Review: The Time Is Right for Zoe Ma Ma
The Sichuan braised-beef noodle soup is the star of Zoe Ma Ma's regular menu.
It was hot, one of the first truly hot days of summer, and the sun had an intensity that caught me off guard. Saner types might have taken a seat on the plaza, where throngs of people had kicked off their shoes — and, in the case of a few toddlers, their clothes — to cool off in the fountain in front of Union Station. But I wasn’t looking for refreshment. I was on the hunt for soup — specifically, the Sichuan braised-beef noodle soup that I’d heard was the sleeper hit at Zoe Ma Ma, a family-owned noodle shop that expanded from Boulder to Denver this past winter. But since the soup is served only on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, I had to seize the opportunity, regardless of the heat.
Zoe Ma Ma, named for Anna Zoe, the 72-year-old Taiwanese chef and mother of owner Edwin Zoe, is set up as a fast-casual, with orders placed at the counter and names called as food is ready. It took a few minutes for someone to call my name — a pseudonym, not my real one — so I had plenty of time to load up on the smoky, soy-based Sichuan peppercorn dipping sauce that I generally pour over everything I order there and take it to a spot outside. After a few fruitless trips inside — there’s no way to hear your name called if you’re on the patio, and the restaurant doesn’t use pagers — I finally sat down with my beef-laden bowl.
Glistening droplets of fat skittered on the soup’s dark-brown surface, a promising sign of the kind of deeply flavored stock that can’t be rushed. Pushing past noodles that mere minutes ago had been a ball of dough, I filled my spoon with the murky liquid. Unlike other noodle-based dishes I’d tried at Zoe Ma Ma, which tended to be light, uncomplicated concoctions in which plain noodles were the star, this one was all about the broth. If that broth was well done, I knew I’d work my way to the bottom of the bowl, mercury be damned. If not, I’d just pack it up and try my luck in the fountain.
Bao (left to right): marinated pork, chicken curry and vegetarian.
Needless to say, I never made it to the water: I was captivated by that beefy, full-bodied broth. The rest of the soup was equally alluring: bok choy, hunks of fork-tender beef that murmured of anise, and a tangle of chewy noodles that seemed a close cousin to ramen thanks to all the eggs. With every bite, the Sichuan noodle soup leapfrogged past the dishes I’d enjoyed on other visits: bao stuffed with pork fragrant with five-spice powder, the charmingly uneven buns the sign of the various hands that made them; pearl meatballs with rice poking out like porcupine quills; cool noodles with vegetables; even the crowd-pleasing za jiang mian, with more of those toothsome noodles topped by crisp quadrants of cucumbers, carrots, scallions and cilantro, and saucy pork ladled in the center. The soup was definitely my favorite dish on the menu.
The real menu, that is. Zoe Ma Ma also has a secret menu, and I have a few soft spots for dishes on that one, too, including the crispy, salty scallion pancake, with long green scallions threaded inside the batter. Seafood noodle soup is another favorite, with a light chicken stock that gleans as much flavor from ginger as it does from poultry. (It’s the same base as the chicken noodle soup.) Every bite of the seafood soup brings up something new: a poached egg, crispy bean sprouts and slivered snow peas, shrimp, curled squid, white fish balls stuffed with meat, chrysanthemum greens and long New Zealand mussels, their iridescent green shells just begging you to clean them off and fashion them into a necklace. I’ve heard whispers of other off-menu dishes, too, but they were never offered to me. Who knows? Maybe there’s a super-secret menu, reserved for those who are on Ma Ma’s good side.
This is Ma Ma’s house, after all. In defiance of her age, she shows up early and works late, smiling behind her signature hat, pinching off dough for bao, sometimes popping in to the Boulder location after a long day in Denver to make sure everything is up to snuff there. All of the recipes are hers, formulas that create gingery potstickers, browned and crisp on the bottom, and goji berry-raisin rice cakes sweetened with molasses and raw sugar, a treat Edwin remembers from his earliest days in Taiwan.
Zoe Ma Ma's patio faces the plaza in front of Union Station.
After his parents moved to the United States, they ended up in the food industry, but while they owned a Chinese restaurant in Missouri, Edwin stresses, the dishes there bore no resemblance to what is available at Zoe Ma Ma. “The irony was that the food we ate was not the food we served to customers,” he says. When his father passed away and he was looking for a way to get his mom to join him in Boulder, he decided to start a restaurant that specialized in the kind of food they ate at home. “She wasn’t very confident that the American palate would accept that,” he recalls. The popularity of homespun dishes such as CPR shows otherwise. The simple dish is found in various shapes and sizes across nearly every culture; Zoe Ma Ma makes it with rice, stewed chicken and potatoes tinted light brown from their stint in a soy-sauce-based gravy.
Although the first Zoe Ma Ma was enough of a hit that Edwin could open a second location in a prime spot adjacent to historic Union Station, some things don’t function as smoothly as they should. Much of the staff seemed new, unversed in which dipping sauces were best with what and at times sloppy in their execution, sending out za jiang mian with a scant quarter-cup of saucy pork, and cool noodles with fewer pieces of tofu than I could count on one hand. Vegan dumplings were gummy and bland. Rice and noodle bowls on the regular menu ran mild, which is how southern Taiwanese people like it, according to Edwin — but not necessarily how jalapeno- and green-chile-loving Denverites do. (Thank goodness for chile paste.)
Pan-crisped potstickers at Zoe Ma Ma.
Many dishes have an overlapping flavor profile of soy sauce and ginger, making the regular menu feel smaller than it is. And since that soy sauce — which also serves as the base for the five dipping sauces — isn’t low-sodium, you tend to leave thirsty. Just don’t try to quench your thirst with a mango boba, made in Orient Espresso, the coffee shop that Edwin runs in the back half of the space, where red lanterns and tables topped with Chinese-language newspapers give way to flat-screens and Kashmir granite. Without telling me otherwise, either verbally or in writing on the menu, Zoe Ma Ma made the drink with jasmine tea — not cream or sweetened condensed milk — and next to no ice and very little mango, giving it all the appeal of an icy drink that had melted in the sun.
And how I’ve longed for servers to box up my leftovers in the back, as they would at a full-service restaurant, so I wouldn’t have to wrangle splash- and stain-prone noodles into a small plastic takeout container. But despite the automatic 15 percent sustainability initiative fee added to the bill, there are no servers. According to signs posted around the restaurant, the fee — which isn’t mentioned by the cashier when you order — goes to living wages, more recycling, more organics and the like. I’m in favor of all of the above, so I’d rather see cloth than paper napkins, not to mention more organics; currently, all of the produce is conventional. The fee — which isn’t assessed in Boulder — initially started out at 20 percent and was lowered due to customer feedback. Some guests still opt out, an indication that maybe the time isn’t quite right for such a fee.
But the time is definitely right for home-style Chinese fare, especially Sichuan beef noodle soup.
Zoe Ma Ma
1625 Wynkoop Street
Select menu items at Zoe Ma Ma:
Potstickers $1.25 ea.
Pearl meatball $1.25 ea.
Bao $2.79 ea.
Sichuan braised-beef noodle soup $11.79
Za jiang mian $6.99
Seafood noodle soup $12.95
Goji berry-raisin rice cake $1.75
Mango boba $4
Zoe Ma Ma is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. To learn more, go to zoemama.com.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.