The construction dust is heavy and there's still graffiti on the windows at 43 South Broadway, but a sign for Cho77 now hangs over the door. Chef Lon Symensma and his crew are gearing up for a late March opening of the multi-regional noodle house, whose name is both a play on pho joints and a reference to the chef's birth year. While much of the menu is tightly under wraps, chef de cuisine Ryan Gorby, who has been with Symensma since before they both came to Denver from New York City, reveals that dishes will be heavily influenced by the cuisine of Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia.
Gorby spent the better part of two months last summer and fall tasting his way through the markets, cities and villages of those countries, asking questions of any cook who would listen. Symensma, who has lived and worked in Southeast Asia, joined him for a portion of the trip and the two returned with new ideas and recipes — and a pedal-powered food cart that will serve as part of the dining room's decor.
Gorby's travels took him to Bangkok, where he met up with a colleague he knew from Johnson & Wales University, before moving on solo to northern Thailand and Laos. In Chiang Mai, Gorby fell in love with khao soi, a chicken curry soup that's served with cooked egg noodles and topped with crispy-fried noodles, which will definitely appear on Cho77's menu, Gorby divulges. He also visited Kuala Lumpur. Panang and Singapore (among many other cities and towns), where he spent time with Rasa Malaysia food blogger Bee Yinn Low, cookbook author and Top Chef Vietnam judge Robert Danhi, and Culinary Institute of America - Singapore director Eve Felder. With so many experienced connections throughout the region, Symensma and Gorby were able to find their way into every legendary market stall, village hut and storied restaurant in search of the best recipes. Gorby was even able to stage for several days at chef David Thompson's Nahm in Bangkok, which has been cited as one of the fifty best restaurants in the world.
"We've put a lot of effort into bringing a piece of Southeast Asia back to Denver," explains Symensma. "This is going to be more casual, not necessarily a three-hour meal." The menu will include dumplings and other bites — "things you can eat with your fingers," he says, as well as a wide range of noodle bowls. While the chef's flagship restaurant, ChoLon, serves family-style dishes and encourages sharing, Symensma and Gorby agree that Cho77 will have a fun energy for groups but will also be great for solo diners who want to grab a stool at the counter.
Reservations and mixology won't be part of the picture: "It adds a layer of formality to something that shouldn't be formal," Symensma observes. Instead, his goal is to capture the essence of the street markets of Thailand and Vietnam, where small, red chairs are grouped around mobile kitchens or semi-permanent stalls. The decor will include approximations of those red chairs as well as curios picked up on their travels and shipped home. Other features include street art on the brick walls, high windows that let in sunlight from a narrow gap between buildings, and a long banquette with configurable tables to allow for parties of different sizes.
In the kitchen, a high-BTU wok burner and a range steamer for dumpling baskets show the dedication to Asian cooking methods. Gorby says they've also been experimenting with housemade rice noodles. "We've been using ChoLon as a test kitchen," adds Sysmensma, "so we'll be able to hit the ground running as soon as our permits come through." Those permits are just about the only thing holding up Cho77, so he expects to open the doors quickly after inspections and sign-offs.