to the usual slab format. The buns also come filled with spicy chicken and the vegetarian-friendly shitake with pickled radishes, scallion, house-made Thai basil ranch and sesame. Chicken dumplings, fried wings and fried tofu skewers round out the shared bites.
For dessert, the Hong Kong street cakes ($5) — soft Chinese bubble waffles with powdered sugar — are available plain or can be augmented with fresh berries ($2) and ice cream ($3). While everything on the menu favors comfort, the street cakes explicitly pander to sweet-tooth nostalgia.
While much of the menu is set in stone, Kenneth plans to include rotating items that highlight trendy ingredients in unconventional ways. Denver has yet to develop a serious Chinese food scene, something the Wans hope to help remedy. In the meantime, Meta’s addition to the food hall bodes well for Avanti and the city at large. For anyone worried about the disappearance of Chicken Rebel, the brick and mortar version is expected to open next to the Mythology Distillery later on.
Meta Asian Kitchen is located in Avanti at 3200 North Pecos St., Denver. It is open Sunday – Wednesday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. and Thursday – Saturday 11 a.m. – late.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.