Chen’s Kitchen is one of those strip-mall gems with cuisine that merits a vastly more ostentatious abode. The place is hard to find. Being situated in the corner of what must be one of Littleton’s most featureless patches of unadorned concrete, it’s a wonder the place has managed to stay afloat. The only logical explanation is the food has the power to quickly convert the casual diner to a regular after only a few bites. The menu is short and filled with dishes all bound by a certain familiarity — the kind of universal comfort food that spans cultural boundaries. Fried chicken, bao buns, noodle soups and bento boxes are all present and done with care. The small, family-run kitchen delivers unassuming food that feels deliberately homemade.
The best place to start is with the salt and pepper fried chicken ($4.50) — a heaping plate of bird that manages to achieve the difficult task of being both buttery and tender while superbly crispy. Not a single soggy bite graces the plate and the accompanying sweet and spicy sauce nicely supports the flavor without ever overwhelming. From there, either of the gua baos ($3.95) are solid choices. The pork belly comes filled with thick slabs of sweet pork, crunchy mustard greens, cucumber, crushed peanuts and fresh cilantro. The crispy chicken arrives with the same toppings. The buns are unusually large and can easily be split, even by the greediest of bao-lovers.
The hearty entree selections also provide an extraordinary bang for the buck. The bento boxes are $9.50 and come with broccoli and carrots, marinated mushrooms, potato salad and rice topped with a delicious choice of meat or seafood. The crispy pork chop is both buttery and crunchy, the sweet sauce perfectly caramelized along the edges. The beef noodle soup ($10.50) is eight-hour stewed broth, a dense portion of thick noodles, braised beef, bok choy, scallions and cilantro. The broth is relatively mild — the dish provides the kind of soul-warming gratification found in the best winter soups.
Though it may be a bit far from the city center, Chen’s is worth the trek. While there are enough new restaurant openings to leave the avid diner’s head spinning, it’s important to remember that some of the best dining has been here for years. In fact, that may be one of the most luxurious aspects of Denver’s developing scene. Discovering classics can sometimes be more rewarding than pursuing trends. Chen’s continues to feel like a revelation even after continued visits.
Chen’s Kitchen is located at 5934 South Kipling Pkwy Ste E, Littleton. It is open Tuesday – Friday 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m., Saturday 4 – 9:30 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. It is closed on Mondays.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.