Peking-Tokyo Restaurant, a Chinese-Vietnamese success story

The bun dac biet and noodle soup are Vietnamese specialties of Peking-Tokyo Restaurant.

Erin and I had dinner tonight at a restaurant we hadn’t visited in a couple of years — it’s been too long. Peking-Tokyo Restaurant is located in the southern part of the suburb of Lakewood, across town from where we live. Back a decade ago, when we both worked a few blocks from Peking-Tokyo Express, as it was called, we ate there often. It had an interesting menu of Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai dishes. Despite its name, there were only a couple of token Japanese items on the menu (the name was a holdover from the business’ previous owners).

Erin’s favorite was a noodle soup with two kinds of noodles, the Vietnamese rice noodles that are now familiar to fans of Pho (but this was before Pho was as common and popular as it is now) and thin egg noodles like the kind you might see in Chinese lo mein, or Japanese ramen. The soup is topped off with slices of chashu pork, shrimp, chicken and chunks of crab.

My favorite was bun dac biet, a combination of grilled meat served on top of cold rice noodles, lettuce and cucumbers with a side of vinegary fish sauce. The meat includes pork, chicken, beef and shrimp, and an incredible and unique treat: a stuffed grilled chicken wing, plump with pork, flavorings and clear noodles.

We usually ordered Vietnamese spring rolls for appetizers, and I’d usually order Thai iced coffee or ice tea as an energy drink before such things as Red Bull existed. We’ve tried both the Thai and Chinese food there too, and the flavor is full and the servings substantial. But both our favorite dishes are so superior that after a while it was hard to order anything else.

We liked he place so much that we got our friend John Lehndorff at the Rocky Mountain News to go and review Peking-Tokyo Express.

We learned the story of the family, the Wangs, who own the restaurant. We got to know one of the daughters, Melissa, and one of the sons, Tommy. I had assumed they were Vietnamese, but it turns out they’re ethnic Chinese. Tommy and Melissa’s grandparents had moved to Vietnam decades ago, but the family got caught up in the turmoil of the Vietnam war and ended up coming to the US with the Vietnamese “boat people” refugees in the late ’70s, when Melissa was a baby. Tommy told us the heartbreaking story of their Aunt, who was murdered by Cambodian pirates as the family escaped Vietnam.

When they arrived in Denver, the Wangs were taken in by the owner of T-Wa Inn, the first Vietnamese restaurant in the area, which opened in the early ’80s. Tommy and Melissa’s mother, whom we affectionately call mom, eventually took over Peking-Tokyo Express in a strip mall on South Wadsworth near Hwy 285. Melissa Wang, whose family owns Peking-Tokyo Restaurant, holds down the fort on a busy weekend night.

After Erin and I changed jobs we stopped going as often to Peking-Tokyo. In fact, it had been a couple of years since we’d been there last. But tonight when we walked in it was as if we’d just dined there last week.

The woman who greeted us at the door is one of the servers, who’d beent here for years. She smiled when we entered and said as she seated us, “It’s been a long time.”

Yes, it has. Our server was also a regular from way back, and she was happy to see us. We ordered our faves — the noodle soup and the bun dac biet, along with an appetizer order of the stuffed chicken wings. Our server brought out Thai iced tea, even though we hadn’t ordered it. We were the prodigal diners, back home again for dinner.

The meal was wonderful, as great as we remembered. We’d told so many people about Peking-Tokyo over the years that the memory of its food had reached mythic proportions. But the food brought us back to reality, and it was a great reality.

Melissa (above right) was out making a delivery, but she came over when she returned, and caught us up. Her mother now owned and managed an American-style steak house called the Cow Boba at South Federal and Evans that we’ll definitely check out. She works too much, and was worried about a local suburban weekly newspaper reporter’s request to come interview her on Monday.

We told her to be herself, have her mom on hand, and just tell the family story. It’s a terrific, powerful American story, about overcoming terrible adversity and tragedy with hard work and determination.

We’ll return sooner rather than later, next time.

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