If you’ve ever read a series in real time, eager for the next book to be written, you’ll understand how I’ve felt the past few years, waiting for the sequel to ChoLon. It’s not that chef-owner Lon Symensma hasn’t been involved in other projects since he launched his flagship nearly five years ago — he has, most recently at Union Station’s Cooper Lounge. But Symensma kept fans in the dark about where he would next take the inspired Asian fare that from the get-go distinguished ChoLon as one of the city’s very best restaurants. Then, at long last, Cho77 opened this spring.
That the restaurant would be Asian was clear from the start: The name is a direct reference to ChoLon. What wasn’t as clear was what kind of Asian it would be; after all, with its mix of letters and lucky numbers, Cho77 brings to mind any number of no-frills pho restaurants. But Cho77 isn’t a diminutive ChoLon, nor is it a pho joint. Rather, Symensma is using this sliver of a restaurant to showcase street foods from Southeast Asia, a part of the world where he’s lived and worked and which he clearly loves.
Decor inside the slim space — at 1,900 square feet, it’s less than half the size of ChoLon — beautifully emphasizes the theme. Lights strung between exposed-brick walls give the dining room an outdoor vibe. Hanging plants suggest trees. Chairs are red, a nod to Saigon’s ubiquitous red street stools, which are occupied at all hours with people nose-down in noodle bowls. A street-food cart imported from Vietnam sits like a motto above the door, which seems to be open more than closed as people of all stripes — families with new babies, girls with tattoos, even gray-hairs with grown children — stream in, quickly filling the place to noisy capacity.
The tightly edited menu was a joint effort between Symensma and chef de cuisine/business partner Ryan Gorby, a lauded veteran of ChoLon who also traveled widely in Southeast Asia prior to the restaurant’s launch. Divided into four compact sections (Share, Bowl, Wok and Happy Endings), the roster reads like a culinary guidebook to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. “I can point to a map and tell you where that dish came from and some story behind why we have it on the menu,” Symensma says.
A roti appetizer, for example, was modeled after stuffed roti that he ate while on a bicycle tour of Singapore. Here the stunning dish has been reimagined as a pizza, with yellow lentils cooked in rendered lamb-bacon fat, a fried egg, tomato curry and nibbles of crisp lamb bacon. Singapore noodles re-creates another popular Singaporean dish — not the curried rice vermicelli usually associated with this name stateside, but hokkien mee. Symensma crafted a vegetarian version, skipping the prawns and pork of the original in favor of an umami-strong mushroom gravy with fat udon, wok-charred vegetables and wedges of fried tofu that soak up sauce in every spongy crevice.
I don’t know the story behind the decadent coconut-green-tea milkshake, but the dessert doesn’t need one to be the stuff of memory. One of the best sweets I’ve had all year, it was softly savory in nature, with an earthiness cut by passion-fruit boba that popped like giant orange tobiko. Housemade sweet crisps, molded into the shape of lotus blossoms, added the contrast — sometimes in texture, sometimes in temperature — for which Symensma is known.
If you haven’t been to Southeast Asia and wandered through a hawker center or pulled up a spot of sidewalk to slurp noodles dished out of a bubbling vat with the constant buzz of scooters in the background, you might be surprised that noodles, especially hot, brothy ones, are considered street food. But street food they are — which is why dishes such as Thai coconut curry have a place on Cho77’s menu. This rich, curry-forward soup is a specialty of northern Thailand, where it’s made with two kinds of noodles: linguine-like ones in the soup, and a nest of crispy egg noodles that you crumble in as you go. Here it’s served in a two-tier, stainless-steel tiffin — commonly used as a lunchbox in Malaysia — that ups the fun factor.
Braised, grilled octopus starred in a lesser-known noodle soup, a laksa from Malaysia. The soup was a table favorite, the kind of dish you keep talking about long after the bowls have been cleared, with plenty of shrimp and octopus, and a broth that was both sour and strangely bright thanks to all the galangal, turmeric, lemongrass and tamarind. Unfortunately, the soup was recently taken off the menu — a shame, because it underscored the depth of Malaysian cuisine. Less interesting is the wagyu beef noodle soup that remains on the roster, if only because pho is so widespread in Denver. Like any pho, this one got better with every handful of jalapeños, mung bean sprouts, lime, onions and saw-leaf herb.
When Cho77 first opened, it seemed like it might be following ChoLon’s inventive lead by offering such dishes as bacon, egg and cheese ramen and steamed buns stuffed with buffalo chicken and blue cheese. But those strayed a little too far from the restaurant’s street-food mission, Symensma says, and are no longer on the menu. Their replacements are certainly nothing to complain about: Duck confit splashed with tangy hoisin and crispy duck skin filled the buns, and a vibrant tousle of herbs — mint, Thai basil and the like — turned a Vietnamese grilled-pork dish with chilled noodles into a refreshing entree on a hot summer’s night. (Just as refreshing: a can of Icing, a grapefruit-flavored rice beer imported from Korea.) Still, neither of these additions crossed the line into greatness.
Nor did many other Cho77 dishes that played it too straight: samosas stuffed with bland potato-cauliflower filling, dumplings that were hiding not ChoLon’s spectacular onion soup, but more predictable pork. “ChoLon is a little more playful, a little more forward-thinking,” explains Symensma, while at Cho77, “we’re trying to replicate a place and time that we’ve been to together.” And that’s why the sequel is less interesting to me: When a chef is this good, I’d rather have him use authenticity as a springboard and see where he leaps from there.
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Perhaps the allure of the place and time Cho77 is meant to evoke would come through better if the menu used real names — e.g., khao soi gai instead of Thai coconut curry. The English translations work like glass walls on a tour bus, preventing onlookers from stepping into the hectic, messy world of street food that Symensma obviously loves. A screen showing footage shot on his trips — installed after my visits — helps, but there are other buffers, too: The green-papaya salad comes not with traditional fish sauce, but rather a vegan rendition crafted from dried seaweed and mushrooms. It has umami, yes, but none of the roaring bite of the original. And where was the pungent belacan (shrimp paste) that has a way of announcing its presence with a song, dance and shout in so much Malaysian food? What did announce its presence was unwelcome: a surfeit of burnt garlic that made every bite of noodles, hoisin-lacquered pork belly and bok choy in the wonton noodles taste unpleasantly bitter.
Also surprisingly bitter was the service. Nearly every person I encountered during several meals at Cho77, from hostesses to runners to servers, acted put out, as if it were too much to field a question about the menu, deliver a serving spoon so we could share a dish, or request a table in a near-empty restaurant. Eye-rolling is something I expect from my teenager, not a staffer at Cho77.
Like many sequels, Cho77 has page-turning, can’t-put-it-down moments — but not enough to live up to the original. That says as much about the heights reached by ChoLon as the current level of this more casual venture, so don’t take it off your bedside table just yet: With a few revisions, Symensma’s next chapter could be riveting.
42 South Broadway
Roti pizza $9
Duck buns $8
Thai coconut curry $14
Beef noodle soup $14
Vietnamese grilled pork $14
Singapore noodles $13
Coconut-green tea milkshake $7
Cho77 is open 4-9 p.m. Monday, 4-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-midnight Friday, 11 a.m.-midnight Saturday and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at cho77.com.