Ever since it was created in 1886, the Statue of Liberty has been a symbol of hope, freedom and possibilities. As the sonnet engraved on a bronze plaque bolted to a wall inside the monument reads: “Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch. From her beacon-hand glows worldwide welcome.”
To Charlie Huang, those words resonate as loudly today as they did in the late 1970s, when the then-young man living in China envisioned coming to America to pursue his dream of opening a restaurant. “I came to the States in 1982, to New York,” said Huang. “I spoke little English, had no money, and so I started as a bus boy and dishwasher as my first job in Manhattan. From that day I just grew up in the restaurant business.” Accompanying Charlie to New York was his brother Richard, and together they developed a passion for fine dining, a love that resulted in the two furthering their culinary interests on the West Coast. “Richard went to L.A. to attend a cooking school focused on French cuisine and also a sushi school,” Huang added. “It was because that was exactly the kind of cuisine we wanted to create for our new restaurant we were planning for Beverly Hills.”
Their plan to introduce elevated Asian cuisine to a public more familiar with Chinese fast food got off to a promising start when Little Ollie’s opened in Aspen in 1995 and then in Cherry Creek North in 1997. Sadly, not long after the restaurants were beginning to enjoy critical acclaim, Charlie’s brother died from cancer. “After he passed away I told myself I wanted to finish something that we started together, which was an Asian fine dining restaurant,” explained Huang. “This was a way for me to honor his life, his passion and his memory.”
Charlie re-grouped, shifting his attention to Asie, a new opportunity in Aspen, whose menu featured Chinese, Japanese and Thai influences. It was a sign of great things to follow.
The Entrepreneurial Gas Pedal
Huang and his business associates clearly have an appetite for creating interesting—and patron pleasing—restaurant concepts. Putting an exclaimation point on the restaurteur’s vision were Mao Asian Bistro and Sushi Bar, and Jing. “He is definitely a visionary in terms of what we’re doing and how we are moving forward with the high concept, big picture ideas,” said Lawrence Yee, director of operations at Charlie Huang Restaurant Concepts.
Using a recipe that included the energy of a Cirque du Soleil acrobatic troupe, a dash of irreverent political humor, and a generous use of Pan Pacific Rim influences, Mao Asian Bistro and Sushi Bar debuted in early 2004. Drawn by the culinary artistry of then Executive Chef Bryan Nagao, whose resumé included stints at the Hyatt-Regency Honolulu and San Francisco and a turn in Hawaii at Roy’s (as in Yamaguchi), patrons were wowed.
Inspired in part from the Delano Hotel in Miami’s South Beach, Mao’s trendy décor, which included 18-foot high ceilings, hammered copper and red leather booths, and a gorgeous mosaic tile mural of colorful koy fish, was a game changer from what was typical in the Denver restaurant scene. Next came Jing. When it opened in The Village at Landmark in Greenwood Village in 2007 it, too, wowed—and continues to wow—patrons. “I was sad when Mao closed, but that led us to consider something different,” Yee commented. “We didn’t want to do another Little Ollie’s so I kind of pushed Charlie towards something with this yin and yang balance.”
THE 411: Learn more about Little Ollie’s, Jing and OBar online at http://charliehuangrestaurants.com.
Read the full story in the June/July issue...
Bio: Kim McHugh, a Lowell Thomas award-winning writer, has written about golf, travel, resort hotels, cuisine and architecture since 1986. His stories have appeared in Colorado Expression, Nicklaus, SKI, Rocky Mountain Golf.com, Tastes of Italia, Luxury Golf & Travel, Hemispheres and Colorado AvidGolfer.