Chelsea's Szechuan/Cantonese Restaurant

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For 14 years, chef David Chen has been in the kitchen of Chelsea's preparing sauces from scratch, hand-making egg rolls and won tons and generally building a decade-long following of people who like good Chinese food. Chen came to the area from San Francisco, where he also worked as a chef.

Chelsea's is now owned by a young couple in their 30s -- Andy and Jaila Benjamin -- who bought the place two years ago so they could have the flexible schedule and start a family. Their daughter, Sophia, is almost a year old now and they have hit their stride as restaurant owners and members of the small Oak Creek community.

They greet customers when they walk in the door, many by name. Andy works in the kitchen. Jaila serves meals and works behind the bar. Sophia sits in her high chair enjoying peas and tofu.

Since buying Chelsea's, the Benjamins have added local art -- including original work by Dan Benjamin, Andy's brother -- to the walls and occasional live music, all while benefiting from Chen's knowledge and reputation.

"David is the key to the success of this place," Andy Benjamin said. "In the summer, 70 percent of our business is from Steamboat and they come here because of (Chen)."

Chen has more than 20 sauces made from fresh ingredients.

Jaila comes into the restaurant early in the morning to hand make all the appetizers -- crab rangoons, egg rolls, won tons. In the summer, Dan Benjamin helped out in the kitchen.

"This is a family affair," Andy Benjamin said.

Once people know what to expect at the other end of the drive, the 20 minutes from Steamboat to Oak Creek rarely stops customers from seeking out their favorite restaurant.

"It's a local's secret," Andy Benjamin said. "Unless you'd already been there, you wouldn't expect to drive 20 miles to some hole in the wall and get the best Chinese food you ever had."

In the winter, the atmosphere at Chelsea's is 100 percent mountain town. Locals sit at the bar sharing stories of the day's outdoor adventures. Bands such as Widespread Panic play over the sound system and ski, snowboard and mountain bike films play on the television behind the bar.

"We have that special something that might be missing in Steamboat," Andy Benjamin said. "People have been talking about Chelsea's food for 25 years. In a town of 800 people, we serve close to 1,700 dinners a month. It's a phenomenon."

Chelsea's may be one of the only Chinese restaurants that can brag about its margaritas, but the food on the tables is authentic Szechuan and Cantonese cuisine.

The most popular dishes are the Szechuan chicken, Egg Fu Yong with Chen's secret brown sauce and Mongolian Beef with brown sauce and scallions.

For those who don't have the transportation or the time to make the drive to Oak Creek, Chelsea's appetizers will be available at the Snowbird Restaurant at the Best Western Ptarmigan Inn (where Andy's brother Dan works and where Andy and Jaila met and worked for years).

Chelsea's also offers a designated driver program. Dinner is free for the designated driver in parties of four or more. The parties must have reservations.

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