Cafe Society

Edwin Zoe wanted to give Boulder an authentic Chinese restaurant — even if he had to move his mother here to do it

Seven hundred and twenty-six steps. Every morning she counts the steps, one by one. She counts them as she walks past frat brothers staggering back home from the night before, past early-morning hipsters in Wayfarers burning butts, past yogis traveling from the cafe to the studio. This is not Indianapolis, where she'd lived for the past seventeen years. It is definitely not Tainan, Taiwan, where she was born and raised. But the 726 steps lead her into the restaurant that is her namesake, a tiny, five-table spot where Anna Zoe feels at home.

Edwin Zoe loves his mother. He makes this clear as soon as you walk into Zoe Ma Ma, his month-old restaurant. While his mother goes by Anna with her contemporaries, it's Ma Ma or Zoe Ma Ma to others. Besides, there are no contemporaries here: No one in Boulder makes Chinese food like Zoe Ma Ma.

But really, there's little distinction between Anna Zoe and Zoe Ma Ma. If you get a noodle bowl from Zoe Ma Ma, you're getting it from Anna. The place is open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Anna is putting in sixteen-hour days here.

This is her retirement.

Anna and her husband left Taiwan for Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s. They soon moved their growing family to the Midwest, where they started a restaurant called Tsing Tao, after the husband's home town. The food the Zoes cooked professionally was a source of income but not a source of great pride; the deeply battered, doughy sweet and sour pork Anna made in the restaurant bore no resemblance to anything she'd serve her family. At home, she got to make traditional dishes, food that was ferociously simple, with no batter, no cornstarch.

Edwin ended up at the University of Colorado, graduating with a business degree in 1988. He stayed in Boulder and started a successful software company. But he still yearned for the food of his mother, who'd come to visit few times a year. Then his father passed away, and an idea that Edwin had had at the back of his mind for years moved to the forefront. He wanted to open a restaurant and have his mother cook there.

"It was an impetus for me to find a situation where my mother was closer, so I could have closer contact, know that she was taken care of and was doing something she's very passionate about," Edwin tells me over Anna's rich roast duck and wonton soup. "My mom's temperament is not to sit around and do nothing. A small restaurant gives her the opportunity to do what she loves to do, which is cook."

So last October, Edwin bought the spot recently vacated by Spud Brothers, a pothead's dream restaurant that served paper boats of French fries topped with whatever the hell you wanted. His business plan was very different. "First and foremost comes the family," he explains. "Working really hard and doing something you love is good living. The foundation — without my mom, this restaurant wouldn't exist."

In March, Anna moved to Boulder and started counting the steps from her son's home to the restaurant at 2010 10th Street, where floor-to-ceiling windows on sliders open the space to the street. Beyond those are the exposed brick walls, the Chinese newspapers shellacked onto tabletops, the wire-framed tissue-paper red globe lights, the bright-red cafeteria trays, the bamboo plants and the Kung Fu Hustle poster. Three college-age workers take orders from behind a sneeze guard, by steam trays filled with bok choy and green beans; behind them, several Hispanic employees grate carrots and wash dishes.

And next to them, Anna Zoe is doing what she loves. She's wearing (always) a light, floral-print shirt and a sun hat. The tight-fitting back brace and tan wrist band are physical reminders of the endless hours she's already spent in kitchens, as is her slight hunch. Four induction burners are set about three feet off the ground, low enough to make work comfortable. One holds a huge pot of boiling water; another has a pan heating to add a crispy side to her jiaozi: robust, herbaceous potstickers. This space is her lawn chair, her golf course, her cruise ship. Nice retirement.

Edwin tells a story about his mother's pride in product and hard work. He calls it "The Amish, the Chinese and the Free-Range Chicken." When they lived in the Midwest, Anna loved to roam the countryside in her car, with her boys by her side. On one drive, she pulled off the highway and exited onto smaller and smaller roads until Edwin noticed a horse and buggy and people wearing simple black suits and white shirts. They wound up at a farm, and Anna hopped out and knocked on the door, using her hands to conduct some negotiation since she didn't speak much English. Then she instructed her boys to hop the fence and start grabbing chickens from an adjacent field. They each wrangled one or two, threw the truly free-range chickens in the back of their trunk and drove off.

Fast-forward to 2010, and relatives of those chickens may well be the base of Anna's chicken noodle soup, a light broth stuffed with thin rice noodles and bright pieces of bird. This dish could be the Tylenol of Eastern medicine: good for whatever aches and pains seem to be encroaching on daily life.

Anna created the small Zoe Ma Ma menu, essentially a history of the cooking she'd done for her family for forty years, the cooking she was never able to do in her other restaurant. She does most of the ordering, much of the prep, and makes all of the noodle bowls. The cashier takes the order, then relays it to Anna: "Ma Ma, za jiang mian!"

"Oookay," she replies, without looking up. Salvador, the prep cook, grabs a ball of dough and runs it through a tabletop stainless-steel machine labeled with Chinese characters. It's a combination pizza-dough roller and pasta cutter, and Salvador runs the dough until it's pizza-crust thin, then draws it through a cutter into the bowl from which it will be served. After a brief dunking in hot water, the noodles are returned to the bowl, along with a bit of the water. The bowl is then handed off to Anna, who adds seasoned, cooked ground pork and raw julienned vegetables. If the chicken noodle soup is Tylenol, this could be Percocet. The dish is the definition of "rib-sticking," with each chewy noodle barely coated by a simple sauce created from the pork and pasta water.

Edwin is proud to have introduced Boulder — a town where Panda Express sits atop the food popularity pyramid — to authentic Chinese cuisine, even if he had to import his own mother to do it. "Having the fortune to live in Boulder," he says, "if I make some good choices, then I can have, at the very least, a sustainable restaurant."

So Zoe Ma Ma serves traditional Chinese street food made with organic, unbleached flour sourced in Colorado, in a restaurant powered by the wind. The word "sesame" rarely shows up on the menu. For diners used to Americanized Chinese restaurants, the zong zi is as foreign as not getting a fortune cookie at the end of a meal. A bamboo leaf is wrapped around a pyramid of sticky pearl rice, which hides chunks of marinated pork belly and crunchy, meaty, chickpea-sized lotus seeds. This is authentic Chinese food, Edwin tells a customer; by looking at the shape of the zong zi, you can tell what region of Taiwan Anna came from. The sublimely simple bao — a steamed bun with marinated pork inside — is another giveaway. The stark-white bun is light as air; the rich pork filling hugs the tongue — not spicy, not particularly sweet or salty. It all tastes of experience.

"For her," Edwin says, translating for his mother, "she realizes it's the latter part of her life, and she wants to be able to express herself. She wants to give back to the community, and that comes through cooking. She wants to make sure that customers that come in understand the care that is put into the food."

"I just love to do it," she says. And the love comes through in everything she does. She instructs Salvador — through an amalgam of hand symbols and broken English from both of them — on the correct size of wonton wrappers, after the first batch comes out too small. This is her family's food, and it will be done the way she's done it forever. The fact that the public can participate — guests at a very small family reunion, full of happiness and unity — is a privilege.

While Edwin is planning on scooter delivery at Zoe Ma Ma (his mother will not be driving) and is waiting on a liquor license, the soul of the restaurant is already well established. You sense that soul when Edwin is weighing balls of noodle dough and explaining the time, money and planning that went into designing the kitchen to be as comfortable as possible for Anna. "Only the best for my mother," he says.

You see that soul when Anna looks a customer in the eye as he leaves, asks how the food tasted. The answer is unequivocally positive, and she glances down, then looks up and smiles widely, a mix of grace and pride.

Only the best for her customers.