By Jensen Cummings
The Denver food scene recently lost a living legend. Hear from his son, Danny Wang, about the life, learning, and legacy that will carry on through his family and their restaurant, Lao Wang Noodle House.
When I moved to Denver, just before Labor Day 2007, I was constantly in search of the best food the city had to offer. It was one of my cooks at Kevin Taylor’s that mentioned all the “Asian and ethnic” joints on South Federal Boulevard, one in particular, that specialized in Taiwanese noodles and dumplings. Not long after, I found myself in a nondescript strip mall with rundown storefronts and weathered signage. The parking lot was so small that a five-point turnabout was common to squeeze in and out without rubbing paint.
When I first pulled open a creaky, dirty, glass door and shuffled into the space, I was immediately struck by three things: it was tiny, poorly lit, unadorned, and slightly dusty but the space felt oddly reassuring. I know many places like this that could care less about ambience and focus all their energy on the food and interpersonal experience. As my senses dashed around the room trying to absorb what I was in for, the smell of cooked dough, soy sauce, and vinegar hit me like a wave of euphoria. The sight of perfectly constructed pillows of pristine white dough with spots of color and no frills or garnishes had me salivating and filled me with eager anticipation.
Finally, when I took my eyes off the food, I saw the most unique and compelling aspect of these initial moments, the Wang's themselves. Two small unassuming yet fiercely focused individuals were darting around the room taking orders, pouring drinks, delivering food, dropping checks with a near deafening silence, like nothing I’d ever seen before. Where most would use a flurry of words, these two would throw out a mere glance, a hand gesture or four words where sixteen would be the norm. They, in their way, still always made me feel like I was taken care of and got exactly what I needed from them. They never let me down, that was their style of hospitality.
This is the part of an article where I would share an anecdotal story or two of funny and atypical restaurant folklore that articulated what characters the Wang’s were. I’m not a very good writer, so I’ll leave that to you. If you’ve been, you know. The Wang’s gave no F’s about the formalities that so often strangle the flow of true hospitality, as they just got right down to the business of delicious food and memorable moments. To further celebrate these culinary icons, please comment with a memory from Lao Wang Noodle House. Q&A with Danny Wang, now second-generation operator of Lao Wang Noodle House…
What’s your dad’s full name?
Wang Tse Ming What does the name ‘Lao Wang’ mean?
“Elder Wang”, like a term of endearment and respect for somebody who's an elder in your community. When did the restaurant open?
We opened on the day after Christmas in 1999. So over 20 years ago. What led to opening the restaurant?
Dad was ever the consummate entrepreneur. The family moved to the US in 1985. They didn't speak a lot of English so they did the typical Chinese American immigrant thing. They worked in Chinese restaurants. Towards the end of the 90’s, he was getting pretty tired of it, so he and Mom kept talking about opening up a soup shop because there was nothing like it in Denver. They found this location, slapped a coat of paint on it and opened their doors with very little fanfare. And they barely scraped by the first couple of years. The restaurant survived those early days and the rest is history. What’s your favorite dish on the menu?
Oh, pot stickers. Easy. It is all about that beautiful crisp webbing of starch connecting all the individual potstickers. And then the outer edges that's not burnt, just seared perfectly. Did your dad have a favorite dish to cook?
He would shut down the restaurant for Chinese New Year and cook for the family. One of his signature dishes was Meagan Cai (Braised Pork Belly with braised-pickled cabbage). Here is a kind of a heartwarming, sad, little story: he had some issues with keeping down food over the last couple weeks. He asked mom to make that for him. She made it on Tuesday night and he was able to just eat a little bit of it. He got to have it one last time before he passed. How did your dad’s Beef Noodle Soup spice blend become the foundation for your famed Lao Wang Lager?
I started homebrewing, as many did with American pub style beers. As we started to progress and we’re getting pretty good at making these brews, we decided to try a Lager. We made a batch and had my parents try it. My dad said we had to play around with some Chinese spices and flavors. He brought over the spice blend from one of our staple menu items, threw a sachet in, and when it smelled right, pulled it out. And that was it. Do you remember anything your dad taught you about the restaurant business?
Don't get into it. There it is. Don't do it. I remember him saying that they didn't want me part of the restaurant. I should get my education and not do what they do. Now to come full circle and find myself more a part of the restaurant than ever feels good. My culinary experience and my time as a Brewer have made me love hospitality and that’s what we will do here to continue the legacy. What is one lesson your dad taught you about life that you take with you?
Attention to detail. He was a ‘measure four times, cut once’ kind of guy. He taught me to be meticulous about everything. Which is a big reason I got into engineering and then Computer Science. He would always support me and try to lift me up when I couldn’t do something crazy complex. I remember as a kid trying to put together this really intricate K’Nex kit and it was a little beyond my ability. I gave up one night on it. The next day it was completely done. Mom told me Dad stayed up until like 3am to make sure it was ready for me to play with in the morning. That’s who he was. What do you hope is your father's legacy on the Denver food scene?
I hope that with the loss of him in the kitchen and walking around the restaurant we don’t lose the essence of his character. I think that what he has done and what we continue to do will be something people talk about for a long time to come. Our intention is to honor his recipes so he lives on. You are going to be able to enjoy what we learned from my dad for generations to come. He built us the runway, now it’s time to fly. To help the legacy of Wang Tsu Ming and Lao Wang Noodle House live on, share their story, tag your friends, comment with a memory of them and next time you are on South Federal Boulevard, eat and remember. Lao Wang Noodle House - 945 S Federal Blvd, Denver, CO 80219 (303) 975-2497 | Website | Facebook
Jensen Cummings is a fifth-generation Chef & Certified Cicerone based in Denver, CO. His brands’ Best Served Creative and Best Served Podcast exist solely to unlock and amplify the worth and work of those who feed their community. From chefs to restaurant pros to farmers and every one in between, this work manifests with storytelling media, coaching, and strategy meant to acknowledge and empower people to do what they were meant to do. He is committed to hustle and communicate everyday to serve this mission. When he’s not out building a new model for restaurants that’s equitable, profitable, and sustainable, he’s spending precious time as a husband, a father, movie buff, beer nerd, and fan of the LA Dodgers.